Awakening: Cause

Worry does not empty tomorrow of sorrow — it empties today of strength.

—Corrie ten Boom

It started with a single panic attack, at work, in the middle of the day.

Heart racing, difficulty breathing, paralyzing terror, fear that I was about to die.

If you’ve ever had a bad trip off psilocybe, or magic mushrooms, the effects are very similar. Not that I’ve ever had a good one. Half an hour into ingestion, I start to feel nauseated. At the back of my head there’s a creeping sense that something is wrong. My hands start to tremble, my mind feels like it’s shuddering. Eventually, there’s a complete uneasiness in the body, both physically and mentally. Around that time, the body reacts quickly to rid the stomach of whatever is causing these symptoms, and violently ejects them in the form of vomiting. Stems and caps come out as dark brown flecks, and you wonder how eating something so small thing can make you feel so terrible.

But with a panic attack, there’s no explanation. No sense of prevention. No floating fungus in the pool of your toilet you can point your finger at and say, “I’m never doing THAT again”.

It comes without warning, without obvious reason. All you want is to end the attack. To crawl into a corner and hide. To tear off your strangling clothes. To die.

Afterward, you’re not wondering what you’re going to listen to on the way home, or how to get the attention of that cutie in the porcelain department, or when you’ll have time to go buy more shampoo. All you’re thinking about is when the next one will happen. All you’re left with is a bunch of questions and a sense of instability. I have my suspicions, but I’ve chosen not to write about them until I’m certain, something which I believe will come in time. There’s no simple diagnosis, no easy answer.

Recently, scientists have discovered that the word “wheeze” can activate asthma attacks in asthmatics. The mind triggers an associated emotional response, and the body manifests the reaction. It’s the same after a panic attack. Sometimes, people with panic disorder can bring on an attack just worrying or thinking too much about it.

Not that I have a disorder. The fear of an attack isn’t detrimental enough to stunt me socially, and doesn’t prevent me from functioning as what the DSM IV would consider “normal”. It was only a single episode, but habit of constant self-evaluation means that the threat of it happening again is always there. It’s in the back of my mind whether I’m at work, or playing games, or cooking dinner. Every minute of every day becomes a struggle not to think about it. And when you know you feel like dying during an attack, you start to wonder whether it’s worth living at all.

People face this question when they’re diagnosed with terminal illnesses. Told that they have only have a few years left, they live more in those numbered days than they do in their entire lives until then.

They awaken.

The Awakening Series

  1. Introduction
  2. Cause
  3. The Reborn Dreamer

4 comments

  1. This describes my entire last week, and most of my childhood. When I go “I’m never doing that again” I mostly mean life. I’m starting to step out of it, but it was pretty hellish. Usually those days I’m up to about 20% of anxiety on a day to day bases and this took a lot of work to get to.

    There’s really nothing worst then panic in the world. On Thursday I came back from a movie and I was so alert and panicked I was convinced for over an hour and a half that this is the night I’m going to die in. I didn’t. Life went on, the worst of it’s not knowing what’s real and what’s just a figment of my imaginations.

    I wrote a note to myself in my sketchbook afterwards: you may appear to be stable and strong on the outside, but you are always one step away from a full scale panic attack. Don’t forget that, ever.

    I was thinking about taking a week off work and a seaside vacation for next month, if this goes on, I won’t be able to make it, the beach works to calm me sometimes, other times it makes me panic. I can’t take that chance, especially if I go alone.

    I hate having to built my life around this.

    Not an encouraging comment, I know.

    At any rate, if there’s one thing like with anxiety and panic