Panic At The Citgo

I’ve been staring at a blank screen for about twenty minutes now. I’m terrible at starting. I’m really good at persisting. I’m tenacious and determined once I break inertia. But, I’m a sorry initiator. In fact, I’ve been thinking about how to write this blog for weeks. Just how do I craft the perfect preface? What is the secret combination of nouns and adjectives, the alchemy of meter and metaphor, that what will unlock the vault of verbiage, and bath us all in the light of that pure blog gold? I haven’t a damn clue. So here’s the story…

It was almost two months ago now. I’d just finished up a short run of shows with my friend Dean Fields. I was driving home from North Carolina after a performance the night before in Richmond, Virginia. The clocks had all sprung forward, but I can’t say the same was true for me. I had checked into a Hampton Inn at 3am that morning. I slept as late as I possible could and spent the remainder of daylight hours listening to podcasts of This American Life, and Fresh Air, as I drove, maintaining my constant vigil for the next Starbucks. It was about as uneventful as you might imagine.

I neared Atlanta in the early evening. I stopped one last time for gas about an hour out of town and bought some awful snack mix to hold me over until I got home. I was worn out from my trip and excited about sleeping in my own bed. But, I had had a few really fun shows in a row, so my spirits were relatively high, despite my exhaustion. All things considered, I was feeling good.

As I passed “Spaghetti Junction” and the tall buildings of Atlanta started rising in the distance, a slight uneasiness began forming itself in my chest. At first I simply ignored the feeling, but it dug in and called out for my attention. Suddenly I could feel my heart thumping up against my rib cage. My pulse was racing. I felt a fire in my sternum. Sweat gathered on my brow, and then the final alarm sounded… my left hand began to go numb. “I’m having a heart attack,” I said out loud.

My mind spun like a top, wobbled a bit, then fell over on itself. Terrified and confused, I looked down and my hand was dialing 911 on my phone. It rang…

“What’s your emergency?”
“I think I might be having a heart attack.”
“Where are you right now?”
“On the 75/85 connector.”
“Are you driving??”
“Well, pull over!”

It took the ambulance driver about 45 minutes to find me on the highway side. Good thing they take these emergencies seriously! The EMTs took my blood pressure, it was 190/110! They did an EKG and some other hocus pocus. Then they told me I really should go to the hospital right away. Awesome. Then next thing I know, I’m being wheeled into the emergency room on the stretcher with my guitar and laptop balance on my chest. (I just couldn’t leave them on the shoulder of 85.)

I was in the hospital for about four hours. They hooked me up to everything they could find and monitored my heart. They did blood tests and took a chest x-ray. But mostly, they just left me in a tiny partitioned space by myself to watch my blood pressure and heart rate slowly come back to a baseline neurotic level.

One of the last people to visit my “room” was a forty-something year old black nurse who seemed unimpressed with my “condition,” to say the least. She handed me something disgusting to drink called a G.I. cocktail, and said, in a way that sounded nothing like question at all, “do you have issues with anxiety?”

My heart was apparently fine. Or at least, I hadn’t had a heart attack.

A few weeks later I had another episode a lot like the first one. This time, I just lay on the grass in the front yard of my friend’s house and waited for the sensations to pass.
A few hours of internet research, a couple thousand dollars in emergency room bills, and several conversations with trusted friends later, I came around to the obvious conclusion: I wasn’t having heart attacks. I was having panic attacks.

I wasn’t going to share this with too many people, let alone the entire interwebs. But it seemed that every time I did share this story, someone would tell he they had a very similar experience, or they knew someone who did. This isn’t the kind of thing most people go around talking about, because It can make you feel like you’re a crazy person. But, since I’ve never claimed to be anything else, I thought I could tell my story. I thought sharing this might make other people feel better about their own experience, who knows.

Its been over a month since I’ve had an attack. I had some good advice from friends about how to cope. I’m breathing a lot deeper these days. I’m excited about summer and new songs on the way. I’m sorry I had to take a break from blogging, but I hope to be back now. This one’s for all you worry warts out there. Thanks for reading all this everyone. Love you guys.


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13 Responses to Panic At The Citgo

  1. Beth says:


    I am happy to hear you are safe and sound. That is an awful feeling – I know because I had those in high school. Hoping you find your center with meditation, yoga, and long walks in beautiful places.

    Much Love,

  2. you just made alot of people feel a LOT better. rock on with your brave self!

  3. Steen says:

    Those things are no joke. Glad you’re on the mend. Keep breathing deeply. Hope to see you soon. 🙂

  4. Jaime says:

    You definitely are not crazy and I’m glad that you’re feeling better. I used to have panic attacks in college – always at exam time – and they mostly went away once I graduated. (If I ever start having them frequently at work, you better believe I’ll be looking for a different career.) Take care of yourself – and keep breathing deeply and surround yourself with amazing people. 🙂

    • eliotjames says:

      Thanks Jaime,

      Glad to hear you’ve come out safely on the other side! I’ll try to make sure the breathing continues.

  5. Sarah says:

    My last semester of my one year in grad school I had a severe panic attack on the day my last paper was due. It was the worst feeling ever and embarrassing to boot to have to walk across campus sobbing to try and talk to the professor. A lot led up to it, not just the one paper. I can’t imagine experiencing that while driving.

    I am glad that you are okay!


    • eliotjames says:

      Thanks Sarah,

      That’s exactly why I’ve avoided school as much as possible 🙂 Thanks for the support!

  6. Barry Manilow says:

    I just got around to reading this. I’m sorry I took so long.
    I hope you’re doing better these days. I think everyone goes through something similar at some point in their life. I’ve not had anything as extreme to go to the ER, but there were times I thought I wouldn’t wake up in the morning or I’d be found on the floor from stroking out. Not fun.
    Just ask yourself WWUD? (What Would Unicorns Do?)

  7. Anonymous says:

    I was a freshman in college the first time I had a panic attack. The on and off behavior and physical therapy over the past 20+ years – for things seemingly unrelated – have kept me out of the ER, but apparently, my anxiety is pretty hard headed (pun intended). Your blog is genius self help. And so is your music. Keep on keepin’ on.

    Enjoyed your show at Eddie’s the other night – we’ll keep track of you and keep cheering.
    Does the word “keep” look funny to you? I does to me now. Keep.

  8. Having read this I believed it was extremely enlightening.
    I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this informative article together.
    I once again find myself personally spending way too much time both reading and commenting.
    But so what, it was still worth it!

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