Why I Love Labels, Part 1

The insert in a sample pack of Zoloft saved my life.

The Zoloft helped, too. So did cognitive-behavioral therapy, my family, and a couple great self-help books. But the first and most dramatic step away from agony and toward relief was taken the moment I read the insert beside a small cardboard blister pack.

The insert described a panic attack.

Nearly six months before I read that insert, I had my first real panic attack. An anxiety attack is different: the horror I felt when separated from my mother was emotional. Panic, alternately, is in the body. You suffocate. You trade hearts with a hummingbird. The beating isn’t heavy like when you run; it’s faster and wilder, and it hurts. It’s a punch from inside your chest, over and over and loud in your ears. Maybe sort of like drowning. And your hands fall asleep or go numb. You sweat, and you feel sick to your stomach, and you notice a million little signs of death, like how your tongue is choking you or the subtle pop of an artery exploding and wasting all your blood. Yes, there’s terror, but it’s bodily, from your core and in your veins. The fear isn’t in your mind, it’s in your brain. And, though sometimes the panic is triggered by a stalled elevator or news from North Korea, a panic attack is a narcissist. It turns you inward, dampens the world. Panic gets caught in its own reflection.

I was young, and it came without warning and then refused to leave, haunting me instead with convincing warnings about aneurysms and punctured lungs. I realized I was dying. Over and over, I realized it. The attacks, which last only a few interminable minutes, became more frequent and then constant. Eventually I was having several complete panic attacks every day, and symptoms of panic between each attack. I went to bed every night with my heart speeding and woke up every morning gasping and shaking. I never had a chance to catch my breath. I literally couldn’t get an hour of relief. It was like that for almost three months. My pediatrician, whom I begged for answers, told me it was anxiety. Ha! I knew anxiety. I’d been diagnosed with separation anxiety at five or six. This wasn’t anxiety, this was me dying! Obviously.

Finally, after a particularly awful night spent struggling to breathe, my mom took me to a psychiatrist. He listened to my symptoms and immediately identified my condition as Panic Disorder, something I’d never heard of. Medicine and therapy, he said, would fix it. I didn’t believe him, though, until he showed me the insert in the sample pack of my new prescription. It listed the symptoms of a panic attack: rapid heartbeat, feeling like you’re being smothered, dizziness, nausea, believing that you’re dying, feeling like you’re going crazy. Tingling extremities. Feeling dreamy and confused and pixilated.

My face basically exploded. “This is exactly what I have!” I said. “Every single thing on this list. All of them! Every day!”

“That’s Panic Disorder,” said the psychiatrist. And, just like that, my life was saved.

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