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I had a panic attack on the Malia Strip

So I’m standing there, hunched over a table with 12 other 19-year-old lads sucking on a watered down Sex on the Beach cocktail from a glass fish bowl. This was it! We’d spent 11 and a half months of the year waiting for this moment, a two-week holiday in Malia.

Back then these two weeks of the year were what me and my mates were living for. We spent our time needlessly ‘cruising’ (basically driving to Tesco, parking up and eating cookies), and spending two hours in nightclubs most weekends because we’d show up fashionably late after pre-drinking to save money. We’d constantly play head-to-head tournaments of FIFA, alongside the odd occasional house party round my mate Dan’s while his parents were away.

It’s the first night. We’re sporting our freshly-printed Essex Boys t-shirts, styling them with baggy shorts and £9 white plimsolls from the local camping shop. Banter is flying, we’re singing every footy song we can remember and getting increasingly confident as the alcohol kicks in. Dom’s asking every passing group of girls “where are you girls going then?” As we’re walking to the strip ready for a big night out, a rep with an immaculate hairstyle stops us to offer The Greatest Drink Deal On The Island (if not in the whole of Europe): four fish bowls, 125 shots and you can even pour your own drinks – all for just €5 each. We all steam through the door into an empty bar. The DJ looks like he’s ready to fall asleep. After spending a good 25 minutes dancing like idiots to Pitbull on repeat, my night takes a turn for the worse.

Two months before this moment my dad had killed himself. My dad went from my role model, a man who had ‘everything’, to breaking down, crying for the first time in front of me and, over the next six months, falling into a deep depression and taking his own life. That moment changed my life forever. I look back now and question how I even managed to go on holiday. I was depressed, anxious, filled with anger and questions. But I did all that I could to hide those emotions.

After spending a good 25 minutes dancing like idiots to Pitbull on repeat, my night takes a turn for the worse.

At my dad’s funeral we wanted to celebrate his life rather than mourn it. One of his funeral songs (as people walked out) was upbeat – a song called ‘Chelsea Dagger’ by the Fratellis. At that time, the song was everywhere, and often got played at nightclubs. Every time I heard one of my dad’s funeral songs I had to fight really hard to hold back this strange feeling called sadness, and everywhere I went his funeral songs seemed to follow me. When I turned on the radio, when I walked into a bar or the supermarket.

The DJ in the Malia Bar decides that it’s time to switch things up from Pitbull. The five of us are dancing but looking bored. His choice? ‘Chelsea Dagger’ of course.

Oh shit. Suddenly I have a sick feeling in my stomach. It wasn’t the alcohol. A lot of my friends are oblivious, dancing and singing the words to the song. But a few of them glance over to me. One of them makes eye contact and raises his eyebrows almost to remind me. 30 seconds in to the song I walk out as quickly as I can, my eyes welling up. As I hit the fresh air it all comes crushing down. Tears pour from my eyes. I bolt away from the bar and away from people. I sit down at a curb fighting for breath. I’m trying to hide my emotions but I can’t help it. I panic about people seeing me and it only makes it worse. Three of my friends follow me out. They look shocked but know exactly what I’m upset about. “You’re having a panic attack” says Josh. “Focus on slowing down your breathing, I’ve had them before”. They all help me calm down, telling me it’s expected that I’d be upset. They suggest going back to the room with me if I don’t feel like staying out.

Tears pour from my eyes. I bolt away from the bar and away from people. I sit down at a curb fighting for breath. I’m trying to hide my emotions but I can’t help it.

I manage to slow down my breathing and control my emotions. I look around to see people walking past. I have no idea who saw it or how long it happened for. It’s like I was in a daze I’ll never be able to describe. I stand up, we have a manly huddle and head back to the bar. The night goes on, I drink more and act as if nothing happened.

The next day I wake with a hangover in the early afternoon and feel uneasy. What will my mates think about my panic attack? It had never happened to me and I’m scared it could happen again. We head down to the pool and I do all I can to deflect having a conversation about it. Out comes the banter gun, I shoot comments towards my mates about last night, making a joke of them before they bring up the panic attack. Within a few hours the drinking games start again, the baggy shorts are out and Dom is asking, “where are you girls going then?”

Out comes the banter gun, I shoot comments towards my mates about last night, making a joke of them before they bring up the panic attack.

Nine years on from that day, it still baffles me why I thought showing emotion was weakness. Why didn’t I just tell them I was having a hard time? Why did I have to hold it all in for so long, causing a deep state of depression and anxiety? Why did I need alcohol to finally open up and express how I felt?

I buried my dad’s suicide for so long, putting on a brave face. I chased short-term pleasure in the form of alcohol, a new Ford Focus with tinted windows, working every hour possible on my business and being the joker to mask the pain. Short-term pleasure fed my ego and closed off my emotions, but it didn’t help for long. Depression, anxiety, and even thoughts of suicide took over.

Eventually I did seek help, I talked. I started a journey to answer the questions I had around my Dad’s death. Talking about how I felt, dealing with it, helped me forgive my dad. It helped me understand why he did what he did. I started to feel better. As I write this I’m grateful for my friends who never judged me. I now know they always would’ve supported me, just as I always would’ve supported them.

If I could speak to my 19-year-old self, I’d tell him: “talking about how you feel doesn’t make you weak or less of a lad.” But, as men, talking about how we feel always seems harder than it actually is.

Paul blogs at pmcgregor.com.

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