I had my first panic attack when I was 18.
It was Thanksgiving weekend and I was the passenger in a car of girls driving back from my girlfriend’s family home in Northern California on the 5 Freeway, along with everyone else headed back to SoCal post holiday.
I was living in Southern California at the time, attending Biola University, on a PK (Pastor’s kid) scholarship. My own family celebrated our Canadian Thanksgiving a month earlier, so my friend had included me in her family plans.
The girl in the backseat who was carpooling with us – she was a childhood friend of my new friend and lived around the corner from her although she went to a different SoCal university, she picked up on who I was immediately.
The way up was fine, but on the way back, all the triggers of my childhood teasing came back to flood me, and that, along with the stopped traffic snaking its way at a snail pace down the 5 freeway with all the other holiday travelers returning on the popular route on a Sunday night after a two day holiday, threw my sensitivities into overwhelm.
"Oh, but not Jane, nooo Jane wouldn’t do that."
She was mocking me.
"Jane’s too perfect."
With a condescending air about her that brought it all back to me, there was no escaping her tone, her words. It triggered me right back to an earlier painful time for me in school. She had picked up on something to target me about, that, like others before her, would serve to make her feel better about herself.
My new friend, who was driving, tried in vain to get her to stop, but she only used that as an opportunity to double down even more. Attempts to change the subject only seemed to futher egg her on.
Finally, when nothing could be righted, and everything was sending me deeper into what I would later identify as the panicky state, I said I didn’t know what was happening to me, I was having trouble breathing and we needed to stop at the rest stop and get some help for me.
It was somewhere outside of Bakersfield that we met the first responders. As soon as they came on the scene, all my symptoms subsided.
Of course they did. Someone was finally here to ground me!
What I would come to understand was that this had everything to do with panic. For what is panic but a state of being characterized by sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety?
A panic attack is simply a sudden feeling of acute and disabling anxiety.
What I didn’t understand then, and wouldn’t until much later, but what I was definitely feeling at the time, was being out of control. And out of control means not able to control your emotions, your words, your actions, your whatever else that’s supposed to be in control of but feels like anything but actually being in control.
And if you were raised to be a good little girl, if you internalized a lists of rules that you had to follow to be loved, and never forgot the message that you had to be perfect or suffer the consequences, that means you have to be in control.
You can’t deviate from what you’re supposed to be. You can’t be anything but who you’ve been told you have to be.
And the consequences of not being able to control yourself is that they get mad, they stop loving you, they stop talking to you, and they punish you.
So when I talk about you having to be perfect, it’s not a conscious kind of deciding you have to be perfect I’m talking about here, it’s the subconscious kind, the programmed kind.
It's the kind you’re not even aware of, where you have to be perfect in order to be loved, with its deep roots in a childhood full of pleasing one or more of the primary caregivers – and actually, the world in general – in order to be loved.
That’s the kind of perfection I’m talking about that we take into our relationships as adults, unknowingly in most cases, until gradually a crack in our awareness and our programming appears and sends us on a journey of truth.
No one is perfect.
No one can ever be perfect. And no one would ever really want to be perfect in the first place.
Perfect is pressure. Perfect is pretending. Perfect is maintaining a perception at all costs – even at the cost of yourself.
If you’re having panic attacks, the first place to look is whether or not there’s an image you’re trying to maintain. Especially, subconsciously without you even realizing it until you dig into it like this.
When that image is everything to our identity, when it’s been programmed into us so that we can never be anything but what we’re supposed to be because to be otherwise – to be human – would leave us feeling ashamed, we’re not supposed to know better than someone else.
We’re not supposed to know ourselves. And we’re not supposed to be able to stand up tall, hold our heads up high and walk in our own truth.
But look what happens when you own you are.
Watch what changes in you and in everything around you when you acknowledge your "humanness", when you relinquish your role of having to maintain an image someone gave you, when you can simply be yourself – your authentic, imperfect, raw, feeling, seeing self instead.
I still deal with those feelings of panic sometimes even now, when I’m triggered to cater to what someone else tells me I “should” be instead of remembering who I am.
I’m still prone to feeling shame, to doing everything I can to keep from feeling that way, until I remember that the only way through is to own who I am, to own where I’ve been, to own what I’m doing now.
When living up to someone else’s expectations of you has long been a part of your psyche, it’s so important to call it out when it’s happening, to remind yourself that you’re stronger than this, and to remember that you don’t answer to any “them”, you only answer to you.
You’re not alone, Beautiful.
Whenever the panic sets in, whenever you’re called to go back to who you’re supposed to be instead of who you actually are, I’m right there with you walking that same path.
It’s how we get through.
I'd love to hear from you if this resonated with you. Share your story in the comments below. Have you been here before, too?