Paul Hopkins: Covid anxiety and the need for a hug

I've always been a half-glass full type of guy, and an adrenaline junkie to boot. As young man, cutting my teeth in journalism, I threw myself into the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe war in the late Seventies and ended up with shrapnel in my chest for my efforts.

I went undercover in the early 2000, as an aid worker, into the insanity that was Colombia, with its guerrilla campaign of kidnappings, the killing machines of cocaine cartels and the right-wing death squads. My assignment was to report on the covert actions of the so-called IRA Three. Two weeks in, my cover was blown, along with an RTE reporter, and we had to be hastily airlifted out of Bogota. But I got my story — all 12,000 words.

I was in Kenya with the UN in 2008 when civil conflict between the Kikuyu and other ethic people led to the displacement of 600,000 and the killing of tens of thousands. I still have a blood-soaked machete, secreted away from one of the killing fields, and smuggled home.

I have always thought myself invincible, and not just when a young man. Invincible that is, until four weeks ago. I am walking from my bedroom to the bathroom. Suddenly I am overcome with feelings of... of apprehension, of fear and uncertainty. My breathing becomes laboured, my head light, spinning, my stomach clenching and my legs begin to go from under me. I sit down on the bed, for fear I am about to fall down.

I have never felt like this — ever. Sweating, light-headed, stomach racked with an excruciating clenching. I felt so awful, so nauseous, so ill — and I say that as one who had open heart surgery a decade back.

The 'attack' lasts about 10 minutes and, while it passes, it leaves me feeling vulnerable and anxious. I, and I don't know where it came from, rationalise that I have had a panic attack, although I have no previous experience of such. I realise, 20/20 insight being the wonder it is, that I have been anxious for quite some time before the attack and have, unwittingly, buried my feelings in work and daily walking and mundane activities like Netflix bingeing.

The fourth attack, the day after I get my second vaccine shot, is markedly different in that accompanying the erratic breathing, the racing pulse, pounding in my temple, the lightheadedness, the hot and cold sweats, the inability to stand up with ease, is a clenching tightness in my chest, increasingly tightening its hold. This is new. This is the pain in the chest they talk of when alluding to heart attack.

In my turmoil, my mind racing all over the place, I dial 911. They are with me in 40 minutes, carrying a plethora of machines that I have only seen previously in reruns of Dr Who.

The two young medics leave no bodily part unassailed, hook me up all over, and with utmost care and kindness and utter professionalism talk me down from the ledge, from where I am contemplating my end of days.

I have never been so scared.

I am not having a heart attack, the para-medics assure me, though I have some symptoms of such — heartbeat 126, and blood pressure 182/80. The tight chest.

A panic attack can mimic cardiac arrest.

Panic attacks are the body's natural defence against a 'real or perceived threat' and go back to when our ancestors roamed the Savannah; when a potential enemy was spotted the human body went into overdrive to make its escape.

Covid has increased people's anxiety beyond medical expectation, my GP tells me. "It can make us feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety."

But what worries do I face, I say to my GP.

I figure the answer. I have been beginning to believe that the Covid-19 is here to stay, in all its future guises and, as a man with the Bus Pass, I worry I may never know 'normal life' again. And, lately I have been arguing with myself that, given this imposition, what harm would just one drink do?

But that is a road I can no longer take.

Meanwhile, with prescribed medication I'm casting off my anxiety but doing so means facing my demons and fears, real or imagined.

What I really need, though, is to be allowed hug someone.