Signal failure: on train delays and panic attacks

I am adding a handful of posts from my blog to Medium, as they might be of interest. Some of this post might be a little graphic about physical illness. You probably don’t want to be eating whilst you read this.

Panic. Image from Military Pathways® mental health blog

So, last night, all the signals failed between Waterloo and Clapham, meaning trains were completely fucked; a friend of ours over the road spent an hour to travel the eight-minute journey between the two.

For over 20 years now, I have suffered from panic disorder. If you’ve never experienced a panic attack, you probably can’t understand the crippling nature of them. I first experienced a panic attack after a concert for Devon Youth Choir at Plymouth Pavilions. The concert went really well; there was no reason for me to be anxious, particularly after the event. At 16, I’d performed in front of large audiences before but, after we finished, I needed to go to the loo and I sat there hyperventilating for what felt like forever, until my stepfather came to check on me and he and mam helped calm me down.

Then came university interviews. I was very nervous before all of them, but the first one was easily the worst. I was interviewing for an awesome course at Kent (BA, MA, DÉUG, L-ès-L and M-ès-L in French; I’d’ve hated it!) so, rather than taking the sleeper from Plymouth and arriving in Canterbury at 8am, I stayed overnight with my aunt and uncle in Watford. This was my first introduction to Imodium, and the lovely cooked breakfast my aunt made me didn’t stay in my stomach for long. I was ill at Watford Junction, at Euston, at Victoria (where my first experience of a peephole and cottaging confused and distracted me for long enough for me to stop being ill and get on the damn train), on the train, at Canterbury and at UKC. As you might have gathered, my panic attacks come with nausea and diarrhœa.

My panic attacks were sporadic for a while, but became particularly problematic when I was at university. After I moved in with Scott, I had a 45-minute bus ride to UEA (I got an offer from Kent I was never going to meet) and, at times, the idea of travelling this far without easy access to a toilet was just too much for me to take; it took me a long time to realise that my stomach wasn’t the problem — I was diagnosed with IBS whilst at uni and had to intercalate my third year because I was so often so ill and had an appendectomy the same year.

The stomach problems and panic attacks settled down for a while after my appendectomy and I started to think the problem had been solved. Though the problems came back after a while — when I was asked to work on-site for M&S at Stockley Park, panic meant I was unable to do so. Whilst I got past that, it became a problem at work, I was prescribed medication and made some progress.

Things have been up and down over the last eight years. In December 2011, my GP suggested reducing the dose of my citalopram, as I had generally been a lot better. Messing with my dosage completely fucked up both my stomach and my head — citalopram is also indicated for IBS. After a particularly traumatic New Year’s Eve, I restored my original dose, which we have since raised, as it’s no longer being as effective.

An airline departure board, courtesy of a BBC report on Eyjafjallajökull

So there’s the background. Last night, as I mentioned, Waterloo was fucked. Not just a little delayed, but completely fucked — no trains leaving the station for four hours. My main mistake was leaving it too long before working out alternatives to trying to head home: by the time I was working out where I could crash the night in London (as I really wasn’t going to get home), I had already started panicking.

Jen was out for the night in town, with a friend who lives in Soho, so I went and met them in the pub. Cue panic attack in the pub toilet. So we went back to his flat, so they could drop me off to crash on his sofa before they went back out clubbing. I managed to keep the next panic attack on hold until they’d gone back out, but suffice to say I was somewhat unwell.

Spending the night in a Soho penthouse is somewhat less fun when you’re not feeling great and when you know there is nothing you can do to calm it down. I was at the nearest I could get to a “safe space” and couldn’t get home for the night, so I just had to curl up on the sofa and sleep.

I woke up ok (and in surprisingly little back and neck pain), but still felt pretty dreck (too little sleep and having spent a fair amount of the night either sat on the loo or clutching it isn’t exactly good for the soul) so, after sipping some more water, I headed home and spent the day napping and watching the Game of Thrones DVD commentaries.

It may seem ridiculous that, at the age of 37, something that most people find relatively normal — being in a situation you can’t control — can be so completely crippling. For more context, I haven’t visited my parents (on Dartmoor and in Gloucestershire) in nearly 15 years, because the idea of the train journey petrifies me. My mam and Geoff have moved house in that time; I have never seen her new place. My grandmother is having a 90th birthday meal the weekend after next, in Leeds. We’re not going because I know that the entire journey would be one of the most stressful things I could subject myself to. In the last 20 years, I have been abroad thrice — once shortly after my appendectomy with Norfolk Youth and Community Service, once to visit one of my best friends in the south of France and once to Paris with work. I can no longer go on protest marches, as police oppression of protest means I simply can’t risk putting myself in that situation.

Like many people, I suffer from an invisible disability. But in the Global North, we don’t like to talk about mental illnesses. And we’re not very good at treating them. The NHS is a wonderful, wonderful thing (or, at least, was and hopefully will remain so, despite the government), but it is not good at mental healthcare. Given my panic attacks have become more common again and I’ve become less good at stopping them in their tracks, I’m gonna have to talk to my GP again. Let’s see if, this time, I might actually get somewhere.

I’m sharing this because, particularly when experiencing a panic attack and shortly afterwards, it’s difficult to remember that you’re not alone. It’s difficult to push past the shame you feel at being so fragile, so pathetic. Real grown-ups aren’t scared by something like a train journey or a difficult commute home. An unexpected situation doesn’t lead most people to need to spend half an hour on the toilet, trying not to throw up and trying not to cry.

According to the WHO, panic disorder prevalence in Europe is just over 0·3% — I am probably not the only person you know who suffers from panic disorder. You might suffer from panic attacks yourself. Remember: you are not pathetic and you are not alone. And your doctor may be able to help.

After searching for free images to depict panic or cancellation and delays, I drew a blank. The two images in this piece are credited in their captions, but are both used without permission and I do not hold the copyrights. This is probably a contravention of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Please contact me if you hold the copyright in either of these images and can discuss licensing.

Originally published at on 8 March 2013.

This article is dedicated to the public domain under the terms of the Creative Commons Zero licence. Please translate, copy, excerpt, share, disseminate and otherwise spread it far and wide. You don’t need to ask me, you don’t need to tell me. Just do it!

 by the author.



🇪🇺🏳️‍🌈🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿♿⧖ Mainly-gay, mainly-Welsh political geek; proud social justice warrior+trans ally. @WikiLGBT, @OpenRightsGroup, ex- @mySociety. he/him

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Owen Blacker

Owen Blacker


🇪🇺🏳️‍🌈🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿♿⧖ Mainly-gay, mainly-Welsh political geek; proud social justice warrior+trans ally. @WikiLGBT, @OpenRightsGroup, ex- @mySociety. he/him