A Honeymoon Panic Attack

A Honeymoon Panic Attack

We’ve been celebrating the arrival of peak travel season with a series of personal essays from contributing writers. Each post tells the tale of its writer’s most unforgettable trip. Here is Una LaMarche, whose honeymoon didn’t go exactly as planned…

A fun fact about the word “honeymoon” is that it was originally a 16th century form of shade-throwing. From the Old English hony moone, “hony” represented the honeyed sweetness of a new marriage, while “moone” was a reference to the moon cycles — and how fleeting that sweetness would prove to be. Basically, saying “Have a great honeymoon!” to your friend in the Middle Ages was like silently mouthing, “Enjoy it while it lasts, fools,” to the drunk strangers waiting outside of a Vegas wedding chapel.

I have been married for almost nine years, but I take comfort in this delightfully pessimistic definition of what is widely marketed to be one of the most blissful vacations a person can hope to experience. Because three nights after our wedding, in a tiny Italian hotel room, my husband Jeff had his first panic attack. And, as it turns out, Rick Steves’ Pocket Rome doesn’t have a listing for dealing with that particular type of travel hiccup.

“I can’t breathe,” he said abruptly, getting out of the bed in which we had recently failed to consummate the European leg of our new marriage, due to mutual exhaustion and inebriation.

“What?!” I said this not in the loving purr of a blushing bride but in the way someone might yell over the sound of a power drill or industrial vacuum. I was, it is relevant to mention, in a terrible mood thanks to the fact that my grade school-level Italian had failed and embarrassed me at dinner, and had forced Jeff to resort to ordering our meal in French.

“I think I have to throw up.” Jeff lunged for the bathroom door, which was conveniently located three inches from the foot of our bed. We were staying in the same hotel my parents had stayed in on their first trip to Rome, which was charming but claustrophobic, as if built for elves, and the dining room played nothing but “Light My Fire” by The Doors on an endless loop.

“Was it the carciofi?” Medical emergency or no, I was determined to regain the dignity that had been lost at the hands of our ponytailed waiter, who had stared blankly at me while I attempted to order artichokes.

Jeff didn’t respond, which finally got me out of bed. Despite my petulance and belly full of spitefully-consumed tiramisu, I had taken it upon myself to model one of the negligees I’d received at my bridal shower, essentially just a fish net with a head hole. My nipples poked out curiously from between the strands as I listened for sounds of vomiting, but there came none.

“Babe?” I called, pressing my fingertips against the flimsy door.

“I need a cigarette,” Jeff groaned.

“I thought you said you couldn’t breathe.” This came out harsher than I meant it to, and Jeff emerged from the bathroom, pale and sweaty, with a frown.

“I think I’m having a panic attack,” he said.

“What?!” (Again, power drill/industrial vacuum.) “Why?!”

“I don’t know.” He put a hand over his chest, and my blood ran cold. My first thought was, I have been married to this man for three days and he is dying. My second was, He’s dying because he can’t stand to be married to me. My third, and most chilling was, If I can’t even order an appetizer, how am I supposed to call an ambulance?

That one I said out loud.

“No ambulance,” Jeff said, wincing. “I think I just need some fresh air. Take a walk with me.”

Are you sure you want me to go with you? I almost said, but the words stopped short on the tip of my tongue. Whether or not I was the cause of his nervous system’s sudden override, we were each other’s companions in a country where neither of us could correctly conjugate verbs. Also, barely 72 hours earlier I had vowed to love and cherish Jeff in sickness. Granted, I had been picturing some old-man sickness, in a far-off future in which I dressed like Iris Apfel, but a promise was a promise.

I threw a trench coat over my R-rated ensemble and led him downstairs, clutching his clammy hand in a vise grip. As we passed the dining room, which was still serving at ten o’clock, Jim Morrison’s deep, haunting voice trailed after us: “The time to hesitate is through… No time to wallow in the mire…”

Jeff grimaced, and my breath caught in my throat, until he whispered, “I fucking hate that song.”

We both smiled.

