Don’t panic: how I survived an attack without drugs

The expression “easier said than done” can follow just about any piece of advice or claim. “I’m gonna be on time to work from now on”, “I’m going to the gym five days a week this year”, “he’s an asshole, forget about him”, or, my personal favorite, “don’t panic.”

Easier said than done.

Now, I’m sure there are peeps who can actually turn their new leaf over without so much as breaking a nail. They roll up to work early, are in kick-ass shape, never drunk-dial (or email, or text) their ex, and can breeze right through a scary situation with heartbeat and sweat glands in-tact – I’m just not one of them.

Aside from the whole “you could die” thing, not to mention the other slew of Awesome that can happen when drug addicts use (losing your job, friends, health, money, home), being an addict in recovery is something I’ve learned to manage without having it be all-consuming (like it was, when I first got clean). But there are always exceptions.

Less than 24 hours ago, for the first time in my drug-free life, I had a panic attack. I’m not talking about being hit with that familiar wave of anxiety we feel when sitting across a would-be employer during a job interview. This was a full-blown, assault of my sympathetic nervous system, and it came out of nowhere.

If you’ve been lucky enough in your life to have never experienced an anxiety attack, let me lay some symptoms on you:

  • Heart pounding
  • Shaking
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Choking feeling
  • Nausea
  • Short, shallow breath
  • Chest pain
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Chills and hot flashes
  • A feeling of unreality
  • A feeling of going crazy
  • A feeling you are about to die

Fun, right? According to standards set by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), when you have a panic attack, you generally experience at least four of the above mentioned symptoms. Last night, I was hit with eight.

Back when I popped Xanax like Cheerios, if I began to feel anything remotely alluding to a panic attack, I’d just double my recreational dose. Done. Problem solved. Numbing the pain was my specialty, and I thought nothing of those pesky little words on the side of the prescription bottle: use only as directed. Like all addicts, I’d rationalize. My two biggies were, that I have a high tolerance (wonder why) so I need more to “feel it”, and I’ve got this under control (as long as my two doctors never find out about the other).

When I was using, I kept myself floating in a constant bubble of denial, arrogance and audacity. Who the hell takes six grams of Xanax with a bottle of wine every night, and thinks they’re untouchable? This asshole, that’s who.

Even when I was in the emergency room, my sheets soaked through the mattress, and an oxygen mask covering my face, I was still an asshole in the bubble. It wasn’t until (on my third day in rehab fresh from detox) sharing stories of my colorful past as a stripper with an insatiable appetite for ecstasy and blow twenty years ago, that it finally hit me – fuck – I’m a drug addict.

So what’s a recovering pill-popper to do when the thick cloud of panic seeps in, and you feel like you’re gonna croak? My first instinct was denial (old habits). I tried to ignore the beads of sweat dripping down the back of my neck, while sitting on the edge of my bed shaking the numbness out of my hands, and repeating the words in my brain: “this isn’t happening.”

But it was happening. Within minutes of my refute mantra, I succumbed. I was indeed in the unforgiving grip of a full-blown panic episode, and if I didn’t figure something out quickly, I’d be right back on that slab of sweat-soaked foam, grasping for air through a plastic mask. Here’s where being an addict is a hoot: I was more than a little tempted to go. I knew how easy it would’ve been to crawl back in the bubble, with the soothing rescue of Nirvana coursing through my veins, compliments the lucky doctor who had the pleasure of having me on his call last night.

Somewhere in the space of salivating for a chemical cure and holding my hand in the surge, I resisted the urge to fall into the arms of the *hospital, and created my own life raft of will. I revised my previous chant of denial in my brain and used my recovery miles to upgrade them through to my voice. I spoke out loud: “you can do this.” Over and over again. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this. Breathing slowly through my nose, exhaling out of my mouth. Over and over.

Last night was impossibly rough, but not impossible. I was alone and fucking scared, but in-between wiping tears and talking to myself, I reached out to friends. I even tweeted my agony, knowing I’d get messages of support in reply (don’t knock the Twitterverse, those are my people). I felt their words, and welcomed the virtual hugs. I directed the slide show memories in my mind, and thought about how far I’ve come, and how pissed off I’d be if I were to derail my recovery over what was clearly an addiction survival pop quiz from The Universe. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.

