We human beings are so often running away from ourselves, and yet what a ridiculous idea when we try to picture it, like a cartoon man trying to escape his shadow. There he is, relieved, standing for a brief moment at high noon at the height of summer on a blue sky day, wiping sweat from his brow. “Phew,” the thought bubble from his head. And then the clock ticks, the hands move past 12:00, he turns around…”AH! There it is,” and he’s off running again full speed ahead. The audience laughs.
Perhaps we’re not always running at top speed from our shadows and I suppose some of us aren’t running at all anymore, maybe we’re only shifting in our seats, or adjusting the volume of the TV, or turning to look in another direction.
Throughout my adult life I’ve had the gift (though I’ve not long thought of it that way) of having occasional panic attacks. When they come, usually triggered by a thought that I’m in danger, going to be trapped, need to escape etc., they are fierce. Frankly, it feels like if I cannot escape the panic I will die.
My first panic attack of adult life, in my early twenties, was triggered by actually being trapped. I, along with three friends, were stuck in a very small elevator. It stopped between floors. The light went out. We screamed. One of us laughed. We put our groceries down and waited. Soon the elevator moved again and we poured out into the daylight on the sixth floor of the apartment building. I couldn’t stop shaking for an hour.
Of course being trapped in the elevator was an actual physical situation from which I needed eventually to leave, but after that one real moment of being stuck, the fear of getting trapped continued. I started thinking about being stuck everywhere, in bathroom stalls, subway trains, buses, movie theaters you name it. Soon I started to avoid places that I might get trapped and a full blown phobia began.
Luckily I saw this. I saw that there were thoughts at work in my mind telling me things that weren’t true. I knew I didn’t want to go through life avoiding situations that scared me, so I actively worked with pushing my limits: riding in subways, occasionally elevators, airplanes. I was often uncomfortable and sometimes I bailed in the middle of a challenge, getting off the subway one stop after I got on, miles from where I wanted to be, but I kept at it. I talked myself through each situation, “You can do it, just breathe.” Slowly, agonizingly so when I was in the midst of the discomfort, the panic attacks faded. I sort of shoved them to the back of my awareness.
Until one day, years later, they came back. This time, it seemed there was even less reason for them. And that’s what I wanted, a reason, a why, that I could work with to make this go away. But there was none. The panic attacks would just come. And I would try to run.
In the middle of one of these intense panics last spring I was able to watch the panic instead of just being inside of it. I was staying at a cabin in the mountains with a bunch of friends and everyone had gone to bed. I, however, was wide awake. Jeff, my partner, lay next to me trying to sleep while I twitched and breathed frantically. This time though something else was happening. I still felt the whole thing: my body convulsing, my heart racing, but I was also able to watch the thoughts that were creating the panic itself. They came in wave after wave,
“What if the roof collapses, there’s a lot of weight up there with all those people sleeping and this is an old building, what if we lose power and can’t see in the dark, what if no one comes to find us, what if we light the cabin on fire from the wood stove, what if someone doesn’t see me here on the floor and steps on my face when the wake up in the morning, what if…this is real.”
And with each thought a physical sensation of pure fear.
For any readers who’ve never experienced a panic attack, take a moment to imagine that middle of the night wake up that most of us have had at some point in life. You are sleeping soundly and then all of the sudden you are bombarded with thoughts about every worry, anxiety, fear, and thing that could go wrong that’s ever floated through your mind. You jolt out of bed and your mind is racing, but you shake it off and go back to sleep. Or maybe you wake up, make yourself a cup of tea and remember, “Oh yeah, everything is fine.”
Only imagine that you just can’t shake it. Some part of you, that is entirely out of your control, believes that the thoughts, no matter how ridiculous they are, are true. You really are going to lose your job tomorrow. You really did offend that woman so much that she is going to file suit against you in court. That spot on your skin? Yes, it really is stage 17 cancer.
You are going to die. Any moment now you are going to die. Unless you do something.
That’s the basic message behind the thoughts during my panic attacks. And then, at the same time that those thoughts are happening, there’s this other super annoying uppity voice judging me.
“Wow, this is really bad. You have got to stop this. You know this is an illusion. You know this isn’t true, can’t you chill out. I mean, pull. It. TOGETHER.”
But if I listen to either voice, the one that’s telling me I’m about to die, or the one that’s telling me I’m an idiot, I’m just completely stuck. Trapped even, which is what this whole panic attack thing was about in the first place: being trapped, being utterly out of control.
So, it was in the heart of this moment, up at the cabin on a seemingly wholesome get-a-way with friends, that I saw for the first time really clearly the almost literal urge to run away from myself. But like that man and his shadow I couldn’t move. The reality is that it is not possible to get even one millimeter of space from one’s self.
The way in which the panic attacks are a gift is that through them I have been able to understand the connection between thoughts and physical feelings. In these moments the thoughts and feelings are so exaggerated that it becomes easy to see.
Thought: I’m trapped. Feeling: heart races Thought: I’ll be like this forever. Feeling: nausea. Thought: I’m crazy. Run. Feeling: arms and legs twitch, stomach twists.
It also becomes easy to see that the thoughts are not true, or that these thoughts have no basis on reality or on any action I should actually take in life.
These exaggerated thoughts, and the feelings they create, have shown me that I have a choice about whether or not to believe the thoughts that come through my mind. This magnified, almost cartoon version of mind chatter and the relationship between thoughts and feelings has helped me see that this is what is always going on in the mind: thinking, thinking, thinking, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts. All Day Long, only usually they are much more benign. Regardless of the content though, I have the choice about whether or not to follow them.
There’s these two insane voices speaking in my mind. One’s calling me an idiot, the other’s telling me to run or I will die. But who’s in the middle? Who is listening?