I was turning 19 years old. It was a strange time, I had left home and now I was living at my father’s with whom I had little relationship at the time. I needed it to be special. I needed something to be special.
My birthdays were always a source of stress for me. I think it may be related to my mother getting very nervous and not liking to celebrate them.
My first birthday I had a fever and spent it crying, I do not know if it was a kind of premonition of the years to come.
I was never good at being a hostess. I’m not good at it.
I get uncomfortable, entertaining people doesn’t come naturally to me, nor do I have the habit of being aware of the other. Maybe it was all those years of being surrounded by invisible friends and nannies.
I’ve been very lucky for having amazing friends. That year I was in a new house, which, although it was where my father had always lived, still felt foreign to me. A great friend took pity on me and offered to throw my celebration in his apartment.
It was a magnificent place overlooking the harbor and a few blocks from the dance we would go to, so I accepted. Also, I was short of options.
I remember that day I woke up and I was alone. I cried and looked out the window without wanting to get out of bed. Another great friend took me to lunch at Mc Donalds. I guess a little out of pity and a little out of fear that, otherwise, I would not eat.
I love fashion, assembling outfits that feel like a second skin. My personal armor in front of the world. That day I didn’t even try. I left with a green long coat, it was terribly cold, I still had my pajamas on and was wearing neon orange slippers.
At the time I found it funny and rebellious. Now I understand that it was my own way of showing that everything was wrong, that I needed help.
We ate inside the car, in the shopping garage. My friend made me smile a couple times But when one is really sad, distracting oneself is not enough.
I do not remember what I did or what happened between lunch and the party. I have the feeling, or maybe is just intuition, that I tried a lot of clothes.
I ended up choosing a giant mustard blouse, which did not mark my figure. Now I get that at that time I had a nice silhouette but I only saw myself, as always, fat.
I combined it with a very short mini and some splendid shoes that made me feel like an Almodóvar girl. They were black velvet sandals with a big red bow at the tip. My mother had gifted them to me at a point when our relationship was terrible. And just writing this I become aware that it was a great act of love, and that at that time I did not know how to read it. That sometimes, only sometimes, material things are much more than things. Especially when words or gestures do not seem to be an option.
They say that you should be careful with what you want because you might get it. And the thing is, the succession of events that night seemed to be taken from any movie of the Spanish director.
The homeowner was surprised with the amount of alcohol I bought. I arrived late, as always, to my own party. Before going inside I had a fight with my boyfriend on the stairs. We had never had an argument like that. I threw a tantrum, I do not remember why. I was not myself, I yelled at him. He looked at me with exorbitant eyes and I could read in his gaze that he didn’t recognize me like that. I felt myself shrink, and suddenly I was the whimsical 15 years old little girl again. I felt very embarrassed. But I could not control it. Everything had to be perfect. It was the only option. Now I think that was my first birthday we spent together and I do not understand how he did not run away.
There he met the “birthday Valentina.” My friends said “no worries, she always acts like this on her birthday”. As validating my lousy behaviour just for the date, like that day I had free pass to be awful with those who I most cherished.
Rollercoaster of emotions
The party was a success. The photos are still on the internet. You can see as all with a grin on our faces. It was the most multitudinous celebration of “my adult life”. I mixed people from completely different backgrounds who did not know each other at all and, very surprisingly, everyone had a blast. To this day people remind me of that day and how much fun they had.
I felt ecstatic. I had achieved it, mission accomplished, perfection. “And what a nice place, and how delicious, and how beautiful you look, and how cool your friends are …”. And I think I was very happy because it was over. Because I no longer had to face all that pressure (self-pressure) until next year.
And then I relaxed, ready to let myself enjoy once and for all. After several hours and endless photos -it was the peak of Facebook- we made our way to the disco.
At that time there were only my most precious friends left, the closest, my confidants, my brothers.
I remember feeling infinitely happy.
We go in. If I close my eyes I can still see the red lights flashing. I fall on the floor. I’m scared to death. I want to go. I have to go. I can not breathe. I’m terrified. I’m dying. If I stay I die.
I know I threw up, and at that moment I thought it was due to the alcohol. Then I would have several experiences where I felt dizziness and nausea without drinking.
From that point onwards it’s all very confusing. I do not know if I managed to articulate a “get me out of here” or just repeated it in my head. My boyfriend got me a taxi. I see myself sitting in the back, crying against the window, but I see it from the outside so I do not know if I made it up.
The trip to his house was about 15 minutes. When I arrive, I keep crying inconsolably, it’s hard for me to breathe, I’m afraid. I get in the shower, he stays with me in the bathroom. He asks me, tries to understand. I can not explain it, I can not articulate it, I do not know.
I just cry sitting under the open tap and I feel bad, bad, bad. I do not know how much time I spent like that. When the first burst of terror goes, another comes, more rational, more permanent. It is the fear of not knowing, of not understanding what is happening to you, why, how you can stop it. And above all: what can you do so that it does not happen again?
I do not know how much time I spent without going out after that. My relationship with the night was never the same again. And only now, as I write this, can I understand why I never again enjoyed those endless dance evenings, the lights, the music.
That was my first panic attack.
I was always an excellent student. I did well in all disciplines. I excelled in both physics and literature. So how can it be, how can it be that a young, educated woman, in such an extremely complex age has never heard of something like that?
On the one hand I think: what I would give to take the time back and learn about panic attacks. On the other hand: never to go back, I would give anything not to feel that way again. So deprived, so unprotected, so misinformed.
Knowledge is power. Is to be able to identify the problem, prevent it or treat it accordingly. I can not say exactly how much, but it took me a long time to identify what had happened that night. A lot more time understanding what that meant, implied. And knowing how to handle it is something that I continue to learn until today, six years later.
It is very uncomfortable to write all this down. I guess that’s what it feels like to leave the comfort zone. But it’s worth it if there’s only one person out there who can read it and understand “that’s a panic attack.” And that tomorrow, hopefully never, if you see yourself in that situation you’ll have other tools to take care of yourself or to take care of someone else in that situation. Or that if someone lived something similar and did not know how to identify it, like me, that this will help.
There are lots of us who went through this, you are not alone.
Around the world, more than 250 million people suffer from anxiety, according to a study by the World Health Organization made in 2017. This disease affects more women and is, if not treated properly, one of the main triggers for panic attacks.
However, even today there is great disinformation and stigma regarding this issue.
If we had information about the symptoms of anxiety, like we recognize the symptoms of a flu or sores, perhaps it could have been prevented. Or maybe it would have happened anyway. But at least we’ll be able to have the certainty and security of knowing what we are facing and how it is treated.
In future posts we will talk about symptoms, detection and treatment. If you are going through this situation or you know someone who is, go to a therapist. A professional is the best one trained to accompany you in your healing process. Lots of light and good luck.