I’ve never been good at tests, especially when they come without caution. But when I woke up this morning, realizing I was in my own bed, no IV in my arm, no portable blood pressure machine in the room, and no hospital gown to wrestle with, I knew this one, I had passed.

Your move, Universe.

*This essay is in no way meant as medical advice. If you or anyone you know suffers panic attacks or disorders, please consult your physician. I’m just a hot mess trying to stay clean.

18 thoughts on “Don’t panic: how I survived an attack without drugs

  1. Oh, my sweet stranger friend….I had such severe panic attacks for 2 years after my mom passed away, unexpectedly. And having almost every symptom on that list, I was in ER once or twice a month. I always thought I was having a heart attack. My heart goes out to you for enduring that crippling fear that one goes through during that panic. I admire you’re resolve to not go to ER. People who’ve never had a panic attack, couldn’t possibly relate to the shear terror. Your strength and courage blows me away.


    1. Thanks Karah, and I’m so sorry about your mom and panic attack history. I was THIS close to going to the ER, trust me. And if I wasn’t such a raging drug addict, I would’ve gone. I just know myself, and wasn’t willing to open the door I’ve fought so hard so close.


  2. Yay, Christine. You did it. And we can all take a lesson from you- our greatest strength comes from within when we stop, listen and believe in ourselves. You are an inspiration.I admire your gut-wrenching honesty and courage. xo


  3. That’s why your writing is so powerful, Christine. You write from your heart , soul and gut. You bring us with you into your world and make us feel we are there. ” No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader” You’ve got the goods my friend and the best part is we are both transformed in the process because we , your readers can live our stories through yours. We are all on a healing journey and can heal together through sharing our stories. And thanks for your kind words. Blessings and hugs


  4. Way to go. It’s not even easy for a non-former addict to get through. I found reading more about panic attacks and the body’s response/symptoms has helped me tame the beast a bit, compared to when I would first get them. I try to force myself to think logically about something that’s so hard to wrap your head around. I’m glad you found something that will work for you.


  5. I have had a few panic attacks in my life, and none of them were fun or easy to deal with. One of them was severe enough to land me in ER and after having Valium poured into my I eventually calmed down. It took me a week of exhaustion to recover from the Valium (when I called my doctor she just replied “after the amount you were given what do you expect, just sleep it off”). It’s an experience I hope never to repeat!

    Well done on actually being able to control it without the use of drugs, I can’t imagine that was anywhere near easy.


  6. Congratulations on your hard-won victory. I am praying that you have fewer attacks and that your victory comes easier each time.


  7. Nirvana was one of my fave bands… I have my own perspective on Kurt Cobain and his situation… anywho…

    CONGRATULATIONS..! One of the thing that I have encountered as a cat living with TBI is the wonderful world of anxiety attacks… reasoning doesn’t work, just as rationalizing doesn’t… it is what it is…

    My most recent in October served to show just how much my girlfriend cares about me… I was going through an episode and called her to ask that she come and keep me company… not do anything just be here… I could not help or explain what I was feeling but I really would like if she could stop by… and she did…

    I am really glad that you were able to find an alternative way of dealing with your anxieties… you are right, it is the Universe’s turn … just don’t tempt it too much..! :0)

    Be thankful for your win, and add to you tool kit..! Love you Christine!!

    Love & Rockets!



  8. If the universe has any brains, it will go pick a fight somewhere else.
    Sadly, I doubt it does.

    Either way, if it comes around again, I’m getting you’ll remember this and shake it off that much more easily…


  9. Obviously, since I’m more than a day late, I don’t get around here often enough.
    I was only going to say I read through the list and determined that the only time I remember what I would call a full blown panic attack, I managed to have a panic attack, eleven and a half (it was only pain) symptoms showed up

    I can’t remember what I did

    But I would bet I found a bar and self medicated for at least an hour and probably the rest of the day

    My life could have ended that day and I wouldn’t have cared

    Today I’m glad it didn’t


  10. This gave me chills. You did it!!! That’s huge. I’ve experienced the first 3 symptoms once when I lost a bet and had to sing karaoke. Pretty sure it’s not the same thing. O_o. My youngest sister suffers from anxiety and although she’s tried to explain it to me, I just don’t think anyone can really understand unless it’s personally experienced. So sorry you had to endure that but so happy that you proved to yourself, yet again, how strong you really are.


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