Out on the cobblestone street, his breathing got easier, in spite of the cigarette and light rain. It had rained on our wedding day, too, and everyone had assured us that it was good luck, but I wasn’t so sure. Rain was random chance. A lifetime of happiness couldn’t be secured by a passing storm — as our current situation seemed to prove.

We didn’t say much as we walked hand in hand down narrow, misty alleys and through moonlit piazzas towards the Tiber River. It was late October, and I shivered in my chemise and trench coat, but Jeff seemed to be warming, and that was enough.

“Are you still dying?” I asked, kidding only because I had finally stopped believing it might be true. Out on the water, through the trees, we could see the Isola Tiberina, a minuscule island that, according to the information that Rick Steves had included in Rick Steves’ Pocket Rome, was home to a 400-year-old hospital.

“We’re all dying,” Jeff said.

“Like right now, though?” I asked, and was rewarded with his trademark cheeky grin.

“Not right now,” he said, and leaned in for a kiss.

“Do you regret marrying me?” I murmured, while our mouths were still touching. To anyone passing on the Lungotevere, we must have looked impossibly in love.

“Not for a minute,” Jeff said. And then added, “A woman who makes your heart feel like it’s exploding is hard to find.”

Almost a decade later, I’ve learned that travel can be stressful, but the real uncharted territory is marriage. There are no field guides for keeping that Doors-level fire burning, no translators or Michelin stars or multi-lingual audio tours. Sometimes all you can do is turn to your spouse and remind them of the time they almost passed out in an airplane-sized bathroom in a country where you couldn’t convincingly pronounce the names of vegetables, and watch them laugh and shake their head gently, remembering that sweet inside joke.

So who knows? We may have some hony left in our moone yet.

Una LaMarche is the author of the memoir Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer, as well as three novels. You can find her on Instagram, or at

P.S. On lopsided breasts, and a romantic trip gone awry.

(Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber for Cup of Jo.)

  1. I, too, had a panic attack three days after my wedding. It was at the airport as we were about to board a flight to Morocco. I hadn’t felt well all morning, and moments before I was meant to step on the plane, my legs turned to jelly, I began to cry and told my poor new husband ‘I can’t get on that plane’ I was convinced I was going to be throw up, and thought maybe I had food poisoning, which just made me feel even worse! We caught another flight the next morning, but WOW. I wouldn’t wish a panic attack on anybody.
    To this day, I still don’t know what sparked the attack, apart from all the stress of the wedding?

  2. Kait says...

    I love this one. It echoes my own honeymoon. I fought my husband hard to have a dreamy, romantic, Parisian honeymoon over the American road trip he favored. The day after we arrived in Paris the Charlie Hebdo attacks unfolded. We were stuck inside our rented apartment for days as we worriedly watched news we could barely understand. We only left our apartment briefly to attend a memorial for those killed. We couldn’t get a flight or train out of Paris. We ended up renting a car and driving to Bruges in Belgium. We had to fight through protests to get to the rental place. Bruges was the most charming city I have ever been in and we finally got some reprieve and could breathe…and then my poor husband got food poisoning and subsequent hypothermia from walking in the cold rain back to our hotel after throwing up the “best frites” in town. We were staying in an actual castle, and we had to just laugh as my husband laid down on the heated tiles in the bathroom of our honeymoon suite trying to warm up. I laid on top of him attempting to use my body heat to warm him up as well. Needless to say that was some of the only horizontal laying down we did that entire trip. There’s lots of honey left in our moone :)

  3. Katie H. says...

    This one was so sweet and so familiar. Thanks for sharing these amazing stories!

  4. Bethany says...

    Oh that was delightful! A favorite, wise man once told me that, “Marriage in it of itself isn’t hard. Marriage is hard because life is hard.” Loved that.

  5. Ali says...

    This is my favourite yet – what a hilariously sweet story!

  6. Summer says...

    The fishnet description – yeeeeeeeeeeeees! :D hahaha, I think my friends got me that same, um, outfit.

    So funny – definitely going to read Unibrow now. Later bloomers rule.

  7. Jamie says...

    I love this. Underscores how sweet and utterly complex marriage can be. So lovely.

  8. Sophie says...

    So, so funny and touching! I have to read her books now.

