Traumatic Childhood? Check. Panic Attacks as a Result? Oh Yes.
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Traumatic Childhood? Check. Panic Attacks as a Result? Oh Yes.


This post was originally published on March 25, 2015.

I could’ve ironed my clothes for work the night before. I could’ve easily, very easily, set up the ironing board in the kitchen after dinner. I could’ve pulled the iron out of the closet, filled it with water from the tap, plugged it in and waited for the silver slab of metal to heat up while I worked on the dishes. Had I taken my time the night before to iron my work shirt and pants, I would’ve been able to confirm that I unplugged the iron and gave it the proper amount of time it needed to cool before I put it back on the shelf in the hallway closet. But I didn’t.

Instead I waited until I woke up the next morning for work so late that I barely had time to brush my teeth and shower. I half ironed my shirt and pants, pulled and buttoned them on, grabbed my wallet and a raspberry yogurt from the fridge and rushed out the door. As I rolled to the subway stop at 86th and 4th avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn my mind sped through my mental check list: Do I have my keys? Yes. Did I lock my door? Yes. Metrocard? Yes. Did I turn off and unplug the iron? Suddenly my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember if I turned it off. I got to the entrance of the subway and stopped. I tried to retrace the steps I took before I left my apartment 15 minutes before. But every time I tried to see myself unplugging the iron, I couldn’t and that’s when I started to panic.

As I walked through the turnstile and onto the subway platform, with at least 100 other people dressed in suits and downing Dunkin Donuts lattes, I contemplated going back to my apartment to double check the iron situation. But that would be crazy, right, I thought. I was already going to be a half hour late to work and going back would only delay me more. And how would I explain my lateness to my boss without sounding like a fucking nutcase? But then how could I live with myself if my apartment building burnt down all because I left my stupid iron on? I would be a fool not to go back and check, right?

Off to my left was a smart looking woman who, like me, was somewhere in her mid-20s. Her perfectly manicured hands were spread across the slick and glossy cover of a Glamour magazine. She looked calm, her clothes were pristine and pressed, her hair lay coiled in soft ringlets on the caps of her shoulders. I wanted to walk over to her and ask her what I should do. I wanted her to reassure me that my iron was unplugged and that there wasn’t a parade of fire trucks camped outside the front of my building as we waited for the train. I wanted her to reassure me that my cat was safe and sleeping in her usual sun spot in the living room and not terrified and jammed up in a corner trying desperately to escape the smoke growing rapidly from the fire.

The more I thought, the faster my mind cranked out the most absurd thoughts. Quick zaps of heat shot up through my body causing every pore to leak. Heavy drops of sweat poured down my back, between my legs and oozed from my hairline. My thoughts gained momentum as if they were being shot out from the barrel of an Uzi submachine gun. In a matter of minutes, I went from thinking that maybe I left the iron plugged in to knowing without a doubt that I did. As the R train pulled into the station, I knew what I had to do. I bolted for the steps leading back up to the street and hustled back to my apartment.

When I arrived at my apartment some 15 minutes later, I wasn’t relieved to see my building still standing. And I didn’t care that there wasn’t a fire truck in sight. All I wanted to know was whether or not I unplugged the damn iron.

I nearly flew over the three flights of steps that lead up to my door. I fumbled for a few seconds with my keys and finally swung the door open. I bolted into the kitchen where sitting on top of the ironing board with its plug completely disconnected from the wall, laying bent and limp on the kitchen floor was the iron.

If it had been the first time that my anxiety had cock blocked my ability to think clearly and function in my every day life, I probably would’ve blamed my reaction on not getting enough sleep the night before or not having enough coffee or even PMS. But it wasn’t the first time.

There was the time before the iron episode, when I was an hour late to work because I thought I’d left the oven on. And then there was another time where I ran out of the subway crying because I was sure that someone had climbed up the back of my building, spider man style, broke into my apartment and killed my cat. The best panic attack I’ve ever had, though, was when I was walking to work down Broadway in Manhattan and became so overwhelmed with panic and fear that I wound up in front of an ice cream truck on 54th Street and proceeded to buy and stuff several ice cream sandwiches and snow cones in my mouth in a desperate attempt to try to calm myself down.

Anxiety is in my DNA. It runs in my family along side the predisposition for addiction, dysfunction, depression and a whole bunch of other mental disorders that you’d find highlighted in every therapists’ DSM manuals. But the majority of my anxiety today doesn’t come from some unfortunate quirk in my genetics but from my chaotic and violent childhood.

I remember sitting on my knees at the top of the stairs in my mother’s house and watching as my stepfather, drunk and sloppy, beat the blood out my mother. Often, when I tried to step in and shield her from my stepfather’s blows, she got raving mad and forced me upstairs to my room. “You better close your fuckin door,” she’d say as my stepfather slammed her body against the nearest wall.

Without any safe alternatives, I’d obey my mom and race, frazzled and shaken, up to my room. But instead of locking myself in, I’d sit at the top of the stairs and watch the horror that unfolded below through the banister. As my stepfather became more aggressive, I get more panicked. I’d try several times to run downstairs to protect Mom but as soon as she’d see me she’d yell from her bloodied mouth, “You little bitch. I’ll beat the shit out of you. Get upstairs now!”

So I’d obey and run back to the second floor. Without anywhere to direct my anxiety, I’d rip out my hair. Not just a strand or two but entire chunks of hair, directly from my scalp. If that didn’t soothe my anxiety, then I’d switch to smacking myself upside the head and across my mouth. I’d wake up the next morning sore and swollen faced. My parents would wake up sick and hung over from the beer they drank the night before and I’d be hung over and mentally fried from an anxiety overload.

Thanks to my childhood, I’ve learned to expect the worse outcome in just about every situation because when I was growing up, the worst always happened. But now instead of having panic attacks over whether or not my drunk stepfather is going to kill my mother, I panic about fires and the thought of someone killing my cat or the idea of my husband being blown up by a terrorist bomb on his commute to work. In my mind, I make these scenarios real and when I’m in panic mode, I’m driven by the same fear that I felt as a seven-year-old kid crouched on my toes at the top of the stairs, ripping my hair out of my head.

Although my progress has been slow, I’ve figured out a few tricks to help manage my anxiety. Now when I unplug my iron at home, I say out loud to myself, “I’m unplugging the iron.” I put that on repeat until the phrase is literally branded into my brain. That way, hours later when I become obsessed with the idea that my apartment is melting into a pile of ash, I can confirm that I did indeed unplug the iron. I also rely quite heavily on the gym to quell my anxiety. I’ve found that working up a healthy sweat forces me to get out of my head and away from the obsessive spiral of thoughts that inevitably lead me to panic.

But still there are those times when no matter how many burpees I do at the gym, I can’t shake the anxiety. And when this happens I just surrender. I gently remind myself to keep shit simple. I remind myself that feelings aren’t facts. I remind myself that everything in life is temporary and that the panic will pass. And sometimes I’ll even troll You Tube looking for that grainy Virginia Slims commercial from the 1960’s and let its cheesy jingle soak deep into my brain and serve as a quirky reminder that yes, “I’ve come a long way baby to get where I’ve got to today.”

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About Author

Dawn Clancy is the creator of Growing Up Chaotic, a blog and radio program for those determined to survive and thrive despite growing up in toxicity. Her goal is to create a community hell bent on breaking, cracking and demolishing the cycle of dysfunction.