Friday, December 7, 2012

What It's Like to Have a Phobia

I thought about this last night for some reason, so I figured I'd do a blog post about it.

People are always curious when they find out that I have a real, debilitating phobia. They wonder what it's like to have a panic attack, and they all seem to think that they can "reason" me out of it, as if I haven't heard it 95 billion times before.

Something that irritates me, though, is when someone says they have a phobia when they really mean that they're just scared of something. When I mention that I have a phobia of, erm, Evil Things (go here if you don't know what I'm talking about), many say, "Oh, yeah, I'm terrified of those as well."

No, they're not. Of all the people I've talked to who have said that, not a single one actually has a phobia. Sure, they don't LIKE the Evil Things. Sure, they're a little scared of getting shots. But they don't have panic attacks, they don't have horror stories of punching nurses and curling into the fetal position under a chair.

The difference between just being scared of something (and even really scared) and having a phobia: you can still function if you're scared. You can breathe. If you can still scream at full volume, I argue that (unless you're getting murdered or something) you aren't actually suffering from the sort of fear someone with a phobia faces.

Another irksome thing is when people, because so many say they have a phobia when they don't, assume I'm just being dramatic. Nurses and doctors that do this are especially bothersome. If I tell you that I'm going to freak out, don't act surprised when I do JUST THAT. And, for the love of God, don't say afterward, "See, that wasn't so bad, was it?"

I KNOW it wasn't so bad. I KNOW that my reaction is irrational. I KNOW that I'm still alive, and fine, and actually better off for it. That's what makes this a PHOBIA. It doesn't matter about the logic; all that matters is the complete and utter terror I feel.

So, what IS a panic attack like? If you read the New Year's post I linked to, you get a small taste of what happens. The hyperventilating, the crying... But let me see if I can bring you into my world for a second.

It's the day before your doctor's appointment. Thinking about it makes you nauseated, because you can't remember the last time you were vaccinated, so surely the time is nigh and you're bound to get inoculated. All day, you feel sick, with nausea and sweating and chills.

The day of, you sit in the doctor's office, trying to maintain some semblance of calm. You speak tersely to the nurse, trying to get it all done with as fast as possible. When she mentions the Evil Things, a small whimper ripples through your throat, and you shudder. As soon as she leaves to go get her Supplies of Doom and Horrific Awfulness, you stand up. Unfortunately, you're now too old to have your mother come along, so it's all up to you and your bravery to stay even though every atom in your body screams for you to run.

Still standing, quivering with the urge to sprint away as fast as possible, you start to feel sweat roll down your back even though you feel far too cold to be sweating. For some reason, you can't seem to breathe, and you hear this loud, rasping noise. After a moment, you realize you're the cause of that sound, and that you're hyperventilating. The world around you is a blur; nothing seems in focus and your body is shaking much more violently and you can feel your lungs taking in oxygen BUT NOTHING IS WORKING and your nostrils are flared in an attempt to get more air BUT STILL NOTHING WORKS and you start to cry.

The tears are a strange mixture of hot and cold. They burn your eyes, but once they roll down your cheeks they feel icy, just like the rest of you. You can feel all semblance of composure slipping away and in an effort to catch it you fall to the ground in the fetal position, because it is far too late for you to run now. As you're hunched there, still unable to breathe, your sobs increasing the speed and volume of your hyperventilation, you  sort of rock back and forth and try to tell yourself that you're FINE, YOU'RE FINE, YOU WILL BE OKAY but nothing soothes you, nothing can soothe you.

Maybe, if you're intellectually inclined, you start muttering numbers and equations because there's something about their cold remoteness that is attractive to your panicking mind. But still it DOESN'T WORK, because NOTHING WILL EVER WORK and you just know that this time, this time, you will die because your LUNGS ARE WORTHLESS and it HURTS and BY GOD this is even worse than what you remember.

This whole time feels like quite a while, but really only a few minutes have passed and the nurse has returned with the Evil Things. Your eyes, so useless just seconds ago, focus in on that so quickly you're left delirious and it stands out so clear that it's like you've never seen anything before, not really, and this is the only real thing you've ever seen in your entire life.

If you thought your panic before was impressive and terrible, you are wrong, so wrong. Seeing the Evil Thing, having it be in the same room as you, makes you wish you could scream. As it is, you make a pathetic, dying mouse sound that is more pitiful than anything else. Your chest heaves faster and faster, because apparently you still can manage to hyperventilate at a quicker rate than before, and that had felt nearly impossible even then.

Hopefully, you're lucky and this nurse knows that you've got a phobia. This isn't your first visit to the office, so she isn't surprised to find you curled up on the floor having a panic attack. She somehow gets you to stand; you're not sure how, because you don't have control of your body. You are watching her from beyond you, you are not there, all you know and feel is terror and panic and lack of oxygen. Once you're on the stupid crinkly sheet on the stupid grey bed, she forces you into the supine position. When she turns to get her Evil Thing, you manage to curl back up.

This whole time, she's talking in such a calm voice with such calm words and you don't understand a single damn thing. She takes your arm and you clench up. With gentle yet authoritative hands, she chafes your arm until it relaxes, and you start crying even harder now, not caring that you're getting snot all over your face. Before you can try to stiffen or pull away again, she rubs the alcohol on you.

If you thought you felt cold before, you are wrong, so wrong. Just one touch of that swab of Terrible Omens freezes right down to the bone. You know what this means, you remember, and you start gibbering and trying to escape again. The nurse realizes that she might need a little help, so she calls in some reinforcements. Once you're properly restrained by additional nurses, and you start whimpering alternately with the gibbering, the most awful thing imaginable happens.

It is in you. IT IS IN YOU. The sound you make is half scream, half mewl, and you bite your lip until it bleeds. Though it only lasts a second, every moment feels like an eternity. When it's gone, and the nurse bandages you, and tells you how brave you are and how easy it was, all you can feel is utter despair because once again, you have failed to keep yourself safe. Once again, you faced the worst danger in all the universe.

The nurses leave to give you a few minutes to collect yourself after handing you some tissues. You can feel yourself calming down now, can begin to breathe again, but the tears are taking a while to stop. Every time you glance at your arm and the bandage covering up the Evil Mark, you cry a little more and give weak, shaky breaths.

Eventually, you are calm once more. When the nurse returns, you give a watery smile and apologize. You feel ashamed of yourself, humiliated that you are so easily thwarted and turn into a pile of mush without any real cause. By the end of the appointment, however, you are normal and fine, so long as you don't look at your arm.

Not every panic attack happens like this. Some are easier to recover from than others; some are more violent (if I'm surprised by it, I have a tendency to lash out, usually with my fists). If I don't actually see the Evil Thing, if someone just talks about it in detail, I can usually manage to leave the room - although I'll get nauseated and start the process of hyperventilating.

If I happen to have a panic attack around you (or anyone else happens to, for that matter), the best thing to do is keep calm. What works for me is giving me a hand to hold on to, and making me breathe with you. As difficult as it is, try to keep my eyes on yours, and talk to me soothingly. Afterward, don't talk to me about how brave I was, or something; just continue holding my hand, maybe stroke my hair, and let me calm down in silence. This may not work for everyone, but it's what I've found helps me the most.