  9. Heather D says...

    I had the flu on our honeymoon! I was finally well enough to get out and enjoy some sightseeing on the very last day of it. Blah! If only I could have a do-over!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      oh no!! what a bummer! you totally have to do a do-over one of these days :)

  10. Winnie says...

    My husband got food poisoning 2 days into our honeymoon and I broke out in hives all over my body a day later. Real life never takes a break – even on honeymoons!

  11. Cat says...

    My husband went to bed sick as a dog on the second night of our honeymoon (from what we thought was food poisoning…) Two days later, I was struck down by the same virus he had (lovingly, I’m sure! We were newlyweds!) given me. I spent our last night in Oahu on the floor of our beautiful Halekulani hotel room bathroom. In sickness and in health, indeed!

  12. Celeste says...

    This was too good. I also took immediate advantage of the “in sickness or in health bit” of my vows since, the next morning, I woke up with the flu. To put it delicately, it came out of both ends and my body ached so badly I broke out in sweat when my husband touched me. I remember yelling from the bathroom between pukes, “Welcome to marriage!”

    We took a road trip for our honeymoon and I insisted we continue, stopping at the dodgiest places so I could experience my next round. haha Later, I spilled Pepto Bismol all over my underwear in my luggage, so I had pink-stained underwear the whole time. It was quite the romantic getaway.

  13. Lauren E. says...

    This brought me to tears. What a fantastic essay. I’m getting married in Rome in 3 months! And I’m sure there will be a little bit of panic involved :)

  14. Polly says...

    Love. I got glue stick in my eye lid at the rehearsal, woke up on my wedding day with a thriving headache that lasted all day. On the way to our honeymoon, my eye turned into a tomato. So for the first 4-5 days I wore sunglasses pretty much non stop so add not to testify anyone other than my new husband. Did I mention I got my period on the plane on the way to Napa? But it was still a great trip. And I thought the “enjoy it while it lasts, fools,” part was interesting. Certainly coming home to step kids and a while new life was unbelievably difficult. I treasure our crazy trip, even looking like a monster.

    • Polly says...

      Um, glue from fake eyelashes. I will never wear then again.

  15. laughing out loud, what a great way to start my day!

  16. Kristina says...

    I just loved reading this post! I have been having panic attacks myself, since I started trying for a baby and not once we have him (and he is just precious) I kept the “lovely” friends of mine – panic and anxiety – but I am working with a doc on beating them. But anyway, it was really reassuring to read that you can have a happy life and marriage no matter the panic and keep the honey, forgetting the moon=)

  17. Loved reading this, a wonderful story. What a great writer, a great description of Rome at night too. A hodge podge of piazzas and tunnels, I wouldn’t walk around alone. Very funny and smart x

    ALittleKiran | Bloglovin

  18. lindsay e. says...

    I love this so much! Thanks for the beautiful essay.

    My husband had a seizure in front of me the week we got engaged. I had to call 911 and follow the ambulance with him to the hospital (not to mention icy roads, not to mention we were in an unfamiliar place and I had no idea where the hospital was). We hadn’t “in sickness and in health”-ed yet, but he was afraid I’d give the ring back. It was a scary time for both of us, but he’s good now, and we have been happily married for nearly a year.

    I’m glad that we aren’t the only couple who has inside jokes about scary times!

  19. Anna says...

    This is BRILLIANT!!! TOTALLY agree that honeymoons can be stressful – we blew our life savings on our honeymoon and totally regret it – it was fun but nothing compared to the holidays we’ve had later in our marriage esp. with kids. My advice on honeymoons – just get a cosy, affordable cottage on the coast where you can rest, take leisurely beach walks and have sex. Nothing more.

  20. Jen says...

    Sooooo gooooooooooood!

  21. Nina says...

    this made me laugh. and since I was reading it during a business call…that was a problem! :) thank you.

  22. The writing was so great. I could picture it all playing out and laughed aloud in my cubicle. I even bookmarked the link to read again when I’m having a bad day.

  23. Nicole says...

    My husband also had a panic attack while on our honeymoon in Rome. It was the beginning of what has been a difficult and anguishing struggle with mental illness. And yes, marriage is nothing like what everyone in the media and wedding industry pretends it to be

    • Emma says...

