I could feel something going wrong halfway through a take. We’d been rehearsing for hours and nothing was going right. And now we were only on the second take and my body was no longer my own.
I’ve only had one panic attack before, exactly eleven years ago to the day. I didn’t know what it was at the time, I just thought I was dying.
But this time was worse.
Because I was cable-tied to chair in a freezing cold room and there were two cameras rolling, a schedule to catch up with and an immense amount of pressure.
And then I realised I was having panic attack.
I felt tingling in my fingers and could no longer move them. My chest constricted and I knew I was hyperventilating. But my character was also supposed to be panicking, so a small part of me thought ‘well at least this will look great on camera’.
The scene was long and every minute that ticked by felt like a minute closer to blackout. I had to shout my lines just to get my lips to form the words properly.
I knew the second the director shouted ‘cut’ I would have to say what was happening. But then I remembered my wrists and ankles were cable-tied to a chair. It was a bad time to have a meltdown.
Ah, that ol’ chestnut
‘I’m having a panic attack’, I said, the moment the camera cut.
I folded forwards at the waist as far as I could to hide my face, my arms tied at my sides. I barely remember it even though it was just four days ago.
I could feel hands frantically cutting through the ties and others resting gently on my shoulders. Some of the cable ties were done up backwards so they could be reused but I didn’t have the strength nor wherewithal to free myself.
The moment my arms were loose I hugged them close to me and cried and cried. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d fucked everything up. We were so far behind already and it was heading towards 8pm. I’d been on set for 12 hours and I was tired but not enough to justify this.
A fellow actor knelt beside me and guided me through breathing exercises and eventually I managed to calm myself enough to stand and walk back out into the ailing daylight.
Not practised at panic attacks, as I regained my composure enough to joke to my wonderful make up artist that I’d ballsed up her art work, the reality of what had just happened started to work its way into my brain.
But I’m over this. I don’t struggle with anxiety anymore. How can this happen? How can this happen on camera?
This is the weird thing about anxiety. It can die down, become a faint shadow in the background for months at a time. And then it turns up like a hurricane.
It’s not all or nothing
From the moment my GP told me I was suffering with anxiety seven years ago, I wanted to not be. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve felt completely fine and told myself that’s it, it’s gone forever, I’m over it.
Like it’s an infection that your body eventually heals.
And after this panic attack, within hours I was telling the director that I’d be back to my normal self the following day. I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. This is just a blip.
And it was, to an extent. But not enough to be denied. And that’s all I’ve ever really done. Deny its power, often its very existence. And it has improved substantially since that diagnosis all those years ago.
But improvement is not eradication. Can it ever be gone forever? Probably not.
Anxiety doesn’t like being ignored. You can try. Oh, have I tried. But it always finds a way. For years it was nightmares. Horrific nightmares that would wake me in terror. For months it was nausea every morning, all morning.
It’s shredded my memory and made me relentlessly tired. It’s sent me to bed in the middle of the day, unable to do even the most basic things. It’s sat heavy on my brain and paralysed me.
But I thought it was gone. And now this.
The next morning I didn’t even recognise myself and when I arrived on set I could barely bring myself to utter ‘hello’. The feeling subsided though, as I was met with friendly faces and set banter.
By the end of the day I could connect to me again, could feel myself returning. We shot some fun scenes and I found myself laughing. The following day I couldn’t even imagine the panic attack as being something that happened to me at all. It felt like it happened to somebody else.
In the hours after it I’d been considering cancelling every upcoming event, every commitment and planning to get into bed and never come out. I wanted to ask the director to write me out of the script. And yet 48 hours later the experience could’ve been something I’d read about in a book. It wasn’t me.
Push yourself but always keep an eye on the ledge
I wrote a memoir, In Bed with the Atlantic, about sailing 20,000 miles as a novice sailor with anxiety. And towards the end of that voyage and the end of the book, I’d somewhat mastered my anxiety. I’d stopped it from stopping me.
I knew it was there but I had proven to myself time and time again that the doubts anxiety created were not real. They were not unconquerable. And while that was beneficial mostly, it did stop me from seeing it creep up on me in moments of high stress.
Shooting two feature films in seven days was always going to be tough but I underestimated how tough it would really be when anxiety is present, simmering gently in the background.
So I pushed myself without remembering that I needed to keep an eye out for it and take the steps necessary to keep it contained. And that’s the thing with anxiety, while it can fade to near insignificance, you can’t just leave it to its own devices. You must keep a watchful eye on it.
The morning of my panic attack I crashed my bike for the first time since I was a child. I was speeding to the station to catch a train when my pedal caught the pavement and threw me off.
It was nothing. It was painful and annoying but on an ordinary day it would’ve been nothing. It shook me a little and then I had to rush for my train, then cycle the remaining two miles to be in that make up chair on time.
Then came the general frustrations with shooting schedules going awry and difficult scenes in challenging conditions. On top of that, I wanted to be home on time for something important and that was clearly not going to happen.
And so it builds.
And, when you ignore it building, anxiety has ways of making itself heard loud and clear.
Lots of things have a tendency to get worse when you ignore them. Like tax returns and broken bones. But we don’t ignore them for long, if at all. So why do we ignore anxiety?
Just because it doesn’t present itself as a £1000 fine or an inability to walk, it doesn’t mean it’s any less deserving of care and attention.
I never wanted it to stop me from doing anything and I discovered that it didn’t have to if I managed it properly and took care of myself. And I took my eye off the ball. I once again convinced myself it was gone.
To have a panic attack on camera while cable-tied to a chair is not the best way to be reminded that I need to take care of my mental health. But it’s very effective.
So hello anxiety, sorry I ignored you, let’s be friends again. Let’s mutually acknowledge each other and move on.
Struggling with anxiety or know someone who does? Check out the mental health charity Mind for information and support.
Kitiara Pascoe is a ghostwriter and author. After three years of sailing around the Atlantic and Caribbean, she washed up in Devon in the UK. You can find her on Twitter @KitiaraP and @TheLitLifeboat. She’s the author of In Bed with the Atlantic and The Working Writer and you can find her journalism and blog at KitiaraPascoe.com or her ghostwriting at TheLiteraryLifeboat.co.uk