A Panic Attack In The Fast Lane

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I was in my early 40s when I found out I am an introvert, knowledge I really could have used in the four previous decades. Shortly after that I was flattened by a major panic disorder -- most unwelcome news for a busy musician. I could write a book about the process of untangling the two issues. For a long time things were confusing and frustrating -- just as I felt empowered by my new acceptance of self I faced one of the most destabilizing forces imaginable. I constantly worked through what caused me to cower from society, obligations, and emotional stress -- my private nature or what I soon labeled my "panic germs"? Many times it wasn't clear, but a few times there was no question.

We flew to Alabama a few years ago to check off one of the proverbial bucket list items -- driving a NASCAR vehicle. This was a ridiculous thing to do, really -- neither of us had any experience and it was expensive. Still, we talked about it endlessly, planned, and soon found ourselves looking up at the giant flags along the track that hot sunny day.

It was really hot. I can't stand the heat. I can't take the heat either -- I wilt like an old flower. Still, we were excited and ready to take on the challenge. We signed in, got our track badges, and sat through orientation sessions. Things were going swimmingly.

And then the panic germs reared their ugly head.

It feels like a boiling, roiling geyser in my chest. When I first experienced it I had upwards of two to three hundred panic attacks a day. It was exhausting and frightening. I couldn't live like that, so I started on a course of meds, which helped. Still, certain situations brought out the worst and I hadn't yet learned how to power through them.

I rocketed into the worst panic attack of my life that day. I didn't understand it -- I wasn't afraid of driving the car, although I had a healthy respect for the power of the vehicle and what could possibly go wrong. The heat exacerbated things to the point where I was close to passing out. We were all given numbers to show when we would drive, and, of course, we were in the last group -- more time to wait and suffer.

After going through the necessary training sessions people were free to wander around, look at the track, and listen to the cars zooming by as other drivers did their laps. We had paid for 10 laps, which initially didn't seem like enough time, but I soon realized I would be lucky to do one lap. I would be lucky to even get in the car. I could have put my fist through a wall -- the frustration was overwhelming.

I got drinks of water and soda, paced endlessly, and thought happy thoughts. I cried a little. I looked at my badge, listened to the roar of the cars, and tried to enjoy the sights of Talladega. I slid downhill faster and faster. I was talking and texting with family members, desperately needing encouragement and support. It helped, but the panic germs were overpowering. Everything was a struggle -- I could barely speak and my legs wobbled like jelly.

When it was our group's turn to enter the final area before driving I was angry at the amount of money we had spent that would go to waste. I went through the motions, getting my helmet and full racing suit, like a zombie, continually telling my husband I couldn't do it. The sweat poured down my face and back -- from the heat? mind-numbing panic? It didn't matter, at that point. We were so close to the track we felt a breeze as cars rumbled by. Everyone was wound up tight -- nerves exhibited themselves as hilarity, boasts, and friendly challenges. I sat silently, feeling shame and embarrassment. I was shaking like a leaf and had no hope of controlling what was happening to me. I wanted to the drive the car so badly, but there was no possible way I could.

I told myself I would just get in the car, see what it was like, then get out. Not great, but ... something. They called my number and I nearly fainted -- I was frighteningly lightheaded. I climbed over a short fence and was greeted by the man who would ride with me. I had to climb in the small window -- a less than lovely sight, and was then cinched in tight with the five-point harness. My head swam and terror clouded my vision. I was done and I knew it, so I indicated to my companion that I truly could not do it. The helmets muffled our speech and he had heard this song and dance before, so he patted my knee reassuringly, telling me it would be fine. No, it wasn't -- other people thought they couldn't and were nervous, but I was going to die, or something.

I shook so hard it was painful. I told myself I would just press the accelerator and see what it felt like -- I wouldn't even go one lap, but would stay in the pull-out lane. The sweat stung my eyes and tears rolled down my cheeks. At least the huge helmet hid those. They gave me the Go signal and I gingerly pressed down the pedal, inching forward in jerks. Embarrassing. I pushed harder and we were off. There was no way I could keep going, so I committed to just one lap and would then pull over -- I hurt, physically, from the trauma of the panic.

I ended up doing the 10 laps, though they seemed interminable. It was literally a minute-by-minute commitment to get through it. My rider continually pointed upwards, indicating I was doing well and could go faster, but I was lucky to be vertical and conscious. I topped out at 150 m.p.h. -- seriously disappointing to someone who loves speed. It took days to recover from it all.

I made a collage from the pictures of that day, decorated it with racing stripes and flames, and hung our badges from each corner. I look at it sometimes -- I was smiling hugely in the photos after I was done, but it belies the suffering I endured. I learned something that day, though -- something life-changing. I was far more powerful than I had given myself credit for. Was I able to calm the panic germs? No, not at all. But did I persist when I knew for a certainty I couldn't do it? I did, and that has made all the difference.

I now know I won't die from the panic germs, and they don't control my life any more. They still roil around sometimes, an unpleasant reminder that I will always struggle with this on some level. But, they didn't win that day and they will never win again. They'll cause misery sometimes, but I can make it through. When I need to bolster my inner strength I have a new mantra that reminds me of that fearfully hot, chaotic, frightening, energizing, noisy day.

I drove the car.

During the worst panic attack of my life, and in conditions making it worse by the minute ... I drove the car. I am powerful. I won.

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