A Road Trip With My Panic Disorder
Buckle in, this mental health journey is full of shits and giggles
By Ariel Nathanson
I have panic disorder in remission. It’s similar to how we say a cancer survivor is in remission — the patient had it, they were treated for it, but there’s an understanding that it could come back at any time.
Up until a few months ago, I hadn’t had a major panic attack in many years. I used to have panic flare-ups that caused me to dip into my stash of security-blanket Ativan, but not the kind of panic attack that wipes you out for 48 hours afterwards.
It happened to me on the way to a company retreat. I knew it was ambitious for me to drive by myself for two hours when I had barely driven 30 minutes alone in the past five years. I take public transportation every day and when I’m traveling long distances, I’m with other people who drive. But I figured that I would be saving myself two hours each way, so if I went with the group on the bus, I would spend an hour going into the city and then another hour going north. It was bold but I’ve been trying to do outside-of-my-comfort zone things in the name of progress. I figured I would pop on a comedy album, get in the right lane, do the speed limit, and get there in no time.
What should have been two hours, wound up taking over four.
About 30 minutes into the drive, the tightness in my chest crept in. I got sweaty in all the wrong places and lost all of the wetness in my mouth (imagine the sensation of sucking on a sand popsicle). And the racing thoughts started — what if I fainted and crashed off the side of the road? What if I lost control and swerved into oncoming traffic? What if a deer jumped in front of my car and I committed accidental animal murder?
When you’re having a panic attack, it’s like the operating system in your brain changes from totally normal and rational to catastrophic doomsday.
It reminds me of flipping an old tape from side A to side B.
And then came my old friend, tiger-chasing-after-you fight-or-flight adrenaline. It starts at the balls of my feet and sweeps through every vein — like what I imagine it feels to take heroin. But instead of euphoria, it was crippling fear manifested in an all-consuming horrible body attack. I hadn’t felt like that in…maybe 10 years.
So I pulled over. And I cried. And cried. And then I had a decision to make.
I’m a Vice President of an amazing company of about 50 people, and I was headed to our first-ever offsite retreat where I was leading one of the sessions. I could call my CEO and tell her I got into a minor accident and was fine, but shaken up, and wasn’t going to make it. I rehearsed the lines in my head. I even googled photos of “white Subaru fender bender” to send images alongside my note.
Or I could keep going.
I called my husband — an exceedingly calm and rational human. What to do, what to do. He asked if I felt safe. I said I wasn’t sure. He asked if I had ever fainted in a car before. I said no. He asked if I would regret it if I didn’t try to make it. I said yes. He asked if someone could drive my car home for me so I would just need to get through the next 90 minutes, and I said yes. He told me that I’m a good driver and I just need to get in the right lane and do the speed limit. I took half of an Ativan. I felt better and decided to go for it. I asked myself if I was really unsafe to myself or other drivers, and ultimately, I wasn’t. I was on autopilot. I’d bingewatched stupid YouTube videos on how to curl my hair with a flatiron (still can’t do it) for longer. I could get through 90 minutes. I also texted my psychiatrist and asked if he could call me.
And then 20 minutes later, I pulled over again. I had to go to the bathroom. One of the joyous bonuses to my personal brand of anxiety is that when it’s really bad, I get severe gastrointestinal distress. Think of that famous scene in Bridesmaids. Yup. Actually, it’s just bad enough to make me laugh, which helps me step back and realize that it could be much worse, which calms me down. It’s quite literally a cycle of shits and giggles.
Back on the road, my psychiatrist called me and when I picked up, I said,
“Hi there! I’m currently having a panic attack while driving, so if I don’t make it back, please think of something great to say in my eulogy.”
He didn’t really like that joke.
He’s not what I would call a very jokey person in general. I try to make him laugh and we usually wind up in silence. Go figure. He asked me if I was safe, and I said I thought so. He echoed my husband’s sentiments, that I was almost there and had no reason to think I would faint or lose control. I had only fainted one time in my life and that was when I was pre-med in college at a conference on skin grafting. Completely explainable. We hung up, and I agreed to text him when I got there.
50 mph behind a trailer carrying about 10 horses later, I safely arrived just as the bus with the rest of the team was pulling in. The bus I decided not to get on because it would have taken me so much extra time.
Again, the comedy of it all.
The retreat was great. I had a ton of residual adrenaline so I jumped in the freezing-cold lake. I ate too many s’mores. I aggressively insisted that my CEO strap into a harness and do the giant swing so I could get a boomerang for the company’s Instagram and then aggressively insisted that she do it again when I forgot to hit record the first time. And each moment I didn’t feel anxiety was a reminder that my pain is not permanent. And that in itself is a gift because it allowed me to over-index on appreciating the small things I would have otherwise taken for granted.
Also, I overheard my colleague say that the only way she doesn’t get motion sickness is if she drives. I agreed to do her a huge favor and let her drive my car home. I am a selfless goddess.
So the following week as I was recounting the details to my psych, he paused and said, “I have an idea…” I seized on the moment to elicit a laugh by saying, “You want to go on a long journey together?” Silence. He looked at me so earnestly, with just a hint of the humor and levity that I know he withholds from me, and said, “Aren’t we already?”
And we are. I am.
I’m on a journey with my own panic disorder.
I make progress, I have setbacks, I learn new tools, I get stronger, I experience weakness, and I try as hard as humanly possible to learn along the journey so even if the road is winding and sometimes paved with cutting rocks and seemingly insurmountable hills, at least I’m moving forward.
That painful driving experience afforded an opportunity for me and my psychiatrist to talk about physiological triggers — how to be aware of them and how to avoid catastrophizing when they come along. Ten years ago, I would have vowed never to drive again. I would have retreated in fear and pain, sold my car, bought a pogo-stick, hopped across state lines, and called it a day.
But I didn’t retreat. I tapped into the experiential knowledge I’ve accumulated on my journey and I found a powerful enough incentive to move forward: shopping.
The next weekend, I got in my car. I put on a comedy album. I got in the right lane. I was mindful of not hyper-focusing on the giant semi-trucks because they could trigger that tunnel vision sensation, and I drove safely and calmly to the Mecca of premium outlet malls, Woodbury Commons. And now, when I put on my Calvin Klein underwear (that I got for 80% off, thank you very much) every morning, it’s a silly but also extremely powerful reminder of my own strength and perseverance.
Maybe you don’t suffer from panic attacks, but if you’re reading this, I bet you’re on your own journey with your mental health.
I’m sharing this story mostly as a reminder to myself that the journey is worth working on. It’s worth going to therapy for. It’s worth dealing with the stigma of taking medicine. It’s worth telling the people around you when you’re having a hard time because the good ones really won’t mind.
It’s long and challenging and gratifying and life-affirming and begs you to laugh at yourself, even a little, even when it seems impossible, and especially when there’s no toilet paper in the gas station bathroom.
Don’t worry, I obviously travel everywhere with baby wipes.