WARNING: Contains traces of self-pity
Before 1998, I never used to get these panic attacks.
Before then, I never had the sudden rush of fear over something I had done, something I had not done, something I had said, something I had left unsaid.
Before 1998, I never experienced that sudden rush of fear turning into an all-encompassing paralysis of indecision, not knowing which way to turn, screaming out loud for help that would never come, decisions I could never make.
It didn't help that the majority of these panic attacks were in the car, on the way to or from work, because behind the wheel is about the worst place to have one.
It is all one can do to pull the car to the side of the road, take the key from the ignition and have wait for the crisis to pass. Then drive on, feeling faintly embarrassed.
That was before I went to the Republic of the Congo in 1998, got trapped there for a week, and was detained and robbed by AK47-wielding thugs at the airport.
I might have told you a slightly jazzed-up-stroke-sanitized version of events that make a good read. But while the facts of my week in Brazzaville remain the same, I glossed over the mind-wrenching fear I felt every waking minute of the day, every sweat-soaked night.
Because in Brazzaville, I learned the value of my life: 600 US dollars. Also, a leather jacket and my favourite camera.
The panic attacks don't come all the time, they only arrive if I fall out of my comfort zone, or - more likely - if I fear I'm about to fall out of my comfort zone. I love my comfort zone, which means I'm getting a long-service bonus for being in the same job for 25 years.
So, what's brought it back this time around? I wish I could tell. But birthdays come and go, and you feel increasingly mortal, increasingly out of control, more than a mere "pull yourself together" can deal with, and the memories of that week in Brazzaville come flooding back. The full unexpurgated version, rather than the sanitised cut that lets me sleep at night.
But that alone was no reason for wallowing in my nightmares, for I felt the slide coming whole days before that.
I shiver at those memories, the endless guns, the wreckage, the smile on the face of the uniformed goon who beat that money out of me with the butt of a pistol. The muzzle of his comrade's assault rifle, prodding at me, not knowing if it was loaded, not knowing if the safety was off, not knowing if the finger on the trigger would curl another inch. The treacle-like hyper-reality of the situation, every last detail imprinted on my mind, filed away for instant recall.
The feeling of never being so alone and so abandoned in my life. No wonder I spent sixteen years forgetting.
No wonder it comes back without warning, it only takes the most unlikely of (no pun intended) triggers, and I'm at the side of a road, shouting at the steering wheel, not knowing whether to stay, go, turn around, get out and run away.
Most days I'm happy. I've found happiness, a confidence to get on with my life that doesn't just come from being told to stop moping and pull yourself together, are you a man or a mouse? Eek, eek, I think you'll find.
But some days, I'm back there, that white-painted room at Maya-Maya Airport, finding out how much my life is worth. Not much, it turns out. But still being able to breathe, to love, to live, is priceless.