Today is New Year’s Eve, usually my favourite day of the year. And while it still is, this New Year’s Eve is very different. This entire year has put a lot of things into perspective for me, but none so much as this past week. I experienced my very first panic attack “episode” as the ER doctor told me, and it really solidified the messages my body and the Universe kept giving me about taking care of my mental health.
Early Monday morning, I was having a really bad bout of insomnia which creeps up on me every so often. Usually I can do some deep breathing exercises and lull myself to sleep, but this time, my breathing exercises didn’t work. After about 3 hours of trying to do deep breathing to get me to sleep, I frustratingly got up and decided to smoke a small bit of cannabis to try to help me relax. About a half hour later, I started feeling really weird. I am a regular cannabis user so I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so off. But the first sign I had was heart palpitations. I started then feeling extremely hot, hotter than I had ever felt before. At this point I knew something was wrong. I got up, practically naked, put on a robe and walked outside on my balcony in minus Celsius weather to try to get some air. As soon as I put my stocking feet in the snow covered on my balcony, I felt better. As I sat there trying to breathe, with my heart racing and me in a full panic, there was a voice that started speaking to me. It sounded like my voice, but It was very calm. It clearly spoke to me and said, “You are okay, Whitney. Just breathe. Just breathe. You are not having a heart attack. Just breathe. You’re okay.” This is literally what the voice repeated over and over as I panicked that I was having a heart attack. The reason for my concern was that I have hypertension (high blood pressure) and hadn’t been on my meds for over a year and a half since I had lost my job and benefits. When you have to pay for medication out of pocket, it gets to be very expensive and with all of the other meds I’m on, I couldn’t maintain paying for it, so I hadn’t used it in a while nor was I regularly checking my blood pressure. All of this lead me to believe that due to my negligence, I was in the throws of a full blown heart attack. I had a friend Simon who had died at the age of 30 from a heart attack 5 years ago so I knew it was possible to happen to someone in my age range. After sitting outside for a while and the voice continuing to calmly speak to me and tell me I was okay, I went back inside and tried drinking some water and calming down. But after a while, my heart would start palpitating again, I’d get hot, have diarrhea and then start panicking again.
After about 2 and a half hours of this, I called 911. The ambulance was here within 5 minutes and they came and took several readings of my blood pressure. They were concerned enough that they wanted to take me to the hospital to get checked out, even though I wasn’t exhibiting any of the other symptoms of a heart attack. They got me setup in the ambulance and we got to Credit Valley Hospital in 5 minutes as it’s right around the corner from my house. Upon arriving, they did blood work, an ECG and checked my blood pressure again. My blood pressure topped out at 202/126 which is extremely dangerous (normal range is 120/80). After being there for several hours, this really nice doctor came in and spoke to me. I told him exactly what had happened, thinking he was going to chastise me for smoking weed when I’m on meds, but surprisingly he didn’t. He uttered words I didn’t expect him to say. “You had a panic attack episode.” Me? Panic attack? I had never had a panic attack a day in my life before and had been through some pretty stressful situations before, so I was admittedly a bit perplexed. He basically explained what had happened to my body had nothing to do with any of the medications I was on or my blood pressure or the weed I had smoked really. It had to do with my mind and what was going on inside of it. They had run all of the required tests to determine I hadn’t had a stroke or heart attack or anything like that and for the most part, my blood work and ECG came back normal. He then asked me what had been going on in my life recently. As I started thinking about the recent stress I had been undergoing especially over the last two weeks, I knew exactly what had caused my panic attack. While I don’t think it was only one specific thing, I knew it was an accumulation of not just this incredibly fucked up year of 2020 but also some things in my personal and familial life that were affecting me more than I had every realized.
