It is around about midnight and my wife has already retired for the night. I check that all the doors and windows are secure and I look in on the children. They are all sleeping. peacefully. I've had a good but busy day so I'm tired. Happy tired. Lowering myself into my nice, soft, warm bed is a wonderful feeling. I turn off the bedside lamp and close my eyes. Mmmm. It's so peaceful; my wife's rhythmic breathing is the only sound.
Uh? What's going on?
The whole world has started to spin and lurch. I open my eyes. The ceiling is rocking and turning. It's like being on a roller coaster, but it's out of control. I start to feel nauseous. Very nauseous. I can't stay in the bed. I get up and discover that I can't stand! I stagger out of the bedroom and down the stairs, holding on to the handrail for dear life. The exertion makes me pant. I soon discover that sitting is no better than lying, which is no better than trying to stand (except that I don't fall anywhere).
I am scared.
My heart is beating at a seriously high rate. It seems intent in exiting its chest cavity. I know that something serious is wrong. Is this the end? Am I dying?
What should I do? I know - ring the emergency department. Should I ask for an ambulance? No, perhaps this feeling will go away and then I'll look stupid. Best to speak to a doctor. Where's the phone book? Here it is. Will I pass out before I get through on the phone? No, they're answering now.
"Can I speak to a doctor please, I feel really unwell."
I have to answer a few questions first. Please hurry up - I'm getting worse. Ah, the doctor's speaking to me now. I tell him what has happened and how I feel now. I try to be calm and not exaggerate how I feel, but I think that there is a palpable desperation in my voice and my breathing is erratic.
"I'm not sure what's wrong," says the doctor, but you're obviously not fit enough to get here under your own steam. I'm sending out an ambulance right away. It'll be with you in a couple of minutes."
I shout up the stairs to wake up my wife. She hears and runs down the stairs, anxious and worried. She insists that she will accompany me to the hospital. What about the children? They can't stay here on their own. Ok, she'll get the lady next door to look after them. Off she goes to disturb our next door neighbour's sleep. She's back in less than a minute; babysitting has been taken care of. Where's that bloody ambulance? Here in a couple of minutes? It seems like a couple of hours. Will it get here before I die?
I notice a blue flashing light. It must be the ambulance. There's a knock at the door and my wife is already there, letting the paramedics in. She's dressed - when did she do that? The paramedics insist that I lie on a stretcher and they carry me out to the ambulance. We're off and one of the paramedics is checking my vital signs. He smiles at me."
You're not in any obvious danger." he says, "but we'll have to have your properly checked out."
I feel relieved. Then I begin to feel better. The spinning diminishes and stops. My heart rate reduces and my breathing regularises. I start to feel like a fake. I shouldn't be lying down, I think, but I don't get up. We arrive at the hospital my dizzy feeling is returning, along with all the other problems. The paramedics are rushing me into the hospital, rushing me through the emergency department and they are lifting me onto a bed in a private ward. I am apprehensive. What will they find? A doctor enters the ward, greets me and begins his examination.
An hour has passed and I am back in the private ward. I have been wheeled around various departments inside the hospital, had many tests carried out on me including an ECG. The dizzy feeling has been coming and going, but hasn't been as intense as it was when I was at home. I'm not dizzy at all now, but I'm worried about the ECG results. I was dizzy at that time and my heart was pounding. Here's the doctor. He perches on the edge of the bed."
Good news", he says. "There's nothing seriously wrong with you."
"Nothing wrong?" I ask, incredulously. "What about my dizziness and nausea and heart palpitations and everything?"
"I didn't say there's nothing wrong with you," he replies. "Just nothing seriously wrong with you. All your symptoms point to an inner ear infection. That's what is causing your dizziness and the dizziness is causing you to feel nauseous."
"But what about my heart? It's never raced like that before? And my breathing...?"
"That was just you having a panic attack," he tells me. "Not unusual in the circumstances. I'm going to put you on antibiotics for 5 days, and that should clear it all up." He explains to me how an inner ear infection can occur and how it causes dizziness. The doctor leaves and I am free to go home.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I'll never forget that panic attack. It happened in 1988 and it was the first. I've had a few more since then, during brief flirtations with health anxiety. Panic attacks are extremely unpleasant, but I'm glad that I have experienced them. They have helped me to empathise with panic/anxiety disorder sufferers. Including, of course, my dear wife.