How a panic attack gave me a front-row view of race, healthcare, and mental health

“I’m not crazy.”

I sat on the stairs, my head buried in my knees.

My husband reached out to touch my arm. “No one said you were crazy.”

I wondered what, then, he thought of the fact that moments earlier, a swarm of paramedics had attributed my physical ailments to stress.

How they had circled around me because both he and I feared I was having an aneurysm. How they had come because he called them after I was reading a book, felt a headache, saw my vision go blurry, and then felt my brain short-circuit as pressure surrounded my head. How their assessment sent me into the throes of uncertainty as I got an unwanted front-row seat at the intersection of race, healthcare, and mental health.

“Something’s wrong,” I had said to my husband minutes before their arrival. I tried to refocus my eyes, but my vision remained blurry. I felt the pressure grow, as though a liquid were pooling in my head. I felt the taste of metal flood my mouth. My heart began to race. “Something’s wrong,” I began to repeat, as I tried, in vain, to regain my vision. “Something’s wrong.”

My husband called 9­-1-1. I sat on the couch, my eyes turned toward the ceiling as I leaned back. I kept my body still and my eyes trained on the ceiling, afraid that shifting them would make my head pound again and upset the delicate balance of whatever was keeping me awake and alive.

When both firefighters and paramedics arrived, they found me in that state, still afraid to move.

“We’ve been married 15 years,” I heard my husband say as they crowded around me. “She’s never had anything like this happen before.”

The paramedics checked my vitals, asked me to squeeze their hands, to smile, to raise my eyebrows. They brushed each side of my face and arms, asking me to feel. As I responded to each touch, demonstrating that I could move and indeed feel, the questions began to shift.

“Do you use alcohol?” they asked. “Do you use drugs? Have you been stressed recently? Did you receive troubling news today?” When I answered “no” to all the questions, they looked to the closed laptop computer that lay on our coffee table. “Have you been using the computer a lot today?”

“No,” I said again, fighting back tears.

The firefighters left. The two paramedics who remained spoke to my husband.

“Does she have a history of—”

My grandmother died of an aneurysm, I readied to say. Then I realized they were asking whether psychiatric episodes ran in the family. “Bipolar disorder, anything like that?”

Maybe I’ve read too many Victorian novels, but something about watching my white husband speak in lowered tones to two white male paramedics made me wonder whether I was going to be committed, or whether I would be relegated to thump about in the attic like Bertha Mason, Edward Rochester’s supposedly-dead creole wife in Jane Eyre.

“I fell down the stairs,” I began. My husband filled in the details on what had happened a few days prior: While trying on a new pair of shoes, I had fallen down the stairs, hitting my head on the door and rolling my ankle.

After the fall, I experienced a little bit of fogginess, but nothing serious. I logged on for work the next day and for a few hours the day following. Though concentration was a bit challenging, and I was frequently weepy, I attributed these changes to my sore body and my wounded ego.

“The mind is a funny thing,” said one of the paramedics. “If I think to myself, ‘I am sick,’ and I keep thinking about it, all of a sudden, you know, my stomach can start hurting.”

I felt a plaintive look flicker across my face.

“The only other time she’s experienced something remotely similar was when she had a concussion about 15 years ago,” my husband said. “She had some trouble speaking.”

One of the paramedics gave a good-natured laugh. “Fifteen years? I’m impressed you can remember that far back!”

They told me what I was experiencing was likely anxiety related, though I had enjoyed an otherwise relaxing and uneventful day. They advised me to follow up with my doctor and to rest. “A long shower, a hot bath – anything that makes you feel relaxed,” offered one of the paramedics.

They think that I’ve imagined this, I thought to myself. I covered my face with my hands and began to cry.

Ruling out a stroke, an aneurysm, and a brain bleed, and unable to find any physical reason for my episode, the paramedics left. I walked gingerly up the stairs to my bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror. Am I going crazy? Am I having a psychiatric episode?

I searched for something in my mind that would tell me everything was fine. That the synapses were firing and things were working. I decided to recite the most complicated thing I could think of: the opening 18 lines of The Canterbury Tales, a tangle of Middle English words that could occupy my tongue and settle my mind for a few moments.

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote / And bathed every veyne in swich licour, / Of which vertu engendred is the flour…”

I looked in the mirror and forced the words out aloud, translating in my head as I went. “When April showers have pierced the drought of March through to the roots, and bathed every vine in the sweet liquor of which virtue is the flower…”

In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the most reliable way to test my sanity, but it was grounding to say something familiar, something that required all my concentration, and to triumphantly spit out centuries-old words. This had to be proof that what I experienced was real – was physical. I wasn’t crazy. Right?

As I pondered this thought, I realized how much I was tossing around the word “crazy.” Though I consider myself to be an open person, clearly I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of mental illness. I was more at home in discussions of self-care and mental health, of taking steps to enable and protect both. Staring in the mirror, I understood that I housed a fear of what it would mean to struggle with mental illness as a Black woman with children.

Advocating for mental health is challenging enough for Black women. Though many of us praised Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka for insisting on their mental health as Black women in the public eye, they were trolled by some conservative pundits and politicians as being whiny and entitled – as though we are not all entitled to take steps to ensure our mental and physical health.

Advocating for mental health is challenging enough for Black women. Though many of us praised Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka for insisting on their mental health as Black women in the public eye, they were trolled by some conservative pundits and politicians as being whiny and entitled – as though we are not all entitled to take steps to ensure our mental and physical health. (At least one of these critics, thankfully, later apologized after being chastised by his boss.) I wondered what these critics would have said if these women had not protected their mental health and had ended up in a mental or physical crisis? Would they have denigrated them for being unwell, too?

