Although its fair to say I’ve always been an anxious person I only began suffering with panic attacks about five years a go.
Around this time I had just started a new job, looking after people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviours, at the time I had no idea how severe these behaviours were or how I was likely to respond to them. For the first two weeks I was away from the home taking part in mandatory training days. Ninety-five percent of which involved learning how to defend yourself and how to safely restrain people who were trying to cause you harm. By the end of the fortnight my body was already battered and bruised, just from the staff role-play and I was feeling decidedly uneasy about my first shift. I lasted less than two more weeks and during this time I had some truly horrendous shifts, which have stuck, in my mind.
On my very first day I was locked in the kitchen by the staff for my own protection! Whilst in there what seemed like world war three was breaking out in the rest of the home. People were shouting and screaming, furniture and chairs were being thrown around. At one point I heard a big crash, which turned out to be the television smashing against the wall. I remember thinking what the hell am I doing here.
Later that day one of the residents was kind enough to spit in my face and tell me he wished I were dead. This was totally new for me, I’d worked in care for a long time and never had anyone take such an instant dislike to me.
One thing that was repeated several times in training was that if your ever alone in a room with a resident, always make sure you position yourself closest to the exit. Towards the end of the first week I made the cardinal mistake of forgetting this advice. In a desperate attempt to build some report with one of the residents, I went to look at his video collection at the far end of his bedroom. At the time I was just really pleased that I’d finally found a way to relate to him but in doing this I stupidly put myself in a vulnerable position. Before I could react he had his arm across my chest and was slamming me into his bookshelf, it took two members of staff to prize him off me. I came out of it quite lucky, with just a small graze to my back but as you can imagine, such a violent incident did shake me up. As bad as it felt I recognised that it was my own fault though and I could have avoided it happening. This made it easier for me to accept, I would just have to be more careful in the future.
The final incident upset me more than anything had so far and turned out to be the final straw. Even though all the residents were in the home due to their challenging behaviour, the youngest called Damien really stood out to me. He was autistic and had more severe learning disabilities than the other residents. He lived in his own little fantasy world where his favourite cartoon characters were his best friends. He was much like the people I had previously cared for. We immediately hit it off and he responded really well to me. I felt sorry for him though, he appeared very young and vulnerable in this environment. That is why I found the incident most unsettling. It all started when somebody broke the glass that sets the fire alarm off, which apparently was a regular occurrence. At the time I was sat in the dining room with Damien, having helped him to make himself a sandwich. On hearing the alarm he became extremely agitated. Before I knew it he had thrown and smashed his plate against the wall and was storming out of the room. I hurried after him but didn’t catch him in time, as he went into the lounge and slapped one of the girls hard across the face. She was just sat on a couch minding her own business at the time and I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing, it was like someone had flipped a switch in his head.
Inevitably the situation escalated as the other residents began to lose their temper. The boss had me take Damien to his room and lock the door for our own safety. But the truth is I didn’t feel safe, this young man who I had earlier felt sorry for, was not that innocent after all. During the whole event I felt totally powerless and I’m ashamed to say I completely froze. I handed my notice in at the end of the shift and didn’t return.
Shortly after this I got another job in care, working in a day centre, very similar to what I’d done before, I even knew some of the service users. This should have been a comfortable job for me but in the end I didn’t even last the morning. All of a sudden I couldn’t be a carer anymore. I had lost all my trust in people, everyone seemed like a potential threat to me and I was convinced I was going to get attacked. The fact that there was a door code for the safety of the members was also a big issue. Suddenly I was back to being locked in again, trapped. I felt like the walls were coming in on me and suddenly there were far too many people for such a small space. My chest began to tighten and I couldn’t breath. It was very strange, I could see staff members were talking to me but I wasn’t able to hear a word they were saying. By now my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest and I was gasping for air. All that was important to me was that I got out, I didn’t care how ridiculous I looked, I was just desperate to escape. I frantically tried to open the door but I hadn’t been given the code yet. I’ve never felt so small in all my life; I’ve never felt so afraid, I was certain I was going to die. This was the first time I had a panic attack.
Gradually over the last five years my anxiety levels have worsened, the attacks have become more frequent and much more random. Taking place in shops and supermarkets, on public transport and in many other social situations.
Even in my home I would panic about having to answer the telephone, not knowing who was on the other end of the line. I even became fearful of opening my mail.
Having a panic attack is a terrifying experience and one that I now try to avoid at any cost. This can quickly result in not wanting to leave the house, feelings of inadequacy, severe confidence problems and lead to a deep depression. Eventually I got to the stage where I couldn’t function properly and all these irrational fears were becoming disruptive to my life.
The experts will tell you that nobody has ever died from a panic attack. This is true but doesn’t offer much comfort when you’re having one! Things that can help are being with someone who understands and will try to get you to a quieter environment. Trying to use mindfulness to return yourself to the present and focus on slowing your breathing down( see the looking after yourself post). Use of pressure points (something I’m not an expert on but it might be worth looking up). Once you’ve been able to breath easier, repeating a positive mantra in your head may also reassure you that you’re going to be all right. Breathing into a paper bag is a tried and tested method which will stop you from hyperventilating. I believe it’s something to do with getting some of the carbon dioxide back in, but don’t quote me on that!
In my next post I’m going to talk about more ways of managing your anxiety.