Hello Panic, My Old Friend
I should have known this was coming.
I felt myself growing a little more irritable each day. I felt my pulse rise and my temper quicken, apropos of nothing.
I told myself that I was eating too much Halloween candy. Sugar is a toxin, people say, more addictive than cocaine. I told myself I needed to get more sleep. I cut back on the sugar and went to bed early.
When that didn’t help, I did deep breathing exercises. Andrew Weil says to breath in for four counts, hold for seven and then breathe out for eight. He says there's a restorative magic to this precise ratio, that four breaths will cure whatever ails you, eight breaths will render anxiety physically impossible.
When that didn't work I turned to writing. I jotted down my thoughts and analyzed them for the logical fallacies I discussed with my therapist last week: the over-generalizations, the all or nothing thinking, the personalization, the slippery slopes. I wrote them down and rated their intensity on a scale of 1–10, then I choose new, positive thoughts to replace them. When the new, positive thoughts didn't stick I recited them like mantras. I am not a problem to be fixed. I am not a problem to be fixed.
I tried mindfulness meditation. Tried to stay present for the physical sensations, which people say are never so horrible when you’re not pushing them away. I felt the heavy weight like a brick on top of my heart. A horrible frisson all over, like the current of an electric fence. Adrenaline like acid seeping through my veins, eating away at me from the inside.
None of these things was enough to prevent the panic attack that came yesterday evening; the hyperventilation over the kitchen sink, quietly so that my three-year-old won't hear. I hoped he wouldn't see my flushed skin, the tears in my eyes. But he did, of course. I'm a changeling and he knows it. This other mommy, the less predictable, more dangerous one. And so he whined when I tried to make conversation, and hovered next to his daddy like they both needed protection. After dinner I retreated to the bedroom and curled into a ball on the floor to wait out the surges of pain.
I think of that last episode of Black Mirror, of those bees that burrow through people's skulls and drive them to suicide because the pain of the bees is so excruciating. The bees. And I think, how nice, to have something to point to. A physical cause; something you can see. Of course. Bees.
What if this physical pain comes from nowhere, of nothing? What then? How can I possibly communicate how excruciating it is in the moment, when moments before I was fine?
I knew, when a wave of deep exhaustion dulled my senses, that I'd turned the corner, I'd exited the eye of the storm, and that if I could continue to insulate myself, to shut out the world, then I would eventually arrive in the clear.
There's something almost restorative about a panic attack when it's over. Afterward I feel purged of all the vileness that's built up inside me over the past weeks. If I was a Catholic maybe I'd require an exorcism. I'd blame demons. But I’m not Catholic, and I don’t know what I believe anymore.