Lessons on coping with a panic attack, from my teen daughter

Carin Clevidence

THE WASHINGTON POST – At the hospital, I surrender my earrings and my underwire bra. The MRI machine gleams like something in a sci-fi movie set. You can do this, I tell myself, smiling for my 19-year-old daughter’s sake as I lie down on the Space Age trundle bed.

I’ve been having attacks of debilitating vertigo. My doctor suspects Meniere’s disease but wants to rule out tumors in my brain. Although I’m claustrophobic, my fear of brain tumors trumps my fear of small, enclosed spaces.

The procedure will last about an hour, the technician explains. Relax, I say to myself as she arranges my legs and gives me a cloth to cover my face. It’s mind over matter. Plus, the clonazepam’s kicking in. Closing my eyes, I picture a beach in Mexico.

There’s a whirring sound, then a clank. Feeling the bed shift, I reach reflexively for my daughter’s hand. Instead, my fingers meet a smooth wall, sealing me in.

Nearly 30 years ago, in an underground city in Anatolia, Turkey, I felt a sudden panicked awareness of the rock above me.

One minute I was obliviously ducking through a maze of narrow tunnels; a minute later, the confinement was unbearable. I shot to the surface and have avoided underground cities ever since.

My terror in the MRI machine is a hundred times stronger, a volcano of blind panic. I lasted, at most, half a minute.

The technician could not be nicer. As I sputter apologies, she assures me she’s seen this before. “Would you like a glass of water?” she asks. “Take a moment. Then we’ll try again.”

I smother an incredulous laugh: A glass of water? Against the Terror Volcano? I will fight the nice technician mano a mano before I’ll get back inside her Death Cylinder.

I cry while my daughter drives us home, frustrated and ashamed and now convinced I’m going to die of an untreated brain tumor.

She settles me on the couch under a blanket and finds a television show to watch. “Don’t worry, Mom,” she says, handing me a piece of chocolate. “You can totally do this. I’ll help.”

My daughter knows about irrational fear. At 17, she was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder. I found her a therapist, a prescribing psychiatrist and a cognitive behavioural specialist.

At home I read Sherlock Holmes stories out loud while she ate potato chips with her head in my lap, soothed by junk food and Conan Doyle’s diction.

“Focus on your breathing,” I used to tell her, about as helpful during a panic attack, I now realise, as a glass of water. I wonder how she refrained from punching me, and I marvel at her self-control.

I’ll never fully know how my daughter experiences anxiety. But my terror in the MRI machine gives me a glimpse.

The next morning, she explains the concept of exposure therapy. I don’t like where this is going. But the clonazepam I’d put my faith in hadn’t grazed the surface of my fear, and now I need to reschedule my appointment.

While I search MRI hacks for claustrophobics online, my daughter improvises a substitute in the living room. She finds a wheeled dolly for moving potted plants in the mud room. The space behind the couch forms a narrow, enclosed tunnel. Covering the dolly with a pillow, she makes a tada gesture with her hands.

Can I really be scared of something this ridiculous? I think, my haze of despair shifting a little. Gamely I lie down on it. Nothing’s going to hurt me, I tell myself.

My daughter wheels me behind the couch. Panic explodes like fireworks. It is, if anything, more intense, every cell in my body now on a hair trigger. Sweating and shaking, I claw my way out from behind the couch. “That was good,” she says encouragingly. “Now let’s try it with a cloth on your face.”

“No, it’s not realistic.” I say, desperately stalling. “The machine at the hospital made noises.”

Undeterred and tech-savvy, she pulls out her phone.

A moment later it’s emitting genuine MRI clanking and banging sounds. She places the phone on my chest.

“Ready?” my daughter asks.

I lower myself onto the wooden dolly. I close my eyes. “I’m ready.”

A month from now, I will make it through a real MRI exam, lying still for a full 40 minutes.

But it won’t be because I’ve addressed my claustrophobia: I’ll be drugged to the gills. The test will show an absence of tumours. I’ll go back to avoiding underground cities, and the dark space behind pieces of furniture.

But neither of us knows that yet. As my daughter rolls me behind the couch, the space bears down, threatening to suffocate and crush me. On my chest, the phone whirs and clanks. You can do this, I repeat. You can, you can, you can. Tears stream down my face. I endure for what feels like eternity.

When I can’t take another second, I thrust myself back into the living room, gasping for breath, into the openness and light.

My daughter throws her arms around me. “Mom, you did great!” She’s beaming. “That was almost four minutes. You should be so proud.”

And I am proud. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder. Of her strength and her warmth. Of her hard-won empathy. And the bravery I’m just beginning to appreciate.