The fact is, society isn’t kind to people in the midst of mental health crises – especially if they are Black, and most especially if they are women. I thought of how Whitney Houston, struggling with addiction and mental health, became both punchline and cautionary tale when she needed empathy, privacy, and professional interventions.

Later that night, I lay in bed unable to sleep. My mind wandered to Sandra Bland, the Black woman who was arrested after a traffic stop here in Texas, and whose demise in police custody was blamed on her mental health. I thought of how her death, which was officially ruled a suicide, has been questioned by so many Black people, and Black women in particular. Perhaps it’s because we also know when we have reasonable reactions to unreasonable circumstances, we are called hysterical or belligerent, and our physical ailments are dismissed or downplayed by medical professionals more often than people from other racial demographics.

A couple of days after that conversation with the paramedics, I spoke with my therapist.

“I think I had a panic attack,” I told her. “It was awful. I feel defective.”

She slowed me down and asked me to recount the events. I told her about the blurred vision, the metallic taste, and the alarm bells that began to go off in my head. I told her about the fall down the stairs. I told her how the event reminded me of a time I experienced a mild concussion nearly 15 years ago in my first teaching job.  At a colleague’s suggestion, I went to the school nurse, who called my husband. He asked me a question – I can’t remember what – and the words stalled in my brain. I felt as though the words were trapped behind a glass box on a high shelf I couldn’t reach. I felt an out-of-body panic crash over me. For days after, I experienced processing difficulties.

“It felt kind of like that,” I told my therapist. “But much worse. Because I could feel all these other sensations – the metallic taste in my mouth, the headache…”

Though she couldn’t give me a diagnosis, my therapist gave me the gift of listening to my story and my symptoms, and presenting a logical, plausible explanation. I finally felt like I had been heard.

“I’m not a doctor,” she said, “and you’ll get more answers when you go to the doctor for follow up – but could it be that when you couldn’t refocus your vision and you experienced the physical sensations, that sparked the panic attack?”

As I replayed the events from that night, I realized this explanation made sense, particularly given my history with concussions and panic attacks. Though she couldn’t give me a diagnosis, my therapist gave me the gift of listening to my story and my symptoms, and presenting a logical, plausible explanation. I finally felt like I had been heard.

I spoke with my doctor about the fall and the flurry of paramedics during my follow-up. She said that even with mild concussions, symptoms may not manifest immediately and can last for days or even weeks after. She checked me for neurological deficits – I got the all-clear – and gave me some stretches for my sore neck and mildly sprained ankle.

So, it seemed, I wouldn’t be Bertha Mason in the attic. I still had a sore head and ankle, but I had my mental health. And, it turned out, I wasn’t struggling with mental illness or mentally manifested physical ailments, but I was experiencing the aftermath of a concussion and the panic that ensued.

Though I felt relief, I couldn’t shake a nagging thought. I wondered how the situation may have differed if my white husband weren’t there to speak with the paramedics or if we didn’t live in a well-to-do neighborhood. Would I have been perceived as dangerous? As a threat? Would my symptoms have been written off as substance abuse?

How would the situation have been perceived if I were white or a man? Would the paramedics have been so quick to attribute my physical sensations to anxiety when they were, in fact, consistent with a concussion?

Sometimes when we think of racial bias, we imagine it as a red-faced, pejorative-shouting racism. More often it is not that. It is hidden, sometimes so insidious that even those perpetrating the bias are unaware they are doing so. (If this is confusing to you, I encourage you to read about implicit bias to learn how we all hold biased views that often go against our stated belief systems.)  To be Black or a person of color is to constantly wonder whether the daily slights or abuses you encounter are because of your race, and to constantly decide when to hold righteous anger, when to take action, and when to let something roll off your back.

I try to be generous when I can. I think: Maybe the paramedics were pressed for time. Maybe they had seen a lot of cases of people calling 9-1-1 because of anxiety. Maybe they were on high alert for life-threatening scenarios. Maybe, like everyone else in the world, they held implicit bias. Maybe it was a soupy mixture of all the above.

So understand that when I recount this story, I don’t do so with anger or even accusation; I am thankful to live in a place where I can pick up the phone and call paramedics that will arrive rapidly and show great care.

But what I do feel is fear. Fear that even the nicest, most well-meaning people will hold my life in their hands and fail to see me because of their unacknowledged bias. Fear that I will find myself, like so many in my family, seeking answers from healthcare providers only to receive dismissive responses that delay life-saving diagnoses.

Mostly, I fear that a doctor will look at my skin, form a story, and fail to truly see me. That in the process of doing so, they will craft the wrong story and prematurely end mine.

14 thoughts on “How a panic attack gave me a front-row view of race, healthcare, and mental health

  1. Thank you for this reflection, Irie. I always learn from your perspective – and I want to.
    Blessings from Vermont.

  2. Irie, I’m sorry that you fell and very glad that you’re ok. I’m also glad that Ryon was there. When did that happen?

    Unfortunately, there’s a stigma attached to anxiety and panic attacks (and depression, with which I have struggled). Although that’s true for all races, I can only imagine the extra layer of fear for BIPOC in general and for you specifically. It may sound inane, but I so wish society was different.

    Your blog post was an eye opener for me. It’s embarassing to admit that, but it’s true.

    I pray for physical and emotional healing for you. I’m grateful to know you.

    Beth Stiver

    1. Thank you, Beth! This was a couple of weeks ago and I’m feeling basically back to normal again. I think being Black and being a woman definitely add additional layers to discussions around mental health.

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