When Weng Cheong had her first panic attack at 18, she thought she might die. Now 23, she shares her struggle with these terrifying episodes and coming to terms with having anxiety.

By Weng Ian Cheong
October 25, 2019

I was 18 when I had my first panic attack—over dirty dishes.

Like a typical teenager, I slept in that Sunday and spent the rest of my afternoon binge-watching a Netflix show. As an international student with parents living overseas, I bounced around different homes and guardians throughout high school in the US. By then, I was living with my fourth host family. My host mom wanted me to load the dishwasher, and she meant that moment, not when my episode ended. I begrudgingly stood up and started loading it with an attitude.

I was standing by the sink with the water running when my legs started to wobble. Suddenly, my fingers went numb, and I felt like I was burning up. Something was off, but I ignored all the signs. It wasn’t until I bent over the dish rack that I felt my throat closing up. I immediately dropped to the ground.

A million thoughts crossed my mind. Am I having an asthma attack? Is this an allergic reaction? I couldn’t comprehend what was going on because everyone around me was breathing just fine. I felt like my lungs couldn’t absorb the air, and I was convinced I was going to die that day.

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I crawled my way to the bathroom, then shut and locked the door. I was hyperventilating, and I didn’t want anyone to see me like this. I wish I had an explanation for what was happening to my body. When it was over, my 13-year-old real sister, who also lived overseas with me, was in tears—and my host mom made a joke of it and told me I was faking it to avoid chores.

In denial about anxiety

My first-ever panic attack lasted nine minutes. I know this because I was counting down the seconds before I’d feel better. Unfortunately, it was the first of many to come. I’m 23 now, and I’ve had 35 panic attacks. I’ve passed out four times from those episodes, and I’ve called 911 three times. I wish I could say it gets easier each time, but it doesn’t.

Despite being clinically diagnosed with anxiety five years ago, I spent four of them in denial. I didn’t tell my teachers, my parents, or even my closest friends. I was afraid that accepting my illness would mean that I wouldn’t be me anymore. I was anxious, but I didn’t want to be. I wasn’t okay, but I tried really hard to be.

I knew confiding in my family and friends wouldn’t be a big deal, but I was hard on myself because I was scared of who I thought I’d become after my diagnosis. Instead of acknowledging my anxiety, I tried my best to isolate it, conceal it, and pretend it was invisible. I thought, How hard can it be to hide something people can’t even see to begin with?

Starting to seek help

It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I decided to proactively deal with my panic attacks. I’d just experienced five in one week, and I couldn’t fathom going through it another day. When I started having them in public, I became a bit of a recluse to avoid making a scene. It was jeopardizing my relationships with the people I love most. Although I tried to keep these episodes secret, they could tell it was taking a toll on me, so I dragged myself to a doctor and a psychiatrist.

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I already had a diagnosis by then, but my visit to a psychiatrist was different because I was utterly defeated. I was desperate to get better. I had another physical exam and answered more survey questions. My psychiatrist explained that my anxiety is a result of a chemical imbalance in my brain, and that time, I willingly listened. The doctor recommended therapy, and he made it clear that medication isn’t a cure but only a temporary solution. My best bet was to get counseling and to consult with a specialist if I felt I needed a prescription, he said.

What's driving the panic attacks

Looking back on that time now, with a better understanding of my illness, I know the panic attacks were never about the dishes.

It might have been a series of events that led to my first attack. I got into a nasty argument with my boyfriend the night before. I was waiting to hear back from college admissions, and I couldn’t silence the voice in my head that was telling me I wasn’t good enough. I was over 8,000 miles away from my family. I was incredibly homesick but too stubborn to admit it. I was bouncing from one bad living situation to another.

Some families I lived with didn’t care enough, while some cared for the wrong reasons. I’ve had guardians who didn’t mind me coming home at 3 a.m. on school nights, and I’ve also had ones who wouldn’t let me out on weekends. Free-spirited homes, controlling homes, abusive homes—I’ve had my share of them. I didn’t feel safe in my home environment, and I was so tired of feeling uncertain.

