The week before cycling from Surrey up to London through the parks I came off my bike in Camden High Street after seeing Pulp Fiction at the cinema. A car pulled out suddenly making me swerve and fall under my bike and I was terrifyingly aware of the car behind me braking hard to avoid running me over. I arrived home with gashes and ripped, bloody clothes. I patched myself up and got on with life. The following Sunday, when I returned to London from my parents’, the air that night was stifling and heavy with rumbling thunder and I had difficulty sleeping.
My flatmate in Murray Mews had his room across the landing from mine. Rupert.
Four of us shared a house in Camden Town, including Charles. We had all recently completed a degree in Fine Art at Middlesex University and were working together on staging a large exhibition at a venue in London (Whiteleys Atrium in Bayswater). One morning I was in my room and I thought I heard Charles’ voice saying ‘help’ faintly. I went to see if something had happened and found him slouched on the floor. He looked pale and seemed to be having difficulty breathing. I knew Charles to be a calm and capable person so I was immediately concerned. I asked if I should call an ambulance and he said ‘yes’. He was able to talk until the ambulance came but I didn’t know what was wrong and I don’t think Charles did either. I was relieved when the ambulance arrived. Charles had by now been able to get up and move around but he was still badly affected.
In the ambulance they did an electrocardiogram on me and found nothing amiss. At the hospital the nurse massaged my stomach, I guess in case I had indigestion as gases can cause a stitch-like feeling resulting in a sensation of pain in the heart region. She told me they hadn’t found anything wrong with me and I was fine to leave. I’d never been in an ambulance before and hadn’t thought how I would get home afterwards. I think I had change for the no. 24 bus. On the way home I went over the night in my mind. I’d had difficulty breathing and felt my heart skip beats. I’d gone to the open window to try to breathe and cool down, returning to bed to try to sleep. In the morning I was struggling to breathe and called for help when my fingers curled tightly into my palms – like my body was beginning to shut down – and I was unable to force them open. Later I found out this muscle spasm was brought on by a reduction in ionised calcium and phosphate levels caused by acute hyperventilation. I didn’t understand what had happened to me, but this was the beginning of my panic attacks.
Outwardly I looked fine. I could go on living. People didn’t know how to respond or help me. I read about agoraphobia, about situations that triggered other people’s panic attacks. Mine didn’t appear to fit this diagnosis. I felt a constant fear, even in a safe place sitting at home on the sofa watching telly. Walking in the street I felt my limbs heavy as though I was moving slowly through gravy. I also yawned constantly with the sensation that I couldn’t get enough air. The next Wednesday I made an effort to go to the jive dance classes my sister and brother-in-law gave in Ealing Town Hall. I almost didn’t make it because I had suddenly become so attuned to all the strange sensations in my body that the jolts of the underground seemed to be my heart trembling. I felt each moment I was about to break. I had to rationalise that I was still standing and the tube is always shaky, and halfway there I was on the point of turning back but managed to convince myself I’d passed the halfway mark and going back would be the longer of the two options. Every decision was made with the fear of the panic returning and it was tiring.
I don’t remember clearly all the details now as this happened 25 years ago. I want to reassure people that things did improve over time once I began to understand my situation and I would say it took about two years for me to feel the panic attacks were behind me. It’s funny in a way that the homesickness I felt after leaving New Zealand also lasted about two years.
At the beginning I saw various doctors, both GPs and on emergency wards. Having ruled out heart problems I was recommended to breathe into a paper bag to help calm the hyperventilation. Most doctors focussed on the anxiety and prescribed medicines to tackle it. One doctor prescribed beta blockers, which he told me were safe and that concert violinists would take them before a concert to steady their hand. I have always been dubious of drugs to treat symptoms rather than finding out the underlying cause so didn’t try the beta blockers until after speaking with a second doctor, an Indian doctor who took time to ask me questions about diet, sleeping patterns, and so on. She commented that on the night of the first attack it had been especially muggy and many people in London had been affected with breathing problems. I think about this now as the problem of asthma in children and the dangers of car fumes are in the news in the UK. She gave me a sense of control over my own body saying it wouldn’t harm me to at least try the beta blockers and see how they affected me. I didn’t really notice much effect except that they are supposed to slow the heart rate and so I was overly focussed on my heartbeat for a time. Another doctor gave me three days of Diazepam (aka. Valium), which got me through the Bayswater exhibition. I’m glad it was only three days because it left me in a cotton-wool cloud and although I could function I saw how drugged and distant from the world around me I had been.