This is a piece of text I wrote about my experience which was used in the performances of Wherever I Lay My Hat in 2010.
I used to have panic attacks. I’m not entirely sure when they first started. I think it was in the summer after my first year at University. One night when I was home alone I woke up suddenly, for no reason that I could see, feeling alarmed. I assumed some noise had disturbed my sleep. And I think that’s how it started. The years of broken sleep.
I realised as time went by that mother’s next-door neighbour often left the house at unsociable hours – for work or fishing? But I lived and died by the motion-sensor activated light in his back yard, believing it to be the signifier of my imminent demise. Mum casually blamed my love of Stephen King novels and it seems funny now. But then again, I don’t think I ever told her how bad they were.
In my second and third years at University it got a little better. I was rarely alone but then I went to Drama School. My landlord found himself a new girlfriend with more money and a nice, big house, and suddenly he was never at home. I was alone most of the time. Far away from my friends, family and the man I loved. I felt isolated and vulnerable in every way and at night I was convinced there was someone in the house and they were going to kill me.
I began to dread going to bed and as time passed I started to panic about having a panic attack. I was locked in a battle with the night. I felt small and helpless, exhausted by lack of sleep and the seemingly inescapable situation. As I went to bed I would check all the doors were closed and locked, sometimes taking a knife to put under my pillow. Then I would push the chest of drawers in front of the bedroom door, pull the covers over my head and pray for a quiet night’s sleep.
As they continued to occur I tried to combat them by forcing myself to confront my fear, get up and go downstairs and check that the door was locked and the house was empty. I would get drunk before bed if I knew I was going to be spending the night alone, a tactic only any good on days when I wasn’t working the next day, in the hope that I would pass out and sleep though. Though it was a gamble as it had a tendency to increase my need for mid-night toilet breaks. Otherwise I would stay up until I was exhausted and then crawl fearfully to bed.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the attacks stopped about two years later after I moved in to a small flat with an older male friend who was home a lot and made me feel welcome and safe. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that they were at their worst while living in the house of someone I barely knew during the unhappiest year of my life. What I have never understood is why they started in my old room, in my Mother’s house where I had lived for seven years previously and always felt safe and loved.
Thankfully I haven’t had a panic attack for eight years now.
Having beaten them once I know I can do it again but feels like a backwards step in my mental health and I don’t think it is any coincidence that my moods have been very low of late. This time though I don’t intend to try and do it alone. Next step, the doctors… Wish me luck.