Love & Sex

True Stories: Panic Attacks and Other Cures for Heartbreak

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Girlfriends can be stressful. Ex-girlfriends, terrifying.

Photo by Leslie Kwon

On a crisp winter evening two years ago, I sat in a crowded room at Columbia University, nervous and excited, waiting for an author to read from his latest book. The author made no difference to me. I was anxious because my ex-girlfriend, Tatum, was supposed to arrive any minute. From a sweltering corner near the radiator, I saw her appear through dozens of people milling around the door, almost like a mirage. I started to feel all the usual signs of being near someone I used to love and maybe still did — heart racing, face flushed, palms sweating — except this time, those signs went shockingly and horribly wrong. Sweat trickled down my spine, leaving my shirt a damp mess. The room slowly began to whirl. The air suddenly became thick. Rigor mortis overtook my hands, turning them into claws. I felt like I was about to die.

There are two kinds of people in this world, those who have had a panic attack and those who have never known absolute terror.

There are two kinds of people in this world, those who have had a panic attack and those who have never known terror. The latter group could also be identified as people of whom I am insanely jealous. Insane is an apt description because, after my first attack that night, insane was exactly how I felt.

Over the weeks leading up to the attack, I had undergone a series of life changes: moving into a new apartment, living without a roommate for the first time, submitting my thesis for graduate school, and beginning repayment on a considerable student loan. Seeing my ex-girlfriend might not have been the best idea.

The problem was I still loved Tatum. She’d taught me how to live in the city without relying on a dozen cocktails every night. She’d kept me supplied with lyric essays and poetry and literary magazines throughout graduate school. She’d bought me illustrated manuals so I could learn pointers for giving better oral sex. Who wouldn’t adore her?

That was one of the questions going through my head in the dizzy moments following my first panic attack. The other was, “What the hell just happened to me?” I thought for a moment that a common metaphor for sadness had, at sight of my ex-girlfriend, somehow manifested itself as a physical condition. I thought my heart had broken for real.

Ever since our relationship ended, roughly a year and a half before that winter, Tatum and I had on too many occasions made the common mistake of sleeping together. Sometimes we would go out to dinner, catching up on each other’s lives, and I would say how damn attracted to her I still was. Cut to us making out in the elevator. Sometimes we would go to see a movie, enjoying each other’s company, and she would say she kind of wanted to kiss me. Cue the bedside removal of underwear. Although I promised myself our dalliances meant nothing, I could not keep from thinking Tatum might suddenly want me back, that our physical bond might develop into an emotional one. I was always proven wrong, but I never gave up hope. Each time we did anything together, despite my best efforts to pretend otherwise, I wished she would decide to take me back.

She’d bought me illustrated manuals so I could learn pointers for giving better oral sex. Who wouldn't adore her?

That night at the reading proved the exception to the rule. Given my condition, wool socks making squishy noises from all the sweat, notes only halfway legible due to my shaking pen, the desire to win back Tatum was the farthest thing from my mind. I was too distracted to want her as a lover; I needed her as a friend. After the reading, Tatum and I had plans to get a drink, and I calmed myself down by picturing us sitting at a bar. I would explain what had happened; she would tell me everything was going to be fine. Once the reading was over, though, she turned to me and said, “Is it okay if I skip out on drinks? The author invited me to dinner with him. You don’t mind, do you? You know he’s my favorite writer. Okay, cool. Talk to you later.”

Of course it wasn’t her fault. She had no idea what I had just been through. I unfortunately wasn’t able to register that. I went back to my apartment, filled a glass with four fingers of Scotch, drank it in two burning gulps, and cried so hard my contacts fell out. Later on Tatum texted me an apology. I told her not to worry about it.

During the months that followed, I did not get to see Tatum at all because she was three hours away teaching upstate. Also during those months, my panic attacks became so frequent I often thought I’d rather be dead than live with them any longer. My brain took on a mind of its own. At work, I sat through conference calls, business meetings, and training sessions while counting my pulse with absolute certainty it was about to stop. At home, I used large amounts of alcohol, bouts of tears, and comfort food to relieve thoughts of suicide. 

Only later did it occur to me I had traded a certain type of depression for another, one of the most ancient afflictions replaced by one of the most modern. Panic attacks became my cure for heartbreak. I lost some weight, and I gained some weight. I slept too much, and I slept too little. All of the symptoms of a break up became the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Perhaps because I was brought up in the South, where psychotherapy was considered a refuge for the weak, I decided I didn’t need professional help. I just needed a gentle push.

Panic attacks became my cure for heartbreak.

It came when Tatum invited me to visit her for the weekend at Colgate University, where she was finishing a fellowship in creative writing. Hesitantly I booked a train ticket. Over the past few months, I had pondered her role during the first attack. My irrational thoughts wanted somebody to blame. Needless to say I just as irrationally chose somebody who was blameless. Nonetheless, I was genuinely looking forward to seeing her, and I hoped her presence — the smell of her hair, the sound of her laugh — might help to quell my anxiety. My indulgent thoughts on how the weekend would go, recidivist cherry to an emotional sundae, also included hopes for us rekindling our relationship.

She lived in a lake house. Bird songs filled the air instead of car horns and foliage covered the sidewalks instead of tourists: panic was the last thing anyone would associate with such a place. Ever since I’d stepped off the train, however, my anxiety had been hovering mid-range, its needle never spiking but also never dipping. So, trying to drown out the hum of my own nervous system, I focused on setting the table for dinner, refilling my glass of wine, selecting music for the stereo, and, throughout the night, blatantly attempting to beguile my ex-girlfriend.

It is a little shameful, but yes, I made a move to kiss her and, yes, she rebuffed it without pause. So I told her about the attacks. Why? Some might think I was aiming to gain her sympathy so I could use it for my own selfish ends, and maybe part of me was, but I also believe I was searching for help from a person who understood me. Intimacy after all is just a deeper form of comprehension. Ironically and ridiculously and fittingly, I made every effort, while telling her about my panic attacks, to appear as calm and cool as possible. I imagined my tears as I choked them back forming a salty waterfall down my throat. The entire time Tatum listened to me in silence.

When I finished, around midnight, she said told me she was sorry, about how, at various stages in her life, she had experienced similar things. We cried for a while. Two years before that night, when we broke up, Tatum and I had also shed tears together. Then, they were the unstoppable and senseless tears of heartbreak. Now, after we’d grown apart but stayed close, they were the gentler tears of two people discovering empathy for one another. 

She crossed her heart, and I did not hope to die.

Over the rest of the weekend, taking long walks in the brisk spring air, sitting on the porch with the sun overhead, Tatum convinced me I needed to see a doctor. That I did. Within days of getting back home, I had met with a psychiatrist, explained my problem, been assured it was curable, and started a program of medication and therapy. More than a year has passed since my last panic attack.

One of the things I have been taught to do, whenever I feel an attack might be coming on, is to focus on thoughts that calm me down. Often I go back to a specific memory. At the end of that weekend with Tatum, she took me to the train station and, because I was anxious, promised I would get better soon. She crossed her heart, and I did not hope to die.

The train station was as hot and crowded as the room where, just a few months back, I had had my first panic attack after the reading. My chest got heavy as my forehead got wet. Objects in the station dripped in my vision like clocks from the posters on so many dorm-room walls. Just before the anxiety developed into a full attack, though, Tatum grabbed my hand, squeezed, and looked into my eyes.

A whistle of steam let me know my train was about to depart. At the station in upstate New York, my pulse slowing, my hands relaxing, I kissed for the last time a woman who, as a friend, I will always love and who remains, to this day, one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. I caught the train just in time.