Panic Attacks and Addiction

Today I woke up expecting a lovely day. I would be working from home behind the safety of my laptop with my weighted blanket all around me. Then an email dinged in my work mailbox. A standard email from management to our office staff addressing a menial issue regarding office staff late attendance of 5-10 min not being allowed: being that I am in middle management, this email did not directly affect me; however, being the sensitive soul that I am, I knew how it affected my colleagues. Those colleagues being slightly reprimanded work their butts off and have been doing so without any appreciation for quite some time. The negative feelings towards my work started to bubble, the feelings of being trapped, underappreciated, and the knowledge that the COVID bubble is lifting. In one week, I am expected to return to the office full time. This lovely, safe environment that I’ve come accustomed to and built my sobriety around is coming to an end.

Then I felt my body and mind start to draw inward. My chest became heavy; my throat began to feel as though a large stone was wedged in the middle, my mind racing but not racing anywhere at all. Then to complete the process, I started getting tunnel vision. And then I knew very quickly that I would soon be in the midst of a panic attack. In my mind, I hear my inner voice say, “great, we don’t have time for this.” But my anxiety tells the inner voice to shut up because they are running the show now. I can best describe this experience to what I have seen in movies where terrorists or pirates hijack a plane or boat. So here I am, a hostage in my mind and body taking in this experience, wondering how long this will go on, if I will need to take my PRN, or if I’ll even be able to function today. So I close my eyes and start slowly breathing in and out, then moving into a box breathing technique I’ve learned. I draw in a breath of 5, hold for 6, and exhale for 7. I keep using the box breathing technique and am slowly able to escape the anxiety and come up for air. For the next few minutes, I sit and try to come back to the real world and adjust my senses back to the world around me. While this may sound like a quick process, in all honestly, the entire experience lasted close to three hours. Additionally, the stress of losing time to my anxiety attack causes more anxiety, as then I must rush to get all of my work assignments and meetings completed without letting anyone know that I am not ok!

What’s unique about today’s anxiety attack experience is that while the negative thoughts and feelings of stress and overwhelm were setting in, I heard the whisper of the creepy little alcoholic gremlin I imagine that lives in my mind. Saying things like, “This is too much for you, this is too much stress, it never ends, let’s take the edge off so we can deal with this without shutting down or having a “panic attack.” He always says panic attacks so mockingly, probably because he knows that with my control issues, it’s something I also judge and at times mock myself for.

Thankfully through sobriety, I now have the tools to shut up voices like that because I know I have to sit through the discomfort even if that discomfort means a full-blown panic attack. So as I reflect on this incident, I would not call the gremlin voice suggesting that we go for drinks to deal with our stress a craving, but rather the whispers of an old coping strategy trying to make their suggestion known.

Today is day 103 of my sobriety journey. I’m almost scared to say that it has been easier than I expected. But perhaps I was expecting sobriety to be a difficulty that mirrored being an alcoholic where everything was hard and filled with darkness, disequilibrium, and shame. Sobriety and the tools developed to maintain sobriety require very active engagement, no more numbing out, no more hiding. If something is stressful, uncomfortable, or even scary, we must recognize that we have the tools needed to sit through our discomfort, anxiety, and fear and let it pass through us. As on day 103 of this process, I am finding that with each moment I sit in the discomfort and deal with my anxiety, pain, and despair, I become a little more whole and a little more me each day.

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