My upbringing didn’t cause my panic attacks, but my anxiety simply didn’t mix well with my life at the time.

I spent years looking back at that first panic episode, searching for a logical reason that could’ve caused my lungs to struggle for air, my heart to race, and my body to collapse in exhaustion. When panic attack 26 came around, it finally hit me that the physical pain I experienced that Sunday wasn’t something I could’ve prevented—it wasn’t my fault.

'Anxiety is an illness, not a personality trait'

Truth is, my anxiety is an illness. It’s not a personality trait. I labeled myself as being dramatic, hot-headed and “too emotional.” Some of it had to do with my own personal stigma against mental illness, but I think a part of that was also due to the symptoms of my illness itself.

RELATED: 14 Signs You Could Be Having a Panic Attack

In many ways, having anxiety means I’m in a constant love-hate relationship with myself. I always feel like I’m jumping to the wrong conclusions. Not too long ago, I was at a place in my life where I’d misinterpret a delayed text as a sign that I wasn’t loved. I’d mistaken busy-ness for neglect, indifference for hate, and my slip-ups for failure. I was struggling to respond healthily to everyday stress, and my fear of people finding out about my illness only made it worse.

Several nights a week, I’d lay in bed and make a mental list of things to worry about that would keep me up at night. It could range from an errand I have to run the next day or my entire future. I would dwell on them—that’s what anxiety does. Then I’d wonder how many things on that list other people actually knew about, and most of the time the answer was none.

If I could’ve stopped my episode that Sunday, I would’ve. I would’ve avoided panic attack #18 on my birthday in a college bar at 2 a.m. or #29 on my way to a Red Lobster dinner if I had control over my body’s momentary glitches and all the physical symptoms that came with it.

Accepting her diagnosis—and moving forward

It took three therapists, two psychiatrists, and a whole lot of soul-searching for me to accept my anxiety as a part of me, and to realize that I am still a work in progress.

RELATED: The Real Reason Record Numbers of College Students Are Receiving Mental Health Treatment

In the past three years or so, I’ve experimented with both behavioral therapy and medication. I’ve tried group therapy and individual therapy. What I have learned from those experiences is that therapy is hard and that it takes time and courage. I often bailed on my sessions and dropped out of my five-month group therapy program almost two years ago. I’m currently thinking about giving it another try.

My doctor prescribed the anti-anxiety medication Xanax, to be taken only when I was panicking. Having the pill bottle with me at all times gave me comfort, but I didn’t like the way I felt on it, and it also didn’t help me better manage my anxiety. That prescription has long since lapsed.

Some days I would wake up feeling like I’m taking shorter breaths. My chest would feel hollow and my shoulders heavy. I’d fidget a lot. I’ve learned to manage these “triggers” or early panic attack symptoms by adopting mindfulness strategies. One technique, called grounding, involves focusing on an object or my breathing. This helps me to quiet my wandering mind so that I’m able to pinpoint my physical symptoms and anticipate if my anxiety is going to get worse that day.

RELATED: 12 Signs You May Have an Anxiety Disorder

I try to exercise as frequently as possible, and I find night walks helpful for my insomnia. I’ve opened up to people about my struggles with anxious feelings, and the emotional support really helps.

Surprisingly, being transparent is the best way to combat my anxiety. I have learned that being honest with others when I’m not feeling well allows me to be honest with myself. I’m gradually learning that admitting my anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m less of me.

Now, I no longer treat my panic attacks as a sign of defeat when I do get them. But let’s be real: panic attack #36 will come, and it’s going to feel just as traumatic as the last. I will count down the seconds until it ends, as I always do, and I will lay down afterwards with my chest feeling hollow and my body completely worn down. But now I know that it’s okay because I can still try to make progress again tomorrow.

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