So, last year in Psychology we were doing these day-in-the-life-of assignments where we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of those who suffer from mental illness. I was assigned panic attacks, and so here’s my story. Please note that this was Grade 10, pre-AP Hijab, and as such, the story is kind of trash- feel free to tear it apart. This is in no way representative of everyone’s experience, but merely my interpretation of the way an individual suffering from panic attacks may feel – I’M REALLY SORRY IF THIS OFFENDS ANYONE; PLEASE FORGIVE ME.
“Rose! Rose, get up for school or you’re going to be late!” The sound of my mother’s voice shattered my sleep as I jolted out of my bed. Hurriedly, I threw on my uniform, brushed my hair and washed my face, before dashing towards the kitchen. I saw that my older sister Ava was already there, quietly eating. No matter how fast I got ready, Ava was always at the table before I was. I sat down quickly, scarfing down my breakfast in a flash. I went to brush my teeth and as soon as I was done packing my lunch and homework, I stood by the door, waiting for Ava to catch up.
“For someone who has such a hard time waking up, you sure get ready fast!” my mom called from the kitchen. “I’m not fast; Ava’s just really slow!” I replied, knowing full well that this would only annoy Ava. I was correct, because Ava appeared soon afterwards, fully irritated. As we drove to the bus stop, I noticed Ava suddenly tense; her jaw was clenched and her knuckles were white.
Ever since Ava’s panic attacks started, six or seven months ago, she would become increasingly nervous out in public, for fear of an attack. After much discussion and a few more attacks, Ava had finally agreed to go to therapy. She had started a month ago and I already noticed how differently she handled her anxiousness. She took several deep breaths, and I noticed the stress drain from her shoulders. We boarded the bus, chatting happily with our friends. Glancing up, I flashed a quick smile in Ava’s direction, but she looked away icily. Was she still offended by what I said this morning? I hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings. Well, if Ava wanted to ruin her day, that was her problem; I would ignore her too. With that thought in mind, I turned to face my friends, talking the bus ride away.
School was a blur that day. I had test after test, not to mention review for finals and excessive amounts of homework. All the while, Ava’s irritation hung over my head like a thundercloud. I was so fed up that I pushed away all my work and went outside with my friends. A breath of fresh air and the beautiful green field was just what I needed, and I couldn’t help but feel refreshed as I took in the summer breeze, stretching my arms out ahead of me. We had the whole field to ourselves. It was then that I noticed Ava all alone and a little ways away. A smug part of me thought it served her right, but those thoughts were quelled immediately when I saw Ava collapse onto the ground. Fear sickened me at once, and I quickly turned to my friends; “Jen, Abby, I need you to call a teacher, please.” I tried to keep my voice as calm as I could. Jen glanced at me, startled. ‘What’s wrong, Rose?“ “I’ll explain later,” I called, already sprinting to my sister.
Ava was shaking violently all over. Her skin had been bleached of any colour and her hands were clutching at her throat and over her heart. She was slick with sweat. Her breath came in short, uneven gasps, barely there at all. I knelt down and took a deep breath. “Ava, is it okay if I take your hand?” I asked gently. She looked up at me and her eyes were filled with tears as she nodded. Her hand was freezing cold. I could feel her pulse, erratic and jarred. “Ava, let’s take deep breaths, okay? You were telling me about how you learnt that in therapy. You breathe in for 4 seconds and then out for 4, right?” Saying this, I took a deep breath and released it slowly. Ava struggled to follow, shaky breaths rattling in my ears. All of a sudden, she started sobbing so hard. Her breaths were broken and sparse. “I just want it to end! I can’t breathe!” she cried, keeling over. “What if-what if it doesn’t stop?” I breathed in sharply; my heart felt broken in a million different places. My own panic rose to the surface, but I couldn’t let Ava see. It would only make things worse.
Please… let me be strong the one time Ava needs me. “Ava, the attacks only last about 5-20 minutes. After that, they end; they always will. Focus on your breathing, and it’ll get better. It’ll all be over soon. Let’s try deep breaths again.” Ava collected herself and resumed her deep breathing, and I smiled. “Good job, Ava. You’re doing really well, Just focus on breathing, alright?” We went on like this for about 10 minutes, until Ava’s shaking slowed and then stopped, and her breathing returned to normal. Ava took back her hand, wiping the sweat off her face. She looked up at me weakly, and smiled softly. Then utterly exhausted, she crumpled into my arms.
Soon afterwards, a teacher came up to us and asked if we were alright. I said we were, but that we would like to go home. We called up our parents and they began questioning us almost as soon as we entered the car, but noticing our fatigue, they drifted into a silence that filled us with relief and helped us drift off to sleep.
