I attended a first aid course on Friday. It's a requirement for all certified riding instructors in this province. How did it go? Okay. I learned a lot. But something did go wrong. Quite wrong. I couldn't decide if I wanted to write about it (more fun to write about the Oscars) but when I started this blog I was aware that it's easier to share this stuff with complete strangers, and also that I'm not the only one who's ever experienced this particular flavour of agony.
I sat on my heels with my hands pressed over my mouth and the little plastic dummy in front of me. At the other end of the room, the white board with all the colour coded first aid routines sat on its easel. I couldn’t read it. There was nothing wrong with my eyes, and I knew that. But I couldn’t read it. My brain was grinding to a halt, my chest and throat tightening, and I couldn’t stop it.
Earlier that day, I’d set off on what I figured would be a 30 minute drive from my house, but I didn’t know that a big box mall and two new subdivisions had sprouted since I’d last been down that way. I thought I’d given enough time to deal with the snow but I was wrong about that too. By the time I got to the office of the Ontario Equestrian Federation I was about 40 minutes late. But I was there.
I hadn’t missed much and managed to catch up. Soon I was taking my turns as either the injury victim or the first aider. I was learning the routines. Gradually my confidence built as we went over the first aid procedures, but I had a few nagging worries that I was having a hard time shaking off.
Right at the top of the list was GET HELP. As soon as possible, right after the “Don’t Move!” command to the victim, we’re to call someone for assistance. So say we’ve got a kid on the ground and a loose horse. Yell for someone to put that horse away. Then order that person to call 911. This is all well and good if you’re in a busy riding stable, which I’m not. I found out during lunch that out of twelve students, I was the only one who is not part of a riding school. People ask me “where do you ride” and I say “At Susan’s place” or “at Mom and Dad’s.” A big riding stable is not part of my future plan either. I want to work with one or two students at a time and I don’t want to have hordes of students hanging around my place. So I’m thinking, oh crap. Who do I call for help?
No problem- these questions must be asked. “Bill, I have a question.” He thanked me for asking and explained that you must stabilize the victim and then call 911 yourself.
Okay. I can handle this. I can handle it. This isn’t my first time taking a first aid course and I’ve kept two kids alive this far. I can handle it.
After a few more rounds of catastrophic imaginary injuries it was lunch time.
And then after lunch we started in on heart attack victims. Oh yes, all this talk about chest pains. Numb arms. Shortness of breath? I sat there in my chair, watching the video, thinking, “Oh, this is interesting. I am actually having those symptoms right now!”
We got out the little plastic dummies. I’d done this before. Chest compressions, how to hold the hands, count to thirty, two breaths. Count out loud. Ignore the creeping feeling of impending doom. Two breaths, watch the chest. Shut up the internal screaming. Shut it up. You can do this. One. Two. Three. Four. All the way to thirty. The rest of the class kept going but I forgot what to do. The room spun just a little bit. I rocked back on my heels, put my hands over my mouth and nose and realized that I’d lost the ability to recognize written language. I couldn’t read the steps on the board at the front of the room.
Everybody stand up, we’re going to do this again, right from the beginning. You’ve walked into the barn and your student is unconscious. What do you do?
I circled the dummy. “Are you awake? Wake up!” I clapped my hands near the plastic face. Look at us all. Trying to wake up the plastic torso. A fleeting delirious need to laugh scrambled up my throat and I choked it down. “My name is Heidi. I’m trained in first aid. May I help you.”
And then I stopped. What next. What next. Bill walked over to me, looking concerned. He tried to prompt me through. Right now, I couldn’t tell you what he tried to tell me or get me to say, I just remember looking at him, feeling desperate, and slightly dizzy, and losing more of the routine each time I tried to get through it. After three of his patient prompts, I could only get as far as my name. A thought skittered through my brain that I was about to lose that too.
“It’s okay,” he said, “I’ll do another demonstration and then we can all go through the routine again.”
I stood. I watched. My hearing was going too.
When the rest of the class descended on their dummies, yelling and clapping, I strode up to the front of the room. I walked right up to Bill. I had to explain. I had to make sure he knew that I wasn’t just slacking off or stupid. I looked him in the eye. Explanation. “I have a panic disorder,” I said. And just as I was about to point to the board and explain that I couldn’t see it, my face trembled and twitched and collapsed.
And that was it.
