The other night, I found myself obsessively listening to a unique crowd-sourced brand of music at OneHelloWorld. OHW is — well, think Postsecret, but for your ears. The site’s creator (who doesn’t identify himself by name) asks the world to call his phone and leave a three-minute narrative voicemail. Then, he creates a musical composition for the background that’s inspired by the content of your message. (“Call it a soundtrack for your thoughts,” the site describes it.)
The result? An intriguing amalgam of personal stories and instrumental melodies. The completed tracks are moving. Some are inspirational; some are depressing.
Always one to take part in the novelty of experimental projects on the internet, I called OHW’s phone number and left a message about a panic attack I’d had when I was twenty years old.
It was one of my most frightening panic attacks. At that age, I was still new to panic disorder and still fairly convinced that I was suffering not from panic attacks, but from a rare physical malady that my doctor must have overlooked.
It was the last day of final exams during my sophomore year at Lycoming College — a small liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania. My schedule for the rest of the day looked something like this: sell my textbooks back to the bookstore for gas money, stuff my boat-like Buick (a family hand-me-down car) with all of my belongings, grab a bite to eat, and drive two hours home to my parents’ house, which is where I’d be spending the summer.
Money received for textbooks: a measly $28.
Time spent packing up car: 2.5 hours (or 3 hours, really, if you count the half hour spent looking for someone to help me stuff a 9 x 12 foot carpet into the back seat).
Food eaten: None. Our cafeteria — where I could get free food — had weird hours that day and wasn’t open until later. I decided to skip lunch.
I drove out of Williamsport, a miniature city swallowed up on all sides by farmland and state forests, and into the great wilds of Pennsyvania.
Twenty minutes later & I was careening through a landscape of green fields (and no cell phone towers or, subsequently, cell phone service). I tried to ignore it at first, but I started getting warm and lightheaded. I remember my shirt sticking to my skin. I rolled down the windows to cool down and, within another few minutes, for gulps of air that my lungs had convinced me I’d needed. The extra oxygen only fueled my lightheadedness. What was going on?
And then it hit me: my blood sugar was low. This is what I get for not eating.
I remember that my hands were shaking while I foraged around my car for food. I had plenty of, well, stuff — my entire wardrobe, my old desktop computer, toiletries — but no food. I found candy wrappers and a half-empty water bottle that, by my best guess, was about two months old.
Let’s recap: no food, low blood sugar, and the next convenience store was at LEAST twenty miles ahead. My hands, tightly gripped on the wheel, grew cold and numb. My toes began to tingle. Then, my nose and my lips. The road ahead of me began to look like a cartoon. My heart started pounding and skipping beats.
And that’s when the panic attack hit — in full force.
I swerved to the side of the road and into a gravel driveway. My mind was convinced that my body was dying, and my body convinced my brain (via adrenaline) that I needed to fight or run. But I could do neither: the only threat — low blood sugar — was abstract. Intangible. I couldn’t run from it and I couldn’t punch it.
I fumbled my way to a bottle of Xanax and swallowed a pill with my, uh, vintage water from the bottle in the backseat.
My cognitions, at the moment, went something like this:
I’m lightheaded, so I’m going to pass out. If I pass out, I will die. My blood sugar will sink to unthinkable levels and no one will find me because I am in the middle of nowhere. I can’t call 911 because there’s no cell phone service. I can’t eat because I have no food. My heart is racing, so I’m obviously going to have a heart attack. And it’s skipping beats, so it’s obviously going to start skipping multiple beats and then skip ALL beats altogether and I am going to die. Xanax won’t stop me from dying.
I was terrified.
At this point, my adrenaline drove me to run up the gravel driveway and knock on a stranger’s door for help.
A nice woman answered, and I barely remember what happened next. I must have managed to mutter something about low blood sugar, because the next thing I knew, I was in her kitchen eating a chocolate bar and a chicken sandwich.
I chewed slowly. The kitchen was quiet. The kind stranger was standing in front of her sink with her arms crossed. She watched me chew.
“The color is returning to your face,” she said.
I nodded. As my blood sugar levels returned to normal, my heart rate slowed down. As my heart rate slowed down, the lightheadedness began to dissipate. And the more firmly planted my feet felt on her kitchen floor, the cooler and drier my skin grew. I tried to recall the woman’s name — she’d told me at the door, I was certain, but I already didn’t remember it.
And then I fully realized my context: I was, indeed, standing in a complete stranger’s kitchen with a chocolate bar and a chicken sandwich. I felt naked in a metaphorically Adam-and-Eve sort of way. The feeling was sudden and pervasive.
I thanked her awkwardly, returned to the Buick, and continued on my drive home.
Since recounting this story to OneHelloWorld’s voicemail, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. This panic attack was one of my most terrifying — at the time. But six years later, it’s almost endearing. Why? Is my brain protecting me from the threat of remembering all of the details? Is it because I can see the story in a fuller context now? Is it because my current narrative of the event frames it in terms of the (somewhat humorous) whimsy of eating chicken and chocolate in a stranger’s kitchen?
For the record — the next time I passed this woman’s house, I stopped by (in a calm, well-sugared state) to thank her for feeding me. She wasn’t home, so I left a card and a replacement chocolate bar outside of her door.
What about you? Have any of your panic attacks (or other negative experiences) grown rosier in retrospect?
Sedikides, C., & Green, J. D. (2009). Memory as a self-protective mechanism. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3(6), 1055–1068.