As I started digesting the news that I had actually had a full blown panic attack “episode,” I started really taking a step back mentally. I thought about how scared I had been in that moment when the attack came on, how I thought about dying alone by myself in my apartment in the middle of the night with no one to hear me or even know I was dead if the worst happened. I thought about how alone I had felt and had been feeling not just recently, but for a while now. It’s crazy how you can be in a crowded room full of people, even people you love and who love you, yet feel so incredibly alone. I started thinking about the triggers to my panic attack, some of those personal situations that were sitting in my consciousness like a slow ticking time bomb that had just gone off. I also added in all of the social injustices that had happened and were still happening to and within my community. I’ve always known that mental health is important and just as important to take care of as physical health, but I wasn’t taking care of either. All of this culminated for me in this moment of my episode. After being discharged from the hospital, given nothing and basically told to go home, take my high blood pressure medication and follow up with my doctor, I knew I needed to better understand my body and how it was now handling stress. In the past, I would have over eaten or smoked a good amount of cannabis to try to help quiet my mind. And while I’m a huge fan, activist and believer in the cannabis plant, I know the down side of trying to use it to treat other undiagnosed issues improperly.
Several days later, I was watching a video on YouTube about a journalist on Good Morning America by the name of Dan Harris who had had a similar experience to mine, albeit his was live on air. Back in 2004 while doing his morning run down of the news, Dan had a panic attack during his live broadcast. After his episode, he like me tried understanding what exactly had happened to him. His journey of self discovery ended up leading him to a method that is free, thousands of years old and scientifically proven to be effective in helping you manage not only panic attacks, but mental health and life in general: meditation. Now, as someone who used to meditate daily for years, I’ve been well aware of the benefits both physical and psychological of having a consistent meditation practice. And in the past, meditation for me was a way to connect with my spiritual beliefs and teachings. But I had never considered using it for the prevention of panic attacks, mostly because I had never had a panic attack previous to this experience. But I honestly cannot say that I was shocked or surprised because truthfully, I had been receiving messages for a while to start meditating and doing yoga again regularly. I took this as the Universe’s warning to me that I needed to take better care of myself in all ways. One of the things I’ve learned in my life is the old adage my grandmother used to religiously say to me, that “those who don’t hear must feel” is literally one of the themes in my life. Whenever God/Universe has tried giving me messages that I don’t heed, Dad will get His point across, one way or the other. When I don’t listen, I end up feeling it and it’s never in a good way.
So now, I’m listening. Fully. Not just because I had an experience that literally scared me to what felt like death but because it’s time. I’ve been running for a long time from some of the things I need to do to help take care of myself, but I cannot run any longer. As I’ve said many times over in my previous articles, this year has taught me just how precious life and time really are…in ways I never could have imagined. I heard something recently that said, (and I’m paraphrasing here) that God’s strength is shown in our greatest weaknesses and that really resonated with me. I truly believe that. I believe that when we are at our lowest or weakest points, we have an opportunity through faith to show God’s strength in us. I believe meditation is one of the ways this happens. By quieting the mind and allowing Dad/God to inspire us to act without us trying to do anything or make anything happen, I believe we tap into something bigger and greater than our little Selves in these limited bodies. In my moments of fear in the wee hours of the morning when I was alone having my panic attack, I truly believe Dad was with me, calming me down, telling me what to do and that I was okay. And that I wasn’t alone. I’m never alone. Even when I’m scared and terrified and don’t understand what is happening. I’m never alone.
So as I look to 2021 and close the chapter on this year tonight, I’d like to give you the same message that calm, clear steady voice gave me several nights ago when I was in the throws of something I didn’t understand but was completely afraid of. I don’t know what next year will bring, truly. I can’t sit here and honestly say it’s for sure going to be better than this last year was because what if it’s not for some of you? I know for me personally there will be some major events happening that will affect my life forever. I can’t stop them and I have zero control in the outcome. But here’s what I can do. I can continue to believe that just like this week showed me, there is something greater than myself that is always with me. That is always with all of us. Guiding us, helping us cope and helping us transition when our time here is up. So to all of you reading this, no matter what next year throws at you, my greatest wish is that you remember these words: You are okay. Just breathe. You’re not alone. You are loved. You have never been alone. You never will be. You’re okay. Just breathe.
Happy New Year everyone! I wish for you all to find your breath in 2021 and to always know you are never alone. Peace, love and light!