I had my first panic attack when I was 18. It happened on a road-trip the summer after my senior year of high school. My boyfriend was behind the wheel, driving toward Washington, D.C., and suddenly my heart did a funny flip-flop thing.
I unbuckled my seat belt, flailing about for something to hold onto, and in between gasps, instructed my boyfriend to find an emergency room. For several months I’d been experiencing moments of breathlessness and lengthy episodes of heart pounding, but this time it felt different. As we hurtled toward the nearest exit, my heart took dramatic pauses, did jack-knives inside my chest and then cascaded into what felt like triple-beats. I was certain I was about to die.
Twenty minutes later I was hooked up to an EKG in a curtained-off portion of a hospital emergency room in Virginia. Beside me, my worried boyfriend murmured into the phone to my father as we watched, with rapt attention, my now-normal heartbeat creating perfect dips and arrows on the long, thin printout unspooling from the machine. Afterward, I sat on the exam table and answered the doctor’s questions.
Do you smoke? Yes.
Do you drink? Not really.
Do you do any drugs? No.
Take any medications? No.
Any history of heart problems? No.
Do you exercise? Fairly regular jogger.
The list went on and on. So far everything was pointing toward me being perfectly healthy, but I was determined to leave with an explanation. Instead, the doctor simply told me that I was among the one out of 10 people who experience heart palpitations. (And that I should quit smoking.)
As we drove away from the hospital, I stared out the window at the warm summer landscape, thinking about all the questions he didn’t ask.
Are you thinking of breaking up with your boyfriend? Yes.
Are you about to leave everything you’ve ever known behind and go off to college two thousand miles away? Yes.
Is your mother dying of cancer? Yes.