Panic!

25 Jan

I had my first panic attack at age 10. I was in the kitchen with my father. I don’t remember why, but I was pretending to be dead. I think the point was that I was trying to prove to my father that yes, I could indeed sit still. (It was a rare sight, that’s for sure, but possible.) I was laying in the middle of the kitchen floor, hands at my sides, eyes closed, breath as slow as I could make it.

I was commending myself on my stillness, when I realized I was still thinking. If I was really dead, I wouldn’t be thinking would I? And then I fell down the rabbit hole. I realized if I wasn’t moving and I wasn’t speaking and I wasn’t breathing and I wasn’t thinking, I wasn’t existing. In fact, there was already a time in this world where I did not exist. My mind… could not handle this. My eyes flew open, the world narrowed down to the bare bulb hanging from our ceiling. My lungs had emptied out and felt like they would never take in air again. I couldn’t think of anything else,

My father did his best to alleviate the situation. I can’t imagine what I must have looked like to him, tiny and wild-eyed, instantly crying. Seemingly broken over something I easily accepted up until this point. Unable to breathe.  His daughter, his only child, having an instant existential crisis. He was in way over his head with this one. I remember balling my fists into his shirt, burying my face and sobbing. Looking up and being unable to handle his calm among my storm. I asked him, wasn’t he scared? Didn’t the whole idea just blow his mind? How could he go on with his life when this was happening in the world?

He told me that no, he wasn’t afraid. He’d lived a nice, long, wonderful life and when it was time for it to be over, he would be fine with it. That’s when it hit me that not only would I not exist one day, it was painfully obvious that there was going to be a time when my father would not exist and I would have to deal with that. My father. My family. Everyone I know. Everything. Things get soft-edged, blurry after that. I’m not sure which way he took to calm me down, I don’t remember. I’m pretty sure I went straight to bed, though, because my next memory is me avoiding the whole thing in the morning.

I continued to have panic attacks on and off through middle and high school, increasing during my senior year. The only way to calm them down was to instantly engage myself in something else. The magical power of distraction. It’s the main reason that I never like to sit idle, be alone, contemplate for too long. I continued to search for people who would be similarly rocked by the idea, the panic, the anxiousness. Every person I spoke to was fairly chill about it all, more weirded out by the idea that I was weirded out. So I stopped talking about it. During one particularly dire, extended panic session, I became angry with myself, Enraged. What was wrong with me? Why was this bothering me so much? I was fucking 17, not 70, and this was not my concern. End of story!

It was a revelation. I was 17, I was obviously fine and not going to die right now. This was something I would worry about later. Deep down I sort of knew it was a lie, I mean what about accidents and things of that nature? Those are beyond my control, though, and the idea worked. Not tomorrow. Breathe. Not today. Breathe. Not right now. Breathe. Later. Later. Later. Every time I could feel my anxiety building up, I’d breathe, chant “Not tomorrow,” and find something else to do. This was a successful solution for me for many, many years.

A few weeks ago I was lying in bed, making lists, plans, ticking off accomplishments, crunching numbers. Becoming overwhelmed by everything going on in life right now. I could feel my chest tightening, breath becoming shallow, panic taking over. I told myself, not tomorrow. But then I fought back. Not tomorrow, sure – but eventually. Sooner than you think. Unavoidable. The years will feel like minutes when you look back on them.  The idea hasn’t dislodged itself from my brain. We could be talking, I can look fine, but in the back corner of my brain, a tiny demon is jumping up and down, shouting at me that I’m going to die. It’s always there and I’m not sure what to do about it. I know in time I’ll develop a new strategy. In the interim, though, it’s exhausting. I’m so tired. I’m afraid I’m two steps away from blurting my crazy out to people on the bus. So instead, I’ll blurt the crazy here.

Perhaps find some solace in expunging the idea.

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