A few months ago, I panicked. I had a panic attack. This was diagnosed after I spent 3 hours shut in a room by myself, to write an open book test for which I had prepared.
I am an experienced test taker. I prepare, I budget my time, I get good grades. I don’t panic. In my entire academic career I have never once panicked over a test. I am used to scribbling answers for 3 straight hours in a room by myself. I appreciate the time and the solitude.
As the saying goes, there’s a first time for everything. And my first time was scary as hell. The usual tension was there, when you look at a test and decide whether doing a decent job on it within the allotted time will be rated a standard, difficult or excruciating task. That was ok, no surprises.
“I can do this, I know the material. My notes are good. It’s open book. I have 3 hours. Let’s begin.” And then my mind went blank. A whiteboard with nothing on it. What the hell?
“Ok. Deep breath. Let’s try that again.” The moment was surreal. Nothing. I watched myself from across the room, as an outsider, noting this bewildered stranger with her rapidly rising pulse, sweaty palms, shaky limbs and wild eyes.
I tried. I tried so hard to get back my cool, and I couldn’t do it.
I tried walking the room, yoga, and multiple restarts, while my other self continued to analyse the situation with interest, from across the room. I could not write the test. My vision swam, my head pounded and I felt violently ill. I felt wretched. Ashamed. Terrified. Having no idea what was going on, but realizing finally that going through it alone would be impossible, and that there was no way I could finish the test without having started, I went for help, my other self following me out the door.
I would spend the next 2 hours trying to work through the events with the department assistant, my prof, and the school counsellor. The people were amazing, the support was fantastic. But still my other-self watched, and my feelings of confusion and shame and terror ran rampant. I never wanted to write another test. I didn’t know anything, I felt like the queen of Loserville. My confidence was zero. I was done.
My selves were at war, still separate, and violently contradictory. This is bizarre and unfortunate, but hey, now you know what a panic attack is! It’s probably a one-time thing- you’re a good student and you can take this test and do well, said one. I am so, so scared. I’m going to be sick. This is not normal, what if it happens again?! I am a terrible student. This is awful. I’m so scared, said the other.
Days later, I rewrote the test. And I did know the material! It was so important to me to have that proof. To find that my belief in myself and my abilities was not misplaced. But througout the writing, I was still terrified. I was sure of my answers, sure of the logic. And that was good. Logic was driving this vehicle, the brain, though panic was screaming in the back seat.
And that’s how it’s been for moments in time, in response to a variety of triggers, for a while now. Since my meeting with the school counsellor, I’ve realised that my first attack was not in fact the first, that there are instances where this has happened before without my having a label to stick on it. I’ve realized that there are valid triggers, and valid responses to those triggers. Most of the time, logic wins. And when it doesn’t, I do the things that make me happy to move things back on track.