I remember the first time I ever had a panic attack. It came from out of nowhere. It was so far off the grid of my experience that I didn’t even know it had a name other than torture.
It all started when I decided to take a driving shift on the roadtrip back home from Colorado to California with my husband and four kids. We were on our way back from visiting friends and had decided to drive straight through the night to avoid kid interruptions. It was almost entirely black throughout the mountain range—save our headlights. My husband had taken the first shift.
It was now my turn.
My kids were already fast asleep and as soon as I started driving, my husband quickly followed suit. The two-lane highway was narrow and windy, with a cement divider on my left and what appeared to be an open chasm of death off to my right.
I felt a little nervous driving, but I was doing okay navigating the narrow twists and turns of the highway until another car zoomed up right behind me and started aggressively tailgating. He tailed so close that it felt threatening and dangerous.
The pressure and danger combination mounted together into a highly-reactive panic trigger for me. These two things would remain consistent in my future episodes. They were my specific “recipe” for a panic attack.
The first thing I noticed was the tingly fear that crept up my entire body until it constricted around me like a tight blanket. I felt frozen and wrapped in fear—unable to move. My arms became fused to the steering wheel with a paralytic death grip. I was afraid to breathe, much less call out to my husband for help. I broke out into a cold sweat.
All of a sudden, the lane appeared much narrower. I felt terrified that if I veered even one inch in either direction, we would all die. Either I’d crash into cement or careen off a cliff. Neither one appealed to me in my desire to live. I couldn’t speed up to get away from the tailgater because I couldn’t guarantee control, but I couldn’t slow down either— I was afraid he’d smash into me. He was SO close. I had ZERO margin for error.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God,” was all I could think to think.
The whole episode probably lasted only about five minutes before the road shifted into three lanes, and the other car floored it to maneuver around me—but I felt like I’d just made it through Hell. The rest of the details are still a blur. We didn’t die. We eventually made it home. I didn’t know it yet, but this episode was about to change my entire life. It would become a trigger that would affect my life for many years afterwards.
That was 8 years ago.
Immediately after the road trip through Hell, I remember being hit by a rush of euphoria. From my optimistic perspective of a great storyline, I thought I’d query a magazine or two about my death-defying adventure. I thought certainly I could find some venue from which to share my amazing testimony about staring death in the face and surviving.
But I didn’t.
Instead, in a cruel twist of fate, I spiraled down into an even worse season filled with many more panic attacks and new pop-up fears—including a fear of heights, fear of mountain roads and freeway overpasses, fear of enclosed spaces, fear of finding parking, and a fear of big social gatherings.
Life got worse, NOT better.
My ideological testimony morphed instead into many more mocking reminders of my current limitations. It was like an ever-increasing revelation of incapacity.
The panic attacks continued—sometime major, sometimes minor. The fear usually manifested in an either quick or slow spread of terror throughout my body. My whole body would then feel almost suffocated by the tight blanket of terror that restricted me, coupled with the fear-induced paralyzation. One of the panic attacks was SO intense that it actually dried up my milk supply and I could no longer nurse my son.
I continued to spiral down.
I couldn’t drive on mountain roads, bridges, or freeway overpasses for years. Even being a passenger on mountain roads left me with the shakes. I had to close my eyes and pray under my breath just to survive those drives—which made it tricky to visit my in-laws who actually lived in the mountains.
I lived in a place of constant fear, wondering what would trigger me next.
Many beach trips and miscellaneous outings had to be rerouted due to bridge overpasses. It became inconvenient and humiliating. One time, I accidentally ended up on some mountain roads with a friend. When I realized my mistake, I decided I would just have to power through by the sheer force of my will. Except that I couldn’t. My will was not strong enough to overcome the neurological and emotional components of my PTSD-ravaged brain. Trembling, sweating, and barely able to breathe, I found a mountain turn-out and defeatedly drove back down.
Life became really hard for a LONG time after that initial drive in the Colorado mountain range.
Xanax couldn’t touch my fear or panic at all. Antidepressants didn’t accomplish anything other than my weight gain. I already struggled with insomnia. Sleeping pills didn’t work either.
I felt like a zombie, technically alive but dead inside as the fear, panic, and insomnia swirled around inside of me—trying to finish me off for good.
I lived in that dream state for years, unable to engage with much. Life was all about survival not enjoyment. My spirit’s will to live and my desire to raise my children were the ONLY reasons I stayed alive.
Somehow I knew that there HAD to be a light at the end of my tunnel.
Years of counseling and the unravelling of my past would then enter into the scene of my life. Everything would change after that. My panic, fear, and PTSD would slowly lessen. My understanding would massively increase. I would receive lots of new information and tools. And the natural outgrowth of all of these eventually brought me my breakthrough.
I remember that VICTORIOUS day when I finally decided to try to drive over the 91 Freeway Overpass on my way out-of-town. I felt the Father’s gentle nudge of confirmation; “You’re ready. You can do this.”
And I did.
It’s been two years since the day I conquered that overpass. My freedom has continued to multiply into other areas. I’m no longer afraid of bridges or overpasses. I don’t get parking anxiety now. I actually attend a fair amount of social gatherings without emotional pushback. I even went through an enclosed waterslide the other day without any panic or triggers.
I made it through Hell. You can too.
Don’t ever give up.
Two steps forward—one step back is still moving forward.