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Panic Attacks

Yesterday I had a panic attack. I haven’t had many of these in my life – at least, not as bad as this one. Jeff was with me and he looked after me. He has seen this happen before so he kept his head and this helped me to stay in control – but it was still overwhelming.

I don’t normally dye my hair, but had just bought some hair dye. I read the instructions which had a page of warnings about adverse effects – these included dizziness and poisoning. The manufacturer suggested testing the dye 48 hours before use but, of course, I was impatient. So, I went into the bathroom and set to work. I managed to get the dye in my hair and set a timer for 35 minutes, then went back to the lounge room where Jeff was sitting.

Then it hit me. I have no words to describe the experience. I wish I could say it was like a tidal wave, but it’s not quite like that. Still, everything suddenly shifts – as though reality lifts ‘up’. Consciousness changes as though the ground could fall from beneath you. The world around you, your environment, feels different. It looks different. Your head is disorientated and light – you feel like you are about to slip into a disassociated state. And the world seems to breathe. Your surroundings are somehow animated. But what is most apparent is the sense of dread. The overwhelming sense that something terrifying is about to happen to you. A sense that perhaps you are about to die.

I freaked out completely and told Jeff something was wrong as I rushed into the bathroom. He followed me and as I knelt by the bath and put my head under the tap we both quickly washed the dye out of my hair. I told him I thought I was having a reaction to the dye. He got me back into the lounge room where I sat down. Jeff asked if it was a panic attack. I wasn’t sure. I told him to ring the ANU Health Service, I wanted to speak to my GP. I told Jeff I didn’t know what was going on, but it felt bad. I was terrified.

We couldn’t get hold of the Health Service and Jeff asked if we should ring the mental health crisis team. But I was still peaking and unsure if I was poisoned. My body felt weird, felt shocking, the anxiety was so high and my arms and legs buzzed. I told him to ring the ambulance. He said are you sure. I said I think you should, I don’t know what is happening. He rang emergency and was put through to the ambulance service. He spoke to someone there and asked them to call the crisis team, then handed the phone to me.

I spoke to a man named Doug who was a paramedic manning the phones.

I cannot tell you the difference it makes when a health professional shows kindness and compassion. People with mental illnesses know that this is not always the case when we are in a crisis.

Doug spoke to me for maybe fifteen minutes. He realized the first thing to do was determine if I was poisoned or not, which he did by asking questions. He knew that I wasn’t sure whether this was a panic attack or an adverse reaction to the dye. He was kind. He talked me down. And, of course, Jeff was with me – I don’t know how I would cope without him.

Some reflections on this (because we must turn our adversities into lessons).

My feeling, immediately after this episode, was of intense shame and foolishness. How could I think a panic attack was poisoning from hair dye? But, more acutely, was my sense that the emergency services must hate me. I am wasting valuable resources on something that is not ‘real’.

These thoughts illustrate the sort of self-stigma we have, and they are the result of the mental health system and society more generally. They are the result of those who have not been as kind and compassionate as Doug.

I was having an emergency. It wasn’t life threatening – but it was terrifying for me and I was severely distressed. And, it was the result of an illness. It was not a sign of weakness or foolishness. It was something I had no control over.

Another thought I had, as tears streamed down my face and Jeff comforted me, was that this illness is bigger than me. I cannot beat it. I must submit to it. This doesn’t mean giving up. It just means acknowledging my smallness. And acknowledging that which is beyond my control.

It is a sad, but true, fact that some health professionals can – and often do – talk down to people with these illnesses. It has happened to me in the past – and I know that it is a common occurrence. And yet, I cannot understand why we deserve disrespect when we have these experiences. I cannot explain what it is like during these episodes – reality looks different – you are flung into another realm. And the sense of dread, of death, is overwhelming.

Of course, it wasn’t just a fear of the hair dye that set this off – there must have been other stressors in my life. But I normally do have other stressors in my life of one sort or another, and I cannot say which of these, or which combination of these, is going to set me off. There is no point analyzing me for my fear of death – it is a fear many of us share. Why, in my case (and the case of others who have these experiences) we are flung into these states remains mysterious to me. I don’t want to give this a reductive explanation either in psychoanalytic or in biomedical terms. It is enough to honour the experience as a deeply human one – one that any of us could have.

The one thing I am sure of is that it does not make me a ‘lesser’ person because I have these experiences. They are a part of who I am.

There is a term that can be used in a derogatory way to describe ‘normal’ people: neurotypical. This describes those who do not have disorders of the mind (it's mainly used for those not on the autism spectrum, which is not relevant here). I don’t like it being used in a patronizing way. But, I do think that if you haven’t experienced the extreme things that the mind is capable of - there needs to be humility in this lack of knowing. This is what we live with and we are not defective because of it. We are survivors and warriors - and we fight a fierce battle at times.

Please treat us kindly.


Kant discusses the phenomenon and the noumenon. The phenomenon is the world as we experience it – as it is given to us through our senses. The noumenon is the world as it is – in itself. He said we cannot have direct contact with the noumenon.

I think we do experience the noumenon – it is reality stripped bare. This reality is too big for us – it blows our minds. In this reality the universe is alive – and we participate in this. And it can be as terrifying as it is divine. This is what people experience in psychotic breaks, or panic attacks. We are flung into reality as it is – and we are overwhelmed.

The noumenon is sacred. We have simply lost the language to decipher it.

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