My next breath was ragged and sucked in with a sob. The tears were right there and I couldn’t stop it. He was at my shoulder, do you want to leave? Do you need to leave the room. I nodded yes because I couldn’t speak through the crying. I couldn’t get the door open. I stood in the hall, clasping my face with my hands, unable to talk, can’t get enough air with all the sobbing wracking up through my back and shoulders. Sucking in breaths and can’t get any air. Dying. Dying. I’m dying.
Bill was gone and another student was beside me. “I’m a nurse,” she said softly in my ear. “We need to get your hands off your face,” and I heard her say, “hyperventilate.”
Hyperventilate. A tiny part of my brain wondered if that was in our first aid manual and did she know she’d have to do this today.
She steered me out of the office and down the hall to the washroom. “Has this happened before?”
I nodded hard. I tried to choke out the panic disorder thing through those harsh sucking breaths but she stopped me. “Don’t try to talk yet. Let’s calm you down first.”
So there I was sitting on the seat of the can, crying loudly and uncontrollably while this sweet woman draped some cool damp paper towels on the back of my neck. She reminded me to slow my breathing, because by that point I felt like I could have passed out. I think now that it was getting close to that. I rested my elbows on my knees and cried like the world was ending.
I think in real time, it didn’t take long. It felt like forever but I think it just felt that way. I stood up and, still sobbing, spilled my story about the highway and the kids and the cat, and the chest pain, that horrible chest pain that changed my life but when I was behind the wheel of the Jetta all I knew was that I had to keep driving, no matter how numb my arms went, because if I pulled off to the side of the 401 I’d never be able to get back onto the road again and I’d die there on the side of the road. Dying while going 120kph.
Bill must have warned my fellow students not to make a big deal out of me, because when the other girls came in for a washroom break, there was no fussing and fawning. I was still blowing my nose and pressing cold paper to my face. I couldn’t quite speak clearly yet.
Here I am, a woman who can train a horse who’s never been ridden before. I have been bucked off twice in the last year and got back on. Am I scared of riding? Heck yes. Who wouldn’t be? But let’s make this perfectly clear, folks. Perfectly, perfectly clear. There is a difference between fear and panic. Fear is rational. Panic is not. There’s a reason why it’s called a panic disorder.
What’s the worst that can happen? Well, I might not be able to get my first aid certificate and then I won’t be able to get my instructor’s certificate and I won’t be able to teach riding lessons for a living.
Marilyn talked me through it. “If you don’t get it today, come back.”
Story of my life. Try. Fail. Try again. Over and over.
Could I go back into the classroom? I think for a lot of people the potential for a panic attack is enough to bring it on. And the embarrassment of having an attack in public is paralyzing. I don’t usually give a crap about embarrassment. I couldn’t be me if I embarrassed easily. I can’t control what others think about me, and for the most part I figure nobody else really cares all that much.
I have another coping mechanism: I have been through this before. I know it isn’t permanent, and as much as it really does feel life threatening, it is not. I have been through attacks like this and survived. A few years ago I didn’t know that, but now I do. So I pulled it together and went back into the classroom.
There was a hard pain in my chest. My hands shook and I was still in a cold sweat. A few times I felt the tears and stinging sneak in again and I crushed it down. I told myself that if I had to, I’d just step out into the hall. But I stayed. I finished the class.
I don’t know if my stubborn tenacity has helped or hindered me. I never gave myself the opportunity to drop out of life completely and give in to the anxiety or the depression. I couldn’t because I’m holding up a family and a home here. I couldn’t because dammit I wouldn’t let myself. Maybe it kept me going but maybe it prolonged that tickle of panic that festered and grew under the surface for years until one day it exploded on a major highway and sent me to the doctor for some little white pills.
I lived through it.
In the boardroom at the Equestrian Federation office, I took long slow breaths, and pushed those breaths evenly out of my lungs. Bill thought it was the multiple choice test that wrapped up the course that set me off. Maybe that was a trigger too but I think that was the least of my worries.
I ran through all the triggers: the snow, the traffic, the lateness. The possibility of being alone and desperate and needing to deal with a very bad problem all by myself. The flourescent light panels in the ceiling of the windowless room, the videos of dramatized injuries, the long list of traumatic ways that a human can be damaged. The lady on the other side of the classroom who rocked back and forth in her chair as we watched the videos. The constant struggle to stay with the program and not let my mind wander or get carried off by everything that can go terribly wrong. If I’m honest with myself I’ll admit that I’ve been really struggling with the depression for the last month or so and have had to dig out the little chill pills again a couple of times. It’s no wonder I snapped.
I took the test at the end of the day. I am pretty sure I passed it.