What It's Like To Have A Panic Attack In Paradise

I Had A Massive Panic Attack On Vacation — Because Anxiety DGAF

panic attack in paradise
Sarah Jones

This is a picture I took of myself about thirty minutes after I had one of my more fun-filled panic attacks while on vacation last week. Sexy, right?! See that background? That’s one of the entrances to the beautiful hotel I was staying in. If you look close enough you can see the neon blue ocean water that was my backyard for most of my time in Maui. The weather was absolutely perfect every day. I was there for one of my closest childhood friend’s wedding along with my family and just over twenty other guests, most of whom I have known since the age of nine.

Basically there was absolutely zero reason why I should have felt anything but relaxed and utterly at ease, which really is how I felt for 90% of the time I was away. It was my first vacation without my children and I knew they were safe at home with their dad. I missed them, sure, but knew I needed that alone time enough to prevent any sort of second guessing the trip.

I guess I’m saying all of this to make the point that anxiety, mine at least, doesn’t give two shits about reasoning or logic or how I should feel in any given situation. Usually it’s quite the opposite. Just like every not-so-great emotion, my anxiety can range from mildly uncomfortable to holy-mother-of-God-we’re-all-dying-nothing’s-okay-kill-me-now kind of stuff. The picture above is what my face looked like thirty minutes after one of the pretty gnarly panic attacks had passed.

I would have taken a picture while I was actually having the panic attack except my brain was too busy convincing me I’d never be able to breathe again. I’m talking full-on body sweats, shaking so bad I couldn’t hold a water bottle to my mouth, tunnel vision so intense I thought there was some kind of solar eclipse happening (there wasn’t), and hyperventilating to the point of almost passing out. Luckily my brother and my mom were there in the room when it happened and are both blessed with the same ass-crushing anxiety that I have. One of them brought me a bag of ice and put it on the back of my neck while the other helped pour water into my mouth and gave me my medicine as I sat on the hotel balcony gasping for air, squeaking out I. can’t. breathe. over and over.

Now is probably the time to give an explanation of the events that lead up to that happening on the hotel balcony so that it makes sense, but I’m sorry to say I don’t have one. I got a great night of sleep the night before, FaceTimed my kids a little earlier and ate a nice breakfast in the outdoor cafe where I could hear the waves washing smoothly up onto the sand. I’m not kidding when I say I was in paradise.

The plan for the day was for me, my brother, sister-in-law and good friend to go to a special beach where you can watch turtles sunbathe on the sand, then we’d grab lunch before heading back to the hotel to get ready for my friend’s wedding in the afternoon. I vaguely recall standing by the ironing board in my room feeling my heart start to beat faster and think I said something to my brother about being anxious. It couldn’t have been more than two minutes later that I found myself in the midst of a full-blown panic attack.

Dealing with anxiety is crappy and hard enough on it’s own. Full-blown panic attacks are absolutely unbearable and are every bit as real and scary as any other medical emergency I’ve seen, and I work as a psychiatric clinician in an emergency room so rest assured I’ve seen some scary stuff!

If you’ve never experienced one, consider yourself lucky because it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone, not even my awful neighbor who sets off fireworks at 1 a.m. and leaves dog poo (I swear it’s on purpose) right in front of the door to my car. (That’s right, Cheryl, I’m on to you, and yes, I’m the one who called the cops about the fireworks.)

Anyway, the good news is that I know I’m not alone in struggling with this. Both the neighbor issue and the panic attacks, but more so the panic attacks. When it’s happening I feel like there’s no way anyone else can possibly understand or make it better and, though there’s some truth to that in that very moment, I’ve found that allowing myself to talk about it has been something that has connected me to people I never would have otherwise met. Not necessarily the most fun thing to have in common with someone, but definitely comforting.

I debated whether or not to include that picture with this post because it’s definitely less than flattering, but I remember feeling compelled to take it that morning because it was real and unfiltered and honest. I went on to have an amazing day with my family and friends and turtles and enjoyed every second of watching my friend marry the love of her life. I didn’t go blind and I’m happy to report that I can, in fact, breathe (I’m doing it at this very moment).

I don’t care to try to figure out why I struggle with this any more because my anxiety already takes up too much space in my head. It sucks, yes, but talking about it makes me feel human.