It was late by the time we had gotten home. My parents had to run a few errands anyways, so they had taken the opportunity to do so. As soon as we got home, I started up on my homework, but I just couldn’t focus. Instead, I thanked Abby and Jen over text and told them that I would explain everything tomorrow. Sighing, I sat at the dining room table and let my thoughts take over.
If I was completely honest with myself, Ava’s panic attacks frightened me thoroughly. I was nervous at times to go out with her, and I was always so scared something that I did would set her off. It scared me so much and I know it scared her too, but my worries, my thoughts, my concerns, were now secondary to Ava’s. I felt undermined constantly, and it was a horrible guilty feeling because I know she doesn’t do it for attention. I know that, but then why do I feel so resentful? It was a relief when my Dad finally released me from my thoughts, calling out to me that it was bedtime. I’d never been so happy to hear those words.
It had been an incredibly long day, and I was looking forward to finally getting to sleep. I slipped into my pyjamas as fast as humanly possible, pounced onto my bed and snuggled under the covers. I was reaching over to turn off my lamp, when I eyed Ava, standing in the doorway. These days, I often caught myself marveling at how small she looked. She always looked so weary, but I didn’t blame her, considering all she’d been through these past few months.
Today, however, the glint of triumph in her smile was a sign of better times ahead. Grinning, I sat up in my bed and hugged my pillow. “How’re you feeling, Ava?”, I asked shyly. To tell you the truth, I always felt as though I was walking on eggshells whenever I tried to bring up Ava’s attacks in a conversation. I wanted to give her space, but I wanted her to know I cared enough to ask. It was a fine line to tread. Ava pushed herself away from the door and entered my room, slumping down on the edge of my bed. She lay down, stretching across the bed. Playfully, I threw my pillow at her face, but she deflected just in time.
“I was doing just fine until a certain someone decided to chuck a pillow at my head.” Ava remarked dryly, smirking. I laughed, glad for the casual atmosphere between us. Ava’s response, her laugh, assured me that she was alright. We fell into a comfortable silence, just breath and warmth. Slowly, Ava sat back up, turning around to face me. Her eyes scanned over my face for a moment before she sighed, turning her gaze towards her hands.
“You know, Rose,” she began slowly, “You were really brave today. I… I’m really glad you stayed beside me,”. I stared at Ava for a second, completely perplexed, guilt for my earlier thoughts washing over me. Brave? “You’ve got it wrong. You’re the only brave one here.” I cried.
Ava shook her head. “When I’m panicking, Rose, it feels as though everything is closing in on me, suffocating me. My heart hurts so much, my chest tightens, everything overheats, it’s so loud and I’ve practically given up breathing. My body is so convinced that the worst-case scenario is going to play out and even though I know it’s not going to happen, I just can’t control it.” Ava took a few deep breaths, sighing them out thoughtfully.
“I think… I think what I’m afraid of is losing control. I’m scared that I may panic in public, or with my friends or when I’m alone. I’m scared people will judge me, and all that anxiety just builds up, making the panic worse. They’ve taught me in therapy that when you’re having a panic attack, you need to learn to accept it so that you can start to resolve it. Today at school, I finally felt in control. I focused on taking deep breaths, on telling myself I could do it and writing everything down when I got home. Having someone beside me, rooting for me… You helped me feel safe, Rose. Thanks for that.”
And with that, Ava rose from my bed and walked out of my room down the hall, smiling and calling goodnight as she left to her room.
As I lay in bed, the impact of the day washed over me, a wave of emotions, until the ocean in my head overflowed and small rivers teemed at my eyes and raced down my cheeks. Funny thing is, I don’t really know why I’m crying. I’m drained from the events of the day, the guilt, but I’m also happy to see Ava progress through therapy and make her life her own again. I’m frustrated that I can help only through my words and small actions, and angry that this had to happen to Ava. My head feels old and my heart feels little. I need my sister’s help. I need Ava. Quietly, I get out of bed and enter the dimly-lit hallway, walking past my parents’ room and turning right until I was standing in front of the door to Ava’s room. Her door was open just a crack, and I pushed it open even more. The light from the hall illuminates her face, but I didn’t need it. The serenity on her face was enough to set it aglow, and I marveled at how peaceful she looked. It made me really happy to see Ava look so relaxed. It gave me hope. Ava was still there; her panic attacks did not define her, did not detract from her beauty, her kindness, her personality. We were learning to accept her for who she was and we would wait for her to do the same.
I would wait, and I would be there for her every step of the way.
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