No Surprises

Trigger Warning: This blog includes discussion surrounding panic attacks and suicide. 

You read so many blogs about panic attacks, the experiences of them, how people describe them etc. You nod, understand the pain of what that person is going through and you wish you could take it away. Trying to explain it to someone that has never had one is the hardest thing. 

I have never experienced fear like it. For me, I start to fidget, I can't sit still as I need to distract myself from the thoughts. Those deafening thoughts of "you are going to have a panic attack, you won't be able to cope, you will look like a fool, people will laugh at you and this is going to feel like absolute hell." It does feel like hell, I am not going to sugarcoat it. After the fidgeting comes the cold sweats, then the pins and needles in your fingers and toes, then your heart rate starts to increase, it is deafening and provides a soundtrack to those aforementioned thoughts in your head. Then the fear, it rises like water in your body, the best way I can describe it is like the No Surprises video by Radiohead. It rises from the bottom and works it's way up and over your face. I then start to hyperventilate and game over, I am lost. I am in an open sea, I have nothing to grab onto, nothing to ground me and nothing to save me. I feel like I am going to die. 

Imagine trying to hide those emotions so people don't you are any different. Public transport is the worst for me, I still don't quite know why it is so bad in that sense, but I think it's because I am in a confined space with people and you are under more of a magnifying glass. I haven't been on a bus since November. Since that wobble. Since I felt it coming from nowhere. 

I spoke a therapist once and they told me to identify it as someone trying to hold me back, a being. Someone that I could think of physically and it would be easier to push away. For me, it's a him.

I was on the top deck and I could hear him whispering to me. He was starting his abuse in my head telling me that I was going to fail and I would have to stop the whole bus and get off. I managed to quieten him until the last stop. My hands were throbbing with pain from holding onto the railing on the bus so tightly. My knuckles were like milk curdled with blood and my veins like a road map of a remote part of Scotland. When I got off the adrenaline kicked in and I was shaking. I could see a couple of people looking at me, maybe concern, maybe thinking I was a weirdo. 

As the days went on I began to avoid the bus. The worst thing was when it happened in a taxi. Taxis have always been a safety mechanism for me because I can basically ask to stop at any time. Now though, my thought process has changed and I have started thinking "what if the driver thinks I am completely crazy". On trains I need to sit near a toilet, I need to have an escape route. I need somewhere where no one can see me. Now I walk into work and I walk home. Granted exercise is wonderful, but I am still avoiding. I am avoiding him. If it's late then I will work later so that I can get a taxi home when the roads are quiet and there's more chance of me asking to get out. 

I was at a music conference at the weekend and one of the rooms has rows of chairs, this is my worst nightmare. I always have to try and sit at the back and at the end of a row. I cannot sit in the middle of a row or far away from the door. I need to know I can get out. This will probably be the same case for everyone. We were late walking into a particular panel and there were no seats at the back and anything on the end of any row was taken. The panic set in and I just had to walk out. I felt so fucking ashamed of myself, I felt ashamed that I didn't have the strength to talk him down. He keeps winning. There was another panel later and the usher was directing everyone to the front. I explained that I couldn't sit at the front, there is that immediate confrontation and I had to end up lying and said I had to leave early so they let me sit at the back. How could I explain to this stranger, "oh hi there, I have panic attacks and I don't want to look like a tit if I have a total freak out in front of your really important music guests". 

I wish there was more in place for people that experience these things. I wish there was almost a safety zone or something that you could do. People play it down though and think it isn't a massive problem, but it's stopping me and a lot of people from enjoying our lives. What I would give to get on any mode of transport, to sit in the middle of a row of a theatre or cinema, to travel around the world, to see it on a whim. I don't know if I will ever get to that stage. To make a deal with the devil is something that you wish you could almost consider doing these things. 

I have considered taking my life away. Something that isn't easy to write and I apologise to my family and friends reading this. When you feel so incredibly restricted you start to wonder how it is possible to enjoy things going forward. You wonder what the point is. I am currently in a cafe every day in Punxsutawney and I have taken Bill Murray's place.

This is when the guilt sets in. The guilt when you look at people who live amongst the most tragic events, who have no food, no home. They are running from war-torn countries and more. That's when I feel horrific that I have considered taking my life away when these people fight so hard to live theirs. 

Music is the only real thing that has ever helped me. I get so lost and distracted by it that my love affair with it is the only real constant in my life. At packed gigs I feel fearless, I can stand in the crowd and I want to push to the front. I feel me again and he is a distant thought. 

I say this over and over and have written it many times. As humans, we were not made to confine ourselves to this life of bill-paying, rigid working routines and constant worrying. The art we experience and make, the fun we have with our friends and loved ones, the laughter, the tears, the social experiences are all part of something that makes us truly human. My anger at what governs us is something I cannot put into words. I worry about the next generation and indeed ours. I worry about our consumption of things and how we consume. I worry that we are not encouraging the young to experience art enough because of the cuts our government makes. I worry that mental health is a second thought and again we are not taking the respite from our daily struggles. I worry that we feel guilty for taking a day off work or taking an evening out of a busy schedule to have our own time and recharge. We put off plans to meet with our friends and family because of that extra bit of work we have to finish when the social experience and tangible aspect of being in human company is what helps our mental health. I am guilty of all of this and more. 

I guess that's why I am proud to be part of The Respite Room. I hope we can make a difference and I hope some of these thoughts make people realise they are not alone. And for me? I will get there. I don't think it's about me anymore though. It's about us. "He" will be always with me, but I now need to make friends with him and not fight him. I am at a point that I don't want sympathy, I just want to see progress and change. In a very worrying landscape and time in the world then you get to a point that you don't care about all the talking and just want to action. We will action, we will do great things and we will make a difference even if it's with one person. I couldn't ask for anything more. 

Halina Rifai

If you are feeling suicidal, there are people you can talk to who want to help:

  • speak to a friend, family member or someone you trust as they may be able to help you calm down and find some breathing space

  • call the Samaritans 24-hour support service on 116 123

  • go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department and tell the staff how you are feeling

  • contact NHS 111

  • make an urgent appointment to see your GP


Halina Rifai