How to Survive a Panic Attack, (Not) Sponsored by Aetna, by Caitlin Brady

By Caitlin Brady

Many people use the term “panic attack” as a catchall to describe moments of panic or anxiety, so allow me to quickly define what a panic attack means for me: a one to two hour fit of:

  1. Sobbing
  2. Teeth chattering
  3. Convulsing
  4. Hyperventilating
  5. Debilitating nausea concluding in a quasi-catatonic fatigue

Afterwards, hours of sleep are required in order to function again at the level generally expected of adults.

“I hadn’t gotten any alerts from Aetna by phone, email, solar eclipse, or goat entrails,”

I bring this up because recently my panic attack medication ran out. When I tried to replace it, the pharmacist told me straight — my insurance had been terminated. I hadn’t gotten any alerts from Aetna by phone, email, solar eclipse, or goat entrails, and now my only option was to pay several hundred dollars out of pocket. Astute readers may intuit what happened next: I had panic attack. Because nothing helps you resolve a mental issue quite like the mental issue itself, in full expression, in CVS, in public. So I sprinted out and left the pharmacist hanging.

Later, as I stared at the ceiling, I considered two things:

-beyond money, do the people at Aetna care whether I live or die?

-what recourse do I have?

The answer to both is: not a lot. Okay… but the good news is that there are simple administrative procedures in place to solve the prescription issue, right? I picked up my phone, ready-ish to get to the bottom of what was surely a simple misunderstanding.

  • First things first, drag yourself, wiggly limbed and snot-streaked, to your computer to start paperwork. Maybe get a glass of water first, since as the patient who suffered a medical issue, you’ll need to be the tireless communicative liaison between multiple lumbering bureaucracies. Call the insurer with all the determination you can muster, only to hear it’s a holiday and they’re closed.

~ one day later ~

  • Call again: talk with an English-speaking robot; give your ID; select menu option; hold for operator. Wrong department; repeat as necessary between provider, insurer, and a rotating cast of representatives.
  • While on hold, check your statements – did you forget to pay or re-enroll? Is this your fault? Nah, looks like you paid them. Pricy salt in the wound!
  • Every human and robot on the phone has instructed you to use the website instead. Is this because the robot revolution is upon us? We can only hope. They might be more compassionate.
  • You might be dazed and exhausted, but you’ll have to create a log-in and password before navigating the labyrinthine web interface in search of the correct claim form.
  • Your username is incorrect. Have you previously created a log-in? What do you mean you don’t remember? Surely you don’t use more than one password and username?
  • Try every dead pet you can think of until you get locked out and have to close the log-in window.
  • Study the image on the welcome page of two people smiling. Try to force a smile, almost succeed.

“…a little yellow scorpion called The Deathstalker, also known as Aetna’s unofficial mascot.”

  • Scroll down to an Aetna article tantalizingly titled “The Deadliest Animal.” Human? Insurance worker?
  • No, no it’s a mosquito, as they transmit illnesses to over 700 million people annually. Perhaps we should promote number 25 though, a little yellow scorpion called The Deathstalker, also known as Aetna’s unofficial mascot.
  • Consider canceling your scheduled psychiatric appointment for tomorrow because you probably could buy a car for less than an uninsured session.
  • On the phone with your doctor, disclose current predicament – he urges you to come in for safety reasons.

“…while humming a little ditty called ‘Fuck you'”

  • At the appointment, your doctor reveals his insurance recently sent a collections agency after him for a forgotten $12 co-pay. Things are looking up.
  • In spite of getting help, when you return home you feel like giving up on any and all treatment because the energy required to constantly convince yourself and a slew of strangers this was a genuine medical issue only begets more stress, frustration, and exhaustion.
  • Water your “resilience garden,” a ragtag assortment of succulents on the windowsill, while humming a little ditty called “Fuck you” – just this phrase, over and over, in different keys.
  • Receive your username email from Aetna. It requires you to find your ID card, which could be literally anywhere right now.
  • Tell yourself you still care, though you don’t really anymore.
  • Fill out all the required fields – incorrect password. Did you change your password? What do you mean you don’t remember? Christ! How many dead pets, middle names, native cities, and favorite meals do you have? If it’s not No-No spaghetti cookie 88 I am flat out of suggestions.
  • Google the claim form, pray it’s the right one, and print it. Start reading the fine print, stop. Start again, stop. Stare out the window.
  • Discover from yet another representative that this misunderstanding is due to the fact your coverage is not effective for “7 business days” – the administrative processing time from your last re-enrollment date.
  • Scrawl a hand-written letter to Aetna, keeping your penmanship as neat as possible so as not to seem too crazy, asking what the point of insurance is. Drop it in the mailbox along with your claim form, having used a winter flower forever stamp you stole from work. Give yourself a hi-five.


All done!


Caitlin Brady is an MFA candidate from Texas who writes fiction and humor. She studied screenwriting at New York University and collaborated with Animal Kingdom Films (It Follows, Short Term 12), on a feature-length script.







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