“ 'Fear begat fear,' Kent said."
"He was having panic attacks on a regular basis. At 26, he locked the door to his bedroom and refused to leave."
The City Wire special report: Kent’s constant anxiety
Submitted by The City Wire staff on Mon, 07/05/2010 – 11:46am.
Editor’s note: This is another story in a series of stories on mental illness issues. Throughout 2010 The City Wire will attempt to post at least one story a month on this often hidden affliction. The list of previous articles in this series is located at the end of this story.
story by Marla Cantrell
Imagine the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to you. Say it was an accident, when an SUV the size of a delivery truck crossed the center line with you in its sights. Remember the split second before hearing the screech of metal, the instant before the air bag exploded around you. Remember the sound of your heart beating like gunfire in your chest.
Now think about living that moment over and over again. That’s what panic attacks feel like.
Kent, 30, is one of 6 million Americans facing the problem. His trouble started at 17 when an abiding fear set in. He had no idea what was wrong. He tried reasoning it away but it didn’t work. He imagined his heart was failing, that he had some terminal disease, that he might die before morning.
“It’s a sad thing for me, but I don’t remember much from before the panic began,” Kent said. “I’ve got memories from when I was a kid, but they’re just fragments, not emotions or anything like that. Kind of like a third-person view of them.”
Baffled, his family doctor sent him and on to specialists. He wore monitors, had tiny cameras snaked down his throat, drank quarts of chalky shakes.
“I was hoping for a diagnosis,” Kent said. “I wanted a reason for what I was feeling. But when the doctor after she’d tried everything else started asking about my family life, I knew she thought it was all in my mind. I just quit going.”
Kent was experiencing the disorder earlier than most. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), panic disorder typically strikes people in their early twenties. Severe stress, such as the death of a loved one, can bring on panic attacks.
One of his biggest regrets is that he didn’t talk to his family. He thought he might be sent away, that he was crazy. So he pushed on, and for a while the symptoms were manageable. But the panic was always lurking.
As he grew older, it worsened. He took Paxil for depression. Later his hands began to shake. He woke in a sweat every morning, his mind racing, his stomach already roiling.
“Fear begat fear,” Kent said.
He was having panic attacks on a regular basis. At 26, he locked the door to his bedroom and refused to leave.
The need to stay home, in a safe environment, is not uncommon. One-in-three diagnosed with panic disorder will develop agoraphobia. Kent’s weight dropped, 10 pounds and then 20. He was rail-thin when his brother found him, coaxed him out and took him to a psychiatrist.
“At every waking moment I was afraid of anything and everything. I can honestly say, if I hadn’t gotten help at that time, I would have died,” Kent said. “It was the worst time of my life.”
Today, he can usually leave his apartment, but it’s hard. He attends group therapy and has a counselor who sees him regularly.
“A normal day is like a battle,” Kent said.
When he talks he seldom makes eye contact. He often pauses between sentences, so long you think he might have lost his train of thought. He takes sharp little breaths. His fingers tremble.
“But if I get past the morning without an attack, I feel like I’m really doing something,” he said. “The rest of the day, I pretty much try to maintain that feeling. … It’s real tricky. To get better you’ve got to push yourself, but you’ve got to be real careful because it’s a cycle, fear causes stress and stress causes more fear and it keeps going.”
The balancing act is only one of the hard lessons he’s learned in the past few years.
“It’s been proven to me that the mind can create environments,” Kent said. “I’ve learned a lot about humility – I used to work and drive and contribute. I’ve had to accept a lot of help. I’ve lost a lot but I’m thankful for everything I have. I’ve also learned to respect people with mental or psychological disorders.”
He is better than he has been in some time. He can envision the day when he returns to work, gets back behind the wheel and steps into a productive life. He is not fatalistic about his future, but he is cautious.
“Sometimes I wish I could just have a 24-hour break from it,” he said, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. Kent tapped the package, then picked up a lighter from the table. He stopped short of lighting it and smiled.
“But I’m still here,” he said, “and I think that’s something.”