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The Panic Room

January 19, 2010

Panic Room: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Works on Paper Collection

I was always a pretty nervous kid. Worried, a lot and just overall anxious. About my grades, boys, my friends, my family. Typical stuff, I suppose, for a teenager.

But, now, it’s beyond anxiousness. You see, about the time of my 33rd birthday (this past November) I started having panic attacks. Some small, and some big, but all equally scary. These have been moments when I felt as if my world was closing in and my lungs could not counter the feeling, let alone manage to take actual gulps of air. And twice I found myself on the couch shaking uncontrollably for long stretches of time. I could always function and do the day-to-day after an episode, but in that moment, that actual moment I feel paralyzed-with fear, with illness, and well, with panic. But, then I get into a panic about when the next one will happen, to the point that it might trigger another. I assure you, it’s not a fun pattern to be trapped in.

I remember glimpses of this as a child, but now have come to believe I was misdiagnosed as having emotional asthma, when in all actuality it seems pretty obvious now that I was likely having mini-panic attacks. My mother used to come in late at night and essentially calm me down by placing a steaming hot, damp washcloth across my chest as she stroked my forehead assuring me everything was going to be all right. She’d sit with me and listen to me pour about my day and what was getting me into such a state of nervousness. The standing joke with our family is that my twin doesn’t worry because I do it for the both of us. Not necessarily accurate (she does worry for the record), but semi-true.

These days that washcloth has been swapped out by our dog trying to figure out what’s wrong and lick it all away and my mother replaced by my husband holding me tight and telling me there is no need to worry, it will all be fine.

Around the holidays (past and present) I get particularly worked up, as family tension and drama are often served alongside stiff drinks and sweet potatoes. This hasn’t changed with age. Although, I must say, the frenzy I put myself in prior to seeing family this year might’ve been a good thing, because I found this season to be pretty uneventful on the drama front (so, there’s the plus-side to working yourself into a tizzy).


Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years from the Barbican Art Gallery

So here I am, with my triggers unknown. But, they can easily be traced back in the most basic sense to change. That’s pretty vague, but big changes (I talk all about my husband’s layoff  here and touch on my twin sister’s end to her 8-year relationship here). Which on the surface could be the roots. These are huge shifts in our lives, but oddly, the ones that are being the most directly affected (said husband and twin sister) are coping much better than I am.

I’m trying to take this panic as a blessing-as in most spiritual and religious practices say to understand fully another’s tribulation, you must experience it yourself. It’s the only way to really gain compassion for others. One of my dearest friends growing up suffered from debilitating panic attacks. My teenage mind couldn’t comprehend how being away from your parents for a week at cheerleading camp could trigger someone to not want to get out of bed. I now get a glimpse of her world of those years ago.

So, I’m coping, just like all of us do, and trying to get to the root instead of masking what’s actually going on. Trying to feel it and deal with it and hopefully move on to a better place. Without the crazed, deer in headlights look in my eye (really, it’s not a good look for anyone). While I’ve practiced yoga regularly since 2000, it’s become even more important for me now. The breathing and working out have in small ways been helping. So has the meditative trance of running (oddly on a treadmill). I know I’m not alone in this and I truly feel for those who are. My boss gave me a spa gift certificate over the holiday and I treated myself to a massage … pretty sure that therapist rubbed months, if not years, of crap I’d been holding onto out of my back.

I wish it were as simple as getting a massage and deep breathing through a yoga class or 4 mile run. Hopefully writing this, in some teeny way helps me acknowledge that girl with my mother in the middle of the night scared for my life for reasons unknown. And to be able to break that pattern now as a cognitive adult whose life is fully in my own hands.