Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights (Part I)

One of the most trying periods of my life occurred during my second year of law school.  For an entire semester, I suffered mid-night panic attacks on a regular basis.  The experience was brutal.

My first year, I was placed in a “section” and attended all the same classes with all the same people.  But in the second year that structure was removed, and we were free to select courses and schedules on our own.  This meant that each course would now be with a more or less random group of other students.

Compounding my unfamiliarity with the people in my classes was the fact that I had spent a year in business school, so I knew none of the people who were now second year law students. The people I began studying with had moved on to their third year.

I was taking more units of courses than ever before, and I had scheduled all of my classes over a three-day period (the purpose of this was efficiency.  I wanted to commute to campus as few times a week as possible. While efficiency was the goal, I suppose that my initial plan backfired on account of the extended period of exhaustion I experienced the entirety of the semester).  Thus, I had more classes, on fewer days, and with complete strangers.

I recall all the other students looking at me quizzically each time I entered a class wondering, surely, “who the eff is this dude?!?” In turn, I was like, “I was here before any of you kids. A little respect is in order.” But they had no clue.

Regardless, I was completely uncomfortable.  The prior year of business school had been a cake-walk.  I smoked weed often (“often” being a euphemism for near-daily), and was carefree and happy.  I was dating a girl I loved, and life hadn’t been better.

The summer before returning to law school, her and I broke up. The timing was off. She was ready to set sail on a marital commitment, and I wasn’t sure I was yet equipped to hold down the fort for myself, individually, let alone the two of us and a future family-to-be.

Come to think of it, it was an inopportune time for the parting of ways for me personally. Inopportune doesn’t do the timing justice. It was somewhat of a perfect storm. I was trying to buckle down for what I knew would be a challenging return to law, the tide of anxiety steadily mounting as I again approached the start of classes. I was weaning myself, unsuccessfully, off of an affinity for weed which had now certainly become an outright addiction. And I was coping even more incompetently with the loss of a relationship that only later would I realize I would never truly get over. One of those.

As is the case when something happens to you, unexpectedly, which has never happened before, I was caught off guard the first time – an unsuspecting victim of a sucker-punch from a lunatic roaming the streets in the middle of the night.

Here’s how I recall it going down:

In my second week of classes, I went to sleep uneasy with the amount of material I would be covering in the next-day’s classes. I had an initial impression of the classes, and classmates, I’d be spending the next several months with. Now my anticipated anxieties had faces, and names, and context in the form of the classrooms and professors where they’d play out. This feeling alone wasn’t unusual and did not give me pause. But this time the severity of the anxiety reached new heights.

It was the shudder of my nerves that first awoke me, followed by the inconsolable escalation of mental processes, from a deep slumber to an immediate fight-or-flight response. Like the gasp of air upon sudden consciousness, arising from the throes of a nightmare. A sudden shift of the San Andreas faultline, except without the earthquake.

The clock said 2:15 A.M. I had been asleep just 3 and-a-half hours. But I was far from that state now. I was drenched in a cold sweat, my sheets soaked through. They were wet to the touch, and although it was not hot out, my body was seemingly on fire.

My thoughts raced through different material I had read earlier in the week, preparing for classes I had the next day, inundating me with anxieties and fears. Would I be called on in Ethics class? How much uncomfortability did the day hold in store? And then, to other subjects: Should I not have given up on my relationship?

It was a full-fledged assault: My own mind attacking itself under the cloak of night when the rest of my being was most vulnerable. With my body and soul seeking the silent refuge of sleep, my brain had arranged an ambush.

3:45 A.M.:      Coming to grips with this twist of events, I lay open-eyed staring at the ceiling, wide-awake and yearning not-to-be. At this point, I realized that for the first time I had experienced a phenomenon a psychologist had alluded to years prior when she prophesized, “one of the dangers of anxiety disorders is their evolution into panic attacks.”

Here I was, far from that point in time the words were first uttered, experiencing my first panic attack. As it came to pass, I would need to learn to get used to them.

Next Up: “Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights (Part II: A Poem)”

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