I learned a great deal more than I already knew at that time about panic attacks when, in my younger days and as part of a postgraduate project, I participated in a study with colleague members of staff of a well known psychiatric hospital, which lay on the outskirts of my university city. I was making the routine weekly drive from the University campus and nearing the hospital in my lovely and long remembered 1936 Riley 9 Merlin motorcar. Suddenly, I saw a woman in her early thirties (as I later discovered) crouched over the edge of the pavement and swaying from side to side, her arms clasped about her as though struggling for breath. Although unable to speak, she was – very understandably, given her condition – in a severe state of panic. Indeed, she appeared to me (and another woman passer-by who also stopped to help) to be stricken ‘from tip to toe’ with paralyzing fear. Neither of us had any idea at that moment as to nature or severity of her problem. However, a lady from a nearby house telephoned for an ambulance and upon its arrival after just a few minutes, it became clear that its crew already knew the woman. Seemingly, they had been called out to help her on a previous occasion.
Later that afternoon, I listened intently as the woman concerned – now in the hospital’s out-patients department and thankfully, much calmer and once again in control – attempted to explained. “On such occasions”, so she told me, “something” – she didn’t seem to know precisely what – would ‘trigger off’ an attack of such severity as to reduce this otherwise articulate communicative lady into (to use her own words) “a gibbering wreck”. She talked for a time rather emotionally about the multifaceted terror of a kind of “point beyond return” leading to “blind panic”: of her feelings of “utter helplessness” during such an attack and of the sense of “abject shame, guilt and failure”, which invariably followed. Through her tears she told me, “We even had to postpone our wedding for almost three hours and I don’t think I have ever really come to terms with the humiliation and shame that I experienced on what should have been the happiest day of my life”. (I hope to conclude this account and to apply it, given our theme of panic attacks, in my next blog).