Before this experience I’d heard of panic attacks. I knew people had them, and they said they were debilitating. I knew I’d heard it. But I’d never experienced it.
I think I mostly heard about people having them on planes. Something about being afraid of flying and being in an enclosed space thousands of feet in the air. So I think maybe people take drugs to try to calm down on the plane. I don’t know. But I feel like I’ve heard these things.
Last week I had three.
I feel dumb saying that. Even though I knew panic attacks were a thing, I’ve never been a particularly anxious person. Most of my friends would say I’m pretty relaxed, low key, go with the flow. I can’t say I’ve ever really experienced intense anxiety which then leads to panic attacks.
I really honestly thought, “why don’t people just not have them.”
I want to slap that version of myself.
Because of that version of myself, I want to try to explain what happens, at least for me.
Marla, our therapist asked me what she thinks triggers them. I explained how I’ve compartmentalized the loss in my head. I’ve put everything in little boxes according to size. When I’m ready I open a box and face it. The harder boxes are saved for later.
During one of my panic attacks this week Bill kept telling me to just face everything, that I shouldn’t hold things in.
We’re dealing with all of this in very different ways by the way.
I crazy screamed at him while choking back tears, “IF I DEAL WITH ALL OF THIS, ALL OF THIS AT ONCE, I’M GOING TO HAVE TO COMMIT MYSELF. I WILL CHECK OUT. YOU WILL LOSE ME. BECAUSE I CAN NOT. I CAN NOT DEAL WITH ALL OF IT AT ONCE. IT’S TOO MUCH. IT’S TOO BIG.”
I really do feel this way. If I were to open those boxes all at once, and face each and every one head on. I would stare at that screw and not come back from it.
And in Bill’s defense, he’s was just trying to encourage me to deal with it in the same way he’s dealing with it. Which was sweet. And luckily Marla has told us both ways are different, but completely normal and healthy.
I can’t tell you how many times she’s said something like that, and I’ve metaphorically wiped my brow in assurance that I am not going crazy, because it feels that way, a lot.
The trigger for the panic attacks are when I open one of the bigger boxes, or one of the ones I’m not ready to deal with quite yet. For the record, the boxes are white, and made of paper and have flaps that tuck in, like a small gift box.
But they are not gifts. They are boxes filled with horrors and fears and insecurities and guilt and anger and sadness and so very much loss.
The opening of one of these boxes is not always intentional. Sometimes they are triggered.
In January I started training for a 5K. The first panic attack last week happened on Friday. On Thursday I decided I was still going to run it, even though I’d lost two weeks of training, even though I’d be slow. A sweet friend gave me a gift card to REI so I could buy new running shoes.
I went to REI and sat stunned, looking at all the things in we’d lost; camping gear, hiking equipment, trail running shoes. “How can I help you?” “My house burned down and I need to run.” He helped me, I bought shoes, I ran in them through the store to test them out. Running felt good, it felt freeing, I felt a little normal.
I had dinner with that friend and showed her the shoes and we hugged for a real long time. On the way out from dinner, I missed a step and rolled my ankle.
By the time I got back to Mom’s and Bill got Issa to bed, I had completely melted down. The pain of my ankle triggered the pain and loss in all the boxes and it was far too much. I wept for all of it and I wept for what I thought was going to be the loss of the goal. I remember, in the middle of the panic attack saying, “We’ve lost so much and now I have to lose this too.” It was not a great time.
The third of last week’s attacks was triggered by my new computer. Before all this I was a graphic designer, a photographer and occasionally did some video work. To do this all effectively you need a pretty powerful computer, I had two.
A week after the fire we ordered a new one, the fancy new MacBook Pro with the touch bar and all the other things. I hadn’t had time to read into them yet. We spent a good portion of the advance money the insurance company had given us on this computer. It was, “So I could get working again.”
This panic attack was two fold. First, the getting back to work part, second facing one of my largest boxes, the loss of those computers and years of work and client files and photos.
No I did not have everything in the cloud.
My brain cannot remember what was and wasn’t in the cloud.
I’m really not ready to open that box. I’m going to leave it there if that’s ok?
Turning that computer on, my computer, and seeing it empty is going to force me to open that box and I’m really not ready. So that very expensive computer is sitting in it’s box for now, until I’m ready to open both boxes.
