An all-too-familiar feeling. Vague physical discomfort, an outward symptom of something nagging incessantly at the back of my mind. Something trying to unseat me from within, make me feel unsafe. Unease. Disquiet.
Here I was in a little room used for consultations. A room seemingly without features, let alone any redeeming ones. Two people sat opposite me, one of whom looked at me intently. I was feeling like I wanted to get out of here at the earliest opportunity, wanted the questions to be over regardless of the outcome.
I desperately tried to control my breathing - and desperately tried to conceal the fact that I was desperately trying to control my breathing. What would they think if they knew? I felt dizzy - my thoughts, my pulse were starting to race seemingly in tandem and I felt short of breath. Try to ignore the thoughts which triggered this off: to delve into those thoughts felt like it was to delve into something very dark: was it something I had done, something remembered, something imaginary? I wasn't sure: but as painful as it would be to go through the whole process of trying to pinpoint those thoughts, analyse them, ruminate on them and somehow try to find a way of making everything ok again, it would be just as hard to temporarily banish them to the back of my unsettled mind.
But I had to. Somehow. Amidst the whirling thoughts and the physical symptoms which seemed to be gearing me up for confrontation or for getting the hell out of here.
I'm a bad person. I'm a mess. They know it. They can tell.
Have you ever suffered anxiety or panic attacks?
I couldn't help but inwardly afford myself a bitter smile that this, of all questions, should come up right now. I tried to keep my voice even as the words came out.
Mumbled half-formed sentences followed.
Yes...sometimes it's difficult to cope. I get...it's like everything is...I get scared to go out because I. Er, it's like something's going to happen. Something bad.
I wished I could stop clenching my jaw. Were my attempts at breathing easily noticeable to them? Could they tell that this was what I was going through right now? That the words being spoken between us just felt like background noise in a room full of people shouting at each other? That it was a strain just to try and feel normal? Eye contact wasn't easy, but I had to do it, just because of that word: contact. It might help, just having these points of focus, but it might also serve to betray what I'm going through. Amidst all this, all that shouting in my head, a further question.
Are you able to tell anybody or get help when this happens?
Fucking hell, how patronising, I thought. How can you tell anybody when this happens? It's like running up to someone who thinks you're a fundamentally decent person and telling them that you're mad. You fear the response and that just makes the destructive cycle worse. You seal yourself in and just try and deal with the symptoms and rake over the thoughts - over and over, like some forced exercise in internal map reading, the terrain of which is harsh and unwelcoming.
A further mumbled answer.
Do you take any medication?
Easy enough question to answer: factual rather than reliant on being able to express thoughts and feelings. Good: more like that please.
I felt shattered. The room wasn't getting any bigger or more inviting. The door was still the same distance from my seat, yet still seemed an eternity away. Freedom if I went through it now, before this was over, but what if there were consequences? The thoughts - including all those nameless, shapeless, malevolent ones - still whirled.
The voices spoken in the room still like something barely discernible in the background.
They must be able to tell. Or am I doing a convincing job of concealing this panic? Well they hadn't reacted to me any differently, we were still sat here.
More questions. We were finally away from the intrusive, searching questions and into the realms of the mundane. Name and address of GP, next of kin, thankfully no more delving into hospital admissions, how you behave when you're unwell, raking over painful personal history.
Finally, a perfunctory, almost businesslike, we'll be in touch - and I was free to go.
Fresh air. Space. Freedom - and I realised I had managed to control the panic attack. I was tired, unsettled, but much calmer. Maybe I was actually starting to get better at dealing with this.
The thing I should point out here is that - yes, I was the one who was having the panic symptoms: I was also the one who was asking the questions, carrying out the assessment not being on the receiving end of it.