I ended the last year by having more anxiety and more panic attacks than usual. I wanted to describe one recent panic attack and how I handled it, because it happened when I was out in public and probably no one was the wiser.
This increase in anxiety/panic is probably due to my recent discontinuation of my nightly dose of melatonin, which I’d been taking since March 2018 in hopes of helping with my sleep (and therefore alleviating my daily headaches). In that time, the melatonin probably didn’t have that much of an effect—I still wasn’t sleeping great and was definitely still having headaches and migraines—and I was concerned about long-term use. This concern was underscored when my anxiety and panic spiked pretty much immediately after I stopped taking the stuff.
On Christmas Eve morning, we went to a matinee showing of “The Rise of Skywalker.” At this point, I’d been having a surge in anxiety for a few days, though the panic attacks had been happening overnight—and that’s a weird thing, to wake up in the midst of a panic attack. The previews had finally ended and the main titles were about to start. And then a teenager ran across the screen in front of us on his way out of the theater, followed a few seconds later by another teenager. Probably making a last-second run to the bathroom, right? But the first runner startled me—the trigger—and I found my thoughts spinning around the Colorado theater on opening night of one of the Batman movies in 2012. What if those teenagers had just planted an explosive device and then ran away to save themselves? I knew it was a ridiculous idea but the tightening squeeze in my chest didn’t care. My breath was shallow and high even as the introductory text scrolled up the screen. I reminded myself that the theater had security, even if I hadn’t seen it. I told myself that the movie had been out for days already and this wasn’t anywhere close to a full screening, but I was still having trouble swallowing. All of my “helpful” thinking, intended to talk myself out of the experience I was having in my body, was not working.
So I took another tack. I weighed how long I thought it would take before I was sufficiently engrossed in the movie to be distracted from my panic attack. I asked myself if the panic attack was bad enough to warrant my leaving the theater—and if leaving the theater would make it better or worse. And I started looking around for solutions to the “what ifs.”
I identified the exit nearest me, in case there was an actual emergency. Then I located a secondary, backup exit, too. I studied the low wall separating my row of handicapped-accessible seating from the few rows at the very front of the theater, and noted that the wall offered a place to hide and even cover for getting to the exits if I needed to be shielded from a shooter. I calculated whether or not the “luxury ottomans” could be effectively hurled at any attackers—verdict: yes, but probably not so well by me.
And I started to feel better—because the movie had started, because the teenagers who’d run out came sauntering back in again with massive drinks the size of their heads, and because I’d worked with my anxious thinking instead of fighting against it. The panic left my body and I was able to enjoy the movie, though I was definitely still tired and raw from it.
I don’t normally have anxious thinking with a panic attack; for me, it’s normally an entirely physical experience, triggered sometimes by something as simple as a dropped fork clanging on tile. It’s a debilitating experience either way, and having one panic attack leaves me more likely to have another in short order. It made sense that a simple startle would launch me into a panic attack, since I’d had three of them in the previous five nights. And this one was pretty mild. Though this did happen out in public instead of inside my home, I had my partner with me and this was an unusually short episode. Those were uncommon blessings. And even sitting next to me while it was happening, M had no idea I was in distress. (If I’d needed his help, I would have told him.)
From what I’ve read, it could take another couple of weeks before my body fully adjusts to my stopping the melatonin supplements. I have continued to have higher than normal anxiety and panic since Christmas Eve, but it feels like it’s on the wane.