The other bit there is that I have zero desire to do what I was doing ever again. Marla and Bill and Mom and my dad remind me that I should say, “right now”, not “never again”. But it feels very finite, and that scares the shit out of me.
I have always been driven, I have always had passion for what I want to do. I’d recently let go of a great deal of my photography work so I could love it again, but the graphic design and marketing, that was always passion. It’s how my brain operates, it’s what I do, it’s a huge part of who I am and not wanting to do any of those things has me feeling very very scared and unaware of who I am.
When you’ve built a life up around yourself, a home, a schedule, decor that is an extension of who you are, areas of your home that help you function in your life, a wardrobe that is you, and suddenly all of that that was you is stripped away it makes you feel very vulnerable and lost.
I was going through donated clothes and I picked a few things out and Bill said, that’s nice, but it doesn’t look like you. I looked at him, “I don’t have anything, I don’t know what looks like me anymore.”
I’m learning that so much of what we have, the things we choose to keep around us, what we do for 8 hours a day as our ‘job’, helps defines who we are. I’m not sure if this is good or bad yet, but I know it’s true.
I don’t have the desire to open Photoshop or Illustrator, or read about marketing tactics or take photos with anything other than my iPhone and that freaks me smooth out.
This is clearly a box I’ve opened a little.
I don’t know if those desires will return, and for the moment I think that’s ok. Right now, what I want to do, is love my family. I want to focus my energy on rebuilding and healing. I want to write more than I’ve ever wanted to write before in my life. And I want to love people. I want to give back and share all the love we’ve received through this. Other people need to feel that kind of love. They NEED to. But that’s a story for another time.
I’ve tried to think of how to explain what happens when these panic attacks occur, how to share what it feels like. There’s a lot of self talk that leads up to the attack, it’s my brain, forcing open one of those boxes with random assorted thoughts of the things inside. The combination of memories and thoughts are always triggered by something. It’s loud and noisy for a while and slowly everything around you is tuned out, tunnel vision style. You’re going deeper into the thoughts of the contents of the box and and the light and sound and noise and people and visuals around you fade. And then, there’s the stage of your mind, and it’s completely dark, the seats are empty, the house lights are completely down and then there is one full force spotlight and it shines and you can see nothing else around it. You hear nothing else. You can experience nothing else. For a moment it’s peaceful. And then the contents of the box steps into the light, slowly at first, just one hand at a time. Your breathing quickens, it’s shallow and crisp and it feels like your lungs won’t fill. Like you’re suffocating. Like the darkness, while it’s calming and peaceful, is also killing you. Your focus is 100% on what is entering into the light. You’re in a trance. You feel like you’re being crushed. Your breathing is steady but short and quick and makes gasping sounds. Your hands begin to shake as if they’re cold, but they’re not. You know there are people around you, trying to pull you out but the darkness is too dark to see them. You are steadfast, focused on the next hand enters the light. You blame yourself. You killed your dog. You burnt your house down. You did this to your family. YOU. This is happening because of YOU. You try to take a deep breath because you can hear them telling you to breath you try and your whole chest, your whole upper body convulses like you see in the shows when they say stat and try to shock someone back to life. You feel the hands of your husband and you hear his voice faint and slightly panicked, trying to call you back, but all you can see is the darkness and the hands and that you did this. He tries to hug you but you shove him away because it feels like he’s crushing you and confining you and in that moment your brain is so confined that you can’t stand for your body to be too. Your entire arms shake and you then feel bad because you’ve pushed away the hug from the man you love. But it’s dark and it’s quiet and the hands are there in the dense spot light and you did this, you caused this, YOU left the candle burning. He keeps telling you to open your eyes and look at him. You try but the darkness pulls you back. The guilt, the sadness, the loss, it pulls you back. You feel your mom grab the other hand. They’re trying to get you to breathe, long, deep breaths in through the nose, out through the mouth, but all you can muster are the short shallow rapid ones. You’re drowning without a drop of water around you. Your ears are loud. Your eyes, when you can open them are cloudy with tears.
I don’t know what pulls me out. Marla asked me this and I look at Bill for the answer because I don’t know. All I can see is that dark stage and the spotlight and the hands, and that’s all there is until it’s not there and I can feel my body start to calm, and the breaths get deeper and fuller and my muscles begin to relax. It’s there in full force until it isn’t.