When I was at a writing convention last year, I took part in a workshop designed to strengthen characterisation. We did a number of exercises in the workshop, many of them in small groups where we could discuss our characters and stories.
During one such exercise, we split into groups of three or four people and were instructed to share the pivotal dark moment of our novel; a turning point, where the protagonist has to face and overcome a major conflict.
One of the women in my group was writing a YA novel about a girl facing bullying at school. The scene she described went something like this:
The protagonist has to get on a school bus and everyone is mocking her and she has a panic attack. Then she sits down on the bus and doesn’t let the mean kids win.
As someone who has suffered anxiety attacks for most of my life, I had questions. Lots of them. Like, what triggered the attack? What happens while she’s having it? Has she had them before?
The author seemed bamboozled by my questions. Confused.
The other kids are making fun of her like normal, and she’s just had enough. So she has a panic attack and then decides not to put up with it anymore and just sits next to someone she doesn’t know.
I ask some more questions, but get the same information delivered in a variety of ways.The other two members of the group nod and smile and congratulate the author on using a panic attack as a form of conflict, because it’s so “original” and “unique” — and, one of them adds, fairly easy to write, because there’s no actual bad guy and the girl just has to stop panicking.
And I found myself wondering: Is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this scene is nonsensical?
Over the last few months, I’ve come to realise that most people don’t know what it’s actually like to experience a panic attack. Look up ‘panic attack’ on the internet, and you’ll find various websites that list symptoms like breathlessness, rapid heartbeat, sweating, light-headedness, weakness, dizziness, feeling of doom, nausea, intense fear, and depersonalization — plus plenty of other “less common” symptoms. Then there’s a note advising that “not everyone who experiences a panic attack experiences all of these symptoms”.
But it’s rare to find a description of what it actually feels like to experience a panic attack. Now, I’m not an expert on anxiety. But I’ve suffered through more panic attacks in my life than I care to count. (The first I clearly remember was when I was eight years old.) Allow me to share what it’s like to be in my head during one of these attacks.
Maybe it will help you in your writing. Maybe it will help you understand what someone close to you is experiencing. Maybe it will help you feel you’re not alone. Just keep in mind that not everyone experiences panic attacks in the same way. This is how I experience them.
(If you suffer from panic attacks, please consider whether you wish to read further.)
These clothes need to be washed by hand. Whose idea was it to volunteer for this job, anyway?
I turn on the tap and let the water run for a bit before I put in the plug. The kids are in the next room. I can hear them playing, giggling and laughing. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll be arguing again and I’ll have to go intervene. I have to hurry. I have to get this washing done.
The water splashes into the tub, filling it up far too slowly. The rush of water, drops spattering on the sides, the harsh sound of water against metal. It echoes off the walls, drowning out other sounds. I can’t hear the kids now. Why did I volunteer for this? Why am I washing these clothes? This isn’t my job. I can’t–
I can’t do it.
The water is too loud. Everything is too loud. I need to turn off the tap, stop the water running. But if I do that, I can’t do the washing. And I have to do the washing. I can’t–
I can’t let them down. I can’t–
Too loud. I turn off the tap. That will do. The water will do. But there’s too much of it. The water makes it hard to breathe. I can’t–
I can’t breathe. My heart races. It’s pounding so hard, it feels like it will pound its way through my chest. I can feel it there. Pounding. Harder. Faster. I can’t–
I can’t breathe. No breath. My lungs don’t work. My chest is tight. Too tight. Squeezing my heart. I try to suck in air, but my heart is pounding too hard. No air. My arms go number, pins and needles starting at my fingers and racing up my arms like wildfire. All consuming. I can’t–
I can’t stop. I have to get this washing done. Dump the clothes into the sink. Try to act like I can’t–
I can’t do this.
I can’t do this . I just can’t–
I can’t hear the children. Is that good? Are they okay? Should I go check on them? No. I can’t–
I can’t breathe. I can’t–
I can’t stop this. My heart feels funny. Light. Like there’s no air. My eyes are hurting, sucked back into my head, like there’s nothing in the space behind them. No air. No blood. My heart is racing and I can’t–
I can’t feel anything in my arms. I can’t–
I can’t make it stop. I can’t–
I can. I know what this is. It’s just anxiety. It’s just panic. I know what this is. I know what to do. I’ve done it before. I can–
I can’t see . The world is black and grey. Spots of colour. It doesn’t make sense. My arms are numb. My legs. The ground is rolling and I can’t–
I can’t breathe. I need to breathe. Slowly. I need to…
The children are calling. I hear them, but I can’t–
I can’t go out there. I can’t face them. I can’t breathe. The air is too–
The clothes. I need to wash the clothes. I need to feel normal. Dump the clothes in the water. Take a deep breath. Start to wash them. Stop my heart from pounding. Concentrate. Focus. Breathe. In. Out. In Out. I can’t–
I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t face this anymore. I can’t feel. I can’t–
Wash the clothes. Deep breaths. Calm. I need to calm. I can’t–
I can’t find myself. The weave of the cotton I’m washing is so loose. I can see the gaps between the strands and I slip between them, slip into nothing, disappear. I don’t even exist. I am nothing. My head is full of clouds and water, and the water is in the tub, and the clothes in the water, and there’s nothingness. I am nothingness. I can’t–
I can’t feel myself. I don’t–
I don’t feel–
My eyes hurt. They fill with tears. Are they my eyes? I can’t–
I can’t cry. I can’t breathe. I can’t stop. I can’t–
A child. Talking. His words are noise, so loud, so loud I can’t hear them. I can’t–
I can’t fall down. I can’t give up. I can’t–
I can’t stop. I smile. I nod. I hope the child will go away. I try to breathe. I feel something behind me. A wall. I sink down it and let my head fall and tears fall and life fall and I fall and I can’t–
I can’t move.
Time. I’m on the floor. I don’t know how I get here. How did I get here? My eyes hurt. My chest hurts. My arms are numb and tingle. Time. How much is gone? I run my hands over my skin and it hurts, like needles in my flesh. The light is too bright. It hurts my eyes. I can’t–
I can’t go out there. The lights are too bright. The sounds are too loud. Every touch on my skin is agony. Don’t get too close. Don’t look me in the eye or you might know me, you might see me, you might see I’m not real. I can’t–
I can’t just sit here.
I can’t just sit here forever. I have to move.
My head aches. I feel tired. Empty. Hollow. Like the life has drained out of me.
My breathing evens out. My heartbeat slows.
I stand up and go back to washing the clothes.
I can’t keep doing this.