When I was 17 years old, I attended a sleep-over at a local community center where I used to hang out with a group of friends all the time then. We’d been up all night, joking around and having a good time like we always did – and when morning came, we were expected to attend church because this was a religious institution we were having our fun at, and so we did.
Halfway through the service, I started to feel sick to my stomach. Very quickly, I felt extremely ill and without thinking, I half stumbled, half scrambled my way out from mid bench where I was sitting between all my friends.
Just in time I should say, because as soon as I got outside, I collapsed to the floor all sweaty and shaky, my stomach rumbling violently, while I desperately tried not to puke all over the church grounds. One of my friends came looking for me and when she realized what state I was in, went to collect my things and called my mom to pick me up.
The stomach bug I’d caught kept me sick for about two days from there. But it has left me terrified of church services and all other occasions that require you to sit still, shut up and be appropriate for what will be ten years soon.
A few months later, a late afternoon at school that was just about to release us into what felt like well-deserved freedom. Last class for that day: history. The teacher was a snappy lady who smoked five cigarettes on every break and a walking library with a taste for trick questions and heated debates, too. Needless to say, her classes where some of my favourites. We had our tables arranged in the shape of two capital “E”s facing with other. I was sitting on the bottom line of the left E, at the very tip of the line, right in the middle of the classroom. There might have been two meters of classroom emptiness between my seat and the next table, the bottom line of the inverted E on the other side of the room.
Despite being more of an eager beaver than I’d like to admit and my general interest on the subject (that I now don’t recall), I started to notice my attention fading rapidly midway through the lesson that day – in a way that had nothing to do with the afternoon sun teasingly twinkling in through the windows. I couldn’t focus on what Mrs. Smoker’s Lung was coughing at us from the blackboard because suddenly, without any logical reason for it and for the first time in my life, I was struck with the awareness of my own body, my own breath, the reality of my own physical existence. The body that could betray me at any given moment. The breath that was getting more hectic by the second. The physical existence in this room that I could do nothing about.
Within a blink of the eye, I was 100 percent piercingly aware of my surroundings.
The chair that I was bound to until I was allowed out of this room full of people.
The table that felt like the only thing to cling to in an ocean of painfully present reality.
For the first few moments of this new and alarming awareness, I tried to act normal and refrain myself from actually holding on to the table like a drowning person. But the undeniable reality of myself in this room became so pin sharp, so threateningly over-subscribed to my mind that I soon reached a point where I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, without even knowing what exactly the problem was or how to stop my mind from racing like it did.
I tried to take deep breaths, but they came out shallow and trembling instead. And then in one moment it all felt so real, so immediate and present that I couldn’t cope anymore, and my mind gulped the feeling down as a whole – and spit it back out as utter irreality a second later. It was like those 90s screen savers with these ever changing bean-shaped 3D thingies. One moment they’re expanding and bubbling in one direction, then out of nowhere they invert themselves and in one fluid movement they come out the other end.
What my head had thought of as a distressingly wide gap between my table and the next one seconds earlier, now felt like a yawning abyss to me. No, it didn’t feel like it. It was. It was an incomprehensively large chasm dropping down just beside me and I could not think of anything other than the classroom door that would liberate me from this madness. But there was endless emptiness that separated me from it, ready to swallow me up as a whole if I made one inconsiderate movement.
I heard the heavy pounding of my heart reverberating inside my mind and felt my blood rushing in my ears, deafening me for every other sound than the dull buzzing soundtrack of my own, pure terror. My head started to spin with dizziness and my stomach revolted against my on-going presence in this room, forcing me to swallow hard on the sense of nausea arising to my throat. I wasn’t in command of my hands anymore, they were now shooting back and forth in random convulsions, grabbing items from my pencil case with the blurry purpose of doing something, doing just anything to distract myself from the overwhelming panic. Trying to find something to cling to for a feeling of security, but finding nothing to provide any.
I was going to fall into the abyss and I couldn’t help it. I was going to slide of my chair lacking the ability to control my body any longer. And it would happen fast because I couldn’t stand to be tumbling here on the very brink of this nothingness so exposed and visible to everyone around for one more second. Not for one more second. “May I use the bathroom?”, I heard my voice shot at the teacher without ever having decided to do so, my arm half in the air for the sake of the question, my body already in the very act of getting up.
With three shaky steps, I cross what was the horrific gulf of nothingness, but is just a dirty classroom floor, now that I’m finally fleeing it. Three steps more and I reach salvation in form of a metal door handle, not knowing that I was touching what would become my life-saver, my ultimate aim, my holy grail for many years to come: the exit.
Feeling any of this? Some tipps for… first noticing something’s wrong:
- Try and observe yourself. What has happened and under what circumstances? How did it make you feel? Most importantly I suppose: Does it happen again? You may roll your eyes all you want at this, but I think keeping a diary is a great idea to keep track and reflect on your experiences at the same time.
- Don’t rush into any assumptions or be harsh on yourself. You’re not going crazy, you’re not a weirdo, and if you’re young and healthy, you’re most probably not having a heart attack in class either. You are going through something and it’s tough to face. Try and give yourself some time to evaluate the situation before you freak out (if you’re anything like me, you will though).
- Don’t – and I cannot stress this enough – DON’T self-diagnose yourself on Google. Online forums and social media can be extremely valuable tools to find support and likeminded people no matter what you’ve got your head wrapped around BUT they’re also your worst enemy when it comes to reliable information about illnesses. I understand the urge to do some research and it’s probably for the best to know a bit about these things. Just don’t let other people’s (online) accounts freak you the fuck out. Stick to official sites if you want info.
- If you can, find someone to talk to. I know this may sound like an impossible task at hand because saying it out loud makes this shit seem so much more real. I won’t lie, it’s super hard. But it’s such a relief to get it off your chest and find emotional support (if this isn’t the case, I’ve said this before, new set of friends it is!) I know what I’m talking about, although I only had the guts to do so almost two years after the history class incident.
This post is part of series I am writing about anxiety and the many ways it has interacted with my life so far. Anything I write here is my personal experience and thus just one little dot in the whole picture that can be painted about mental health issues. If you have any questions, concerns or personal experiences you would like to share, feel free to leave me a comment below.