There are two things I’ve experienced (and continue to experience) that I genuinely feel cannot be understood or appreciated unless it is experienced. Those two things are panic attacks and migraines. Both are all consuming misery, on a level so extreme that even I have a hard time recognizing how severe they are when I’m not in the middle of it.
A migraine isn’t “a bad headache”. It is blinding pain that keeps you from being able to focus on anything. Light is torture, especially fluorescents. Loud noises are cringeworthy. Sometimes it will make my stomach churn. I had my first migraine at 17 and it was a long time before I found medication that helped. I remember clearly deciding (on multiple occasions) to take more tylenol, advil or whatever prescription medication I was given than the label recommends because getting any relief was worth the risk of damaging my organs or facing addiction. I know that sounds crazy… unless you’ve experienced it.
I went to a headache specialist, I was part of a research trial for Imitrex before it came on the market. I fought with doctors repeatedly over being allowed to keep my script for fiorecet (tylenol, aspirin and codeine). Ironically, now my migraines can be managed with something incredibly simple – Excedrine Migraine. What the hell? For a time there was a shortage of excedrine migraine, I remember worrying I might run out. I couldn’t face one of those migraines without my magic medicine. Can you believe sealed bottles of that stuff went as high as $100 on Ebay? Yes, I looked. I didn’t buy it because luckily the supply came back before I ran out. I literally keep a bottle of those magic pills practically everywhere. There’s one in my car, one in my office, one on my nightstand (because if it hits at night, I have a hard time getting out of bed to get meds), one in my backpack… Luckily, I don’t have migraines as often, but when I do they are just as debilitating.
I have found that other people are sympathetic (not everyone, but a lot of people). To be sympathetic means you feel pity or sorrow for someone else’s situation or misfortune. However, sympathy only takes you so far. It isn’t understanding. It isn’t empathy.
Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. – Wikipedia
Panic attacks are similar to migraines, in that they are so severe and crushing that unless you have experienced one, you cannot understand what it is like. Panic attacks are not “wigging out” or being extremely stressed. “Feeling nervous” is not the same. In fact, words are ineffective at describing the thoughts and sensations associated with panic.
My ex was very sympathetic and tried his best to help. He helped me work through many really rough anxiety attacks. But I could tell he was baffled them. When they would come back over and over, eventually I could tell his patience would start to fade. It’s just something you can’t truly understand or empathize with if you’ve never experienced it.
I remember years ago having a massage client that confided in me about his wife. She had started having panic attacks. She thought they were heart attacks, or something similar. They had gone to the emergency room many times, only to be told nothing was wrong. He was a very nice guy and he obviously cared deeply for her. But, after so many trips to the ED, he was becoming frustrated. That has always been a fear of mine – that the one I love will get “fed up” with my panic disorder. This thought comes to me repeatedly when I’m in the middle of a bad panic cycle. Luckily, my ex was supportive and kind throughout our relationship and my wife now is as well. I’m extremely grateful for that.
Although I’ve become much more open about my condition, this limitation of understanding still makes me hesitate. One thing I have learned though, in my quest to be more open, is that are a lot more people that have experienced panic attacks in my world than I realized. I’m not alone.