I’ve been trying to retrace my steps with anxiety; I wanted to get a clear insight into how/when it started. As I took my journey back to the past, I realized that the first time I suffered an anxiety attack I was twelve, while in boarding school. It was dark, in the middle of the night. Everyone was asleep, but somehow I couldn’t sleep. I can’t remember what I was thinking exactly, but I started breathing fast as my heartbeat rose. Slowly, as the hours passed, a dull ache developed in my chest. I felt like I had been running for hours.
I’m thinking whatever was going on in my mind that night was nothing pleasant; I know this because most of my thoughts while I was in boarding school revolved around me transferring to a day school near my home. I was never really comfortable staying away from home. I constantly worried about mom an awful lot; if she was doing okay, because everytime I went back home on holidays my small sister would tell me how she and dad had fought.
I was young at the time, but I remember feeling like our (my sisters and I) presence kind of eased the situation because we would stop them from getting into frequent fights. I always worried that maybe dad would hurt mom so bad…it was horrible.
That night I never slept; I tossed and turned in bed, clutching on to my chest. I didn’t know what was happening to me, and that also had me all worried. At day break I went to the sick bay. We didn’t have a dispensary in the school because there was a mission hospital adjacent to the school. The matron who was on duty that day gave me painkillers for my chest pain; they (matrons) only treated minor ailments: headaches, stomachaches sore throats, coughs that didn’t seem severe…
Normally if one was feeling unwell they would go for their morning, afternoon and evening dose of whatever medication (students weren’t allowed to be in possession of any medication). If whatever ailment didn’t subside after three days, they would ask one to visit the hospital on the fourth day.
The pain in my chest seemed to worsen with each day. On the fourth day I was referred to hospital. After our daily morning assembly that day, everyone who had been referred to the hospital, myself included, waited outside the headmistress’ office so she could give us permission to leave the school compound.
Eventually I found myself sitted in front of a doctor, telling him how I was feeling. “My heart is beating faster than usual, and my chest pains a lot.” I don’t even remember if I underwent any tests, but I was diagnosed with ‘heart skip’. I didn’t dwell much on the diagnosis; all my mind registered was that I was suffering from a heart condition.
Subsequently, when I went back to school, I pulled out of every activity which I considered strenuous; all games and the weekly manual cleaning didn’t survive the cut. I have always been a sporty person, so I felt a sense of great loss descend upon me when I sat out of a P.E lesson later that day, because I was ‘sick’.
After being diagnosed with ‘heart skip’, the remaining part of that term felt quite miserable. I couldn’t run around the school compound. I couldn’t take part in the games I loved. My life just felt mundane. I was living like ‘Jill’; all work and no play. Nonetheless, all those precautions I took didn’t help my ‘condition’ much. In any case, it seemed to worsen. When I finished my prescription the situation hadn’t improved; I went back for review.
That term I went to the hospital so many times, the headmistress-a distant relative-nicknamed me a hospital tourist; even so, she didn’t bar me from seeking treatment. After two reviews and more medication, nothing had changed; I even felt much worse.
When schools closed, mom came to pick me up. She was incensed, that no one had cared to tell her I was unwell. She couldn’t do much at the time though; there were no teachers around as they had all retreated to their quarters. Early the next morning she took me to our family doctor, who had my chest X-rayed. It didn’t reveal anything. Mom asked about my earlier diagnosis-heart skip- but the doctor said there was no such thing in the medical field. Apparently the pills I’d been taking were just vitamin pills.
The next term I went back to school, I resumed all the activities I had ditched the previous term. Life felt normal once more. The knowledge that I wasn’t really sick psyched me up and all the chest pain became history.