      I hope your husband is feels no stronger Nicole? And what about you? Mental health and marriage is certainly a challenging mix.

  24. Melanie Price says...

    Sweet and funny. Thanks for sharing!

  25. annie says...

    These travel essays are great!

  26. Judy says...

    This also happened to a friend of mine on his honeymoon in Hawaii. To calm himself down from what he thought was dehydration, he drank a bunch of coffee–ugh! He and his lovely bride ended up in the ER. They’re a delightful couple with three kids now!

  27. Hillary says...

    I love Una’s writing! I’m currently reading Unabrow (which I discovered from your blog!) and am dying laughing. This was a great little story.

  28. Libbynan says...

    My husband spent our honeymoon watching the 1968 Republican convention on TV! Nuff said. I win. It was all uphill from there.

  29. I can certainly attest to the writer’s panic. I was in Nicaragua eight years ago with my then-boyfriend. While there, he developed a horrific staph infection ON HIS NECK. It was the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen. I was afraid to go too far, so I spent most of my time in a foul smelling hotel room because the pool we were promised was green and full of leaves. Until one night, suddenly, he woke up shaking uncontrollably. I was seconds away from running to the front desk to ask for help when it stopped. And the next morning his fever was gone.

    Again I can’t speak to the marriage part. But being sick in a foreign land is incredibly frightening.

  30. Loved this one. We somehow managed to have a lot of fun, but my honeymoon was a disaster. My sister gave me bronchitis at my wedding, I nearly passed out on the beach from heat + alcohol + fever, some other things happened as a result that I will spare you from, and then I got terribly carsick on the van to the airport (we went to St. Lucia and mountains/curves/driving on the left side of the street/driver who alternately punched the gas and slammed on the breaks did me in), so I made him stop and took a flying leap from the van so I could throw up in front of a bunch of other honeymooners. A great start to our marriage! But that was nearly ten years ago, and we’ve been through much worse together and we still love each other, and even like each other most of the time :)

  31. Absolutely loved this story! Besides it being so well written, what a sweet story. Glad you guys are still married :)

  32. Leah says...

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this essay, esp the description of the negligee and the sentiments about marriage. Couldn’t be more spot on. xo

  33. Maelle says...

    So sweet :) I really like this one, the story is both hilarious and very touching!

  34. perfectly captures both the first couple of days of marriage and a tricky honeymoon. well done.

  35. Robin says...

    What a great story! I laughed out loud. I can relate because my boyfriend gets panic attacks every time we are at an airport, and they are exactly as described in this story. Thanks for sharing Una!

  36. Great story! Yes, interpersonal relationships (marriage, even parenting) are the most perplexing voyages, far more so than foreign countries.
    As Alain de Botton says, we should all ask, “so which way are you crazy?”
    Wishing them many years of happiness!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      haha love that quote!

    • Myra says...

      Did you hear him on this american life this week? That was amazing

      This is a wonderful story, heartfelt and funny.

  37. Monica says...

    What a sweet and reassuring story!

  38. These have all been great. Superb storytelling and great, very different stories. I love this one.

  39. I loved every bit of this. The authors’ personality is so much like how i would of reacted. My boyfriend and I both have these lovely attacks. Lets hope in the future we have it together on a honeymoon to Thailand or Singapore. Most likely Japan. lol. Thanks for sharing.

  40. A delicious little read. Loved it!

  41. This one was so lovely. Thanks for starting this series; you’ve inspired me to try my hand at writing travel essays myself, and I just published my first one on my own blog :)

  42. What an unforgettable honeymoon. An unexpected and scary event seemed to bring them closer together as well as added a little humor for their honeymoon tales. Thanks so much for sharing.

    XOXO, Amy @ Jeans and a Tea

  43. Jamie says...

    I absolutely love this series! This one spoke to me though because I have anxiety/occasional panic attacks (which makes dating a TREAT). I love hearing how it figures into relationships/marriages. Fascinating stuff and beautifully written.

  44. Lauren says...

    Ooh, I really love this one. Hilarious and sweet :)