‘I was seven-years-old the first time I had a panic attack’
Jennifer O'Connell: Despite a growing openness, we still fear mental-health issues
Tony Soprano sees his therapist Dr Melfi over his panic attacks in The Sopranos.
I am seven-years-old the first time my brain stumbles. I am at my cousins’ house. We are playing something loud and raucous when I feel myself rise up outside my body. I am in one those dreams where you realise you are dreaming, only you can’t wake up. Except I know I am awake.
I am 15. It is autumn. The colour is seeping out of the day. I am standing at the sink by the window of the art room, rinsing a plate and watching the bright rivulets of paint pool in the dirty sink. It bears down on me again, an overwhelming feeling that I am careening through a dream.
I am 19. It is December. Snow is falling onto the silvery pavements of the Bastille, where I am living in a third-floor apartment. It is the day after my first date with the man who will become my husband. I am in a taxi, trying to get home from work through a city gridlocked by strike. The meter climbs steadily, but the traffic is not moving. I actually feel my brain stumble this time. Reality blurs. Edges bleed. Colours become oversaturated.
I can’t feel my left hand, the left side of my face. I cannot die in a taxi on a slushy side street in a nondescript part of Paris. I grasp at the door handle. Vous êtes malade? the driver asks me. He lets me out. I find a phone in a café and force some coins into the slot with numb fingers. My flatmate answers. I’ve had a stroke, I manage. No you haven’t, he says. His mother is a doctor. Come home. You’re having a panic attack.
Panic attack. I try the words out myself the next time I talk to the man who will become the husband. He looks at me with cool, kind eyes. Saying the words aloud takes the shame out of them, and a little of the fear.
I’m not dying or ill or going mad. I’m just a person who has occasional brain stumbles
I’m not dying or ill or going mad. I’m just a person who has occasional brain stumbles. Most of the time, I can talk myself through them or around them. I now know the triggers. Being generally anxious. Being hungover or very tired. Being in a strange environment.
When they do hit, it is with the force of a juggernaut. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but wait them out. I have one on a riverboat in Vietnam. After my second child is born way too early and way too small, and has to stay in the special care unit while I’m at home developing mastitis, I have a whopper, my last big one.
In this country, we have a deep-rooted fear of brain stumbles – of panic attacks and depression and mental health issues of any kind. It’s no wonder. There was a time when you could get locked up for much less.
Until the 1950s, we were inordinately fond of our mental hospitals. We had 710 asylum beds per 100,000 of population – more than Soviet Russia or the US, and almost twice as many as England and Wales, according to Dr Damien Brennan’s book, Irish Insanity 1800-2000.
At the height of the system, 21,000 people were locked up in an Irish mental hospital. We can’t blame this one on the Catholic Church – these were State-run institutions, operated with the complicity of the public.
You didn’t want to end up in one of those beds, in a place where 'treatment' at different times meant insulin comas or malaria therapy
In 1879, there were four grounds for admission. One of them was “moral”, which included “poverty, reverse of fortune”, “grief, fear and anxiety”, “religious excitement”, “pride”, “anger” and even “love, jealousy and seduction”. We locked people up when we didn’t know what else to do with them.
You didn’t want to end up in one of those beds, in a place where “treatment” at different times meant insulin comas or malaria therapy. And so we were ever alert to the signs in ourselves and in others. “She suffers from her nerves,” people would say. “He’s soft in the head.” It was shorthand for stay away, she might embarrass you, she might embarrass herself, she might embarrass us all.
The institutions are in decline, but the fear is not. The shadows cast by that time in our history are long.
In America, there’s no embarrassment about mental health issues – they’ll never discuss money or religion but they’ll talk openly about their conversations with their therapist. In Ireland, we still live in terror that someone will find out we’re “seeing someone”.
The pendulum has gone so far in the other direction that families and patients cannot always get the help they need. We’ll do better when we can be more open about this issue, when we acknowledge that all kinds of people suffer from all kinds of mental health issues. It is just a condition of being alive. Everyone has a story.
If someone tells you their story, it might be because they want help, because they want to help someone else, or because they want to be able to mention it without worrying about the alarmed glances or the stigma. Just like hearts get weak, or discs slip, or appendices burst, brains sometimes stumble.