What triggered my panic attacks and how I overcame them

My dad was 69 when he died on February 10th, 2013 at 8:33 am. I had always been so afraid of the moment that he’d get sick. I knew it was inevitable with his addiction to smoking. But when he got bladder cancer, the fear turned into something else — denial.  I couldn’t let myself believe that he wouldn’t get better, so I hoped for the best while simultaneously ignoring the possibility of failure from treatment. 

He had to get a urostomy bag and the cancer went into remission. But the cancer soon came back and spread to his stomach. Because of the damage the cancer caused, he was unable to go to the bathroom, nor could he eat. The doctors said he’d have about six months and gave us bags of fluid and medication to feed him intravenously. He was sent home on hospice and his sister Audrey drove up to stay and help take care of him. 

That’s when my panic attacks began. It was my senior year of art school, my dad was dying, and I wasn’t dealing with any of it very well.  So I started having severe anxiety and panic attacks. His sickness happened over a span of two years. Having to watch him suffer made me feel helpless. When he decided that he didn’t want the fluids anymore, he only lived for another week or so.

The day it happened, I had been out drinking the night before for my friend’s birthday. I don’t drink often, but that night I had a little extra. I found the courage to talk to people about what I was going through and how I felt. When my mom woke me up the next morning to tell me he had died, I felt sick—both from drinking and quite, honestly, sheer devastation. My family joked that he would’ve wanted it this way, since it was so ironic. As someone who never drinks, it was almost funny that I had a hangover the morning my father died. I was too afraid to go near him, but I knew I had go say goodbye. When I got closer to him, shock took over me because of how fast I had approached without thinking of the fact that I’d be facing reality.   

Six months after he died, I started coming to terms with his death and also the fact that I wouldn’t be going back to school, since I had already graduated. I started having panic attacks again, fearing death constantly. It wasn’t until later that I realized that it was because of my skepticism of the after life. Specifically, heaven. I had been pretending before, or maybe hoping. Truthfully, I think that I was probably agnostic, without ever actually thinking about it. Facing mortality was extremely difficult, especially because I felt like I couldn’t discuss it with anyone in my family, since I felt that they would have probably gotten angry with me, thinking I was stupid. I tried to fake it, and I wish I could have believed it. But I couldn’t pretend, and I couldn’t force myself to believe in something I didn’t really believe in. 

I was also having anxiety because I didn’t have a job yet and my mom shamed me every day for that very reason. It only caused more anxiety, until I started looking for art related jobs every night to calm myself down. I finally broke down and told her that I was constantly afraid of death and always thinking about it.  You never realize how often death is talked about on a daily basis until it starts to scare you and trigger anxiety. 

So I started seeing a therapist. Looking back now, I think that it definitely helped, even though at the time I was worried that the anxiety and panic attacks would never stop.  But I even held back my feelings about death and heaven from her, because I knew she was religious. She did ask me if my dad believed in heaven, and I told her, “I have no idea.  He always said, ‘There are three things you never talk about with people: politics, sports, and religion.’”  I’m like him in that way—I hate when people argue about their beliefs and act hateful towards people that disagree with them. 

Having anxiety about dying also brought fear of getting sick.  But instead of realizing I felt this way because of my dad’s death, my family members constantly made fun of me, calling me a “hypochondriac.” This made it more frustrating because I really was scared every time I had a weird ailment or cold. In the winter, I would grow anxious when I’d be in the car with someone and the roads would be extremely ice or snowy. My therapist said that this was a more rational and normal reason to have anxiety/panic about death. So there was some progress. 

This will be the second August where I won’t be going back to school, and my dad will be missing another birthday. Although I’ve gotten through a lot of my anxiety about death on my own and with therapy, I felt that I had to keep most of it secret because I was so scared of being judged. 

There are still moments throughout the day when I think about it, but the difference now is that (most of the time) I don’t have panic attacks and anxiety.  I’m still trying to process the fact that he isn’t alive anymore. I still think about the good and bad memories we’ve had with him. I still wish that I could call him and I still wish that I could believe that he’s in heaven. But now I also realize that all that matters is the memories I have and objects and pictures to help me remember that he was the one who played a huge part in forming the person I am today. He was my father whom I still love and always will love.

Kristy Flemming is an illustrator and face painter.  She enjoys tea, Tim Burton movies, and Harry Potter.  You can check out her art at kristyfleming.com and follow her on Twitter @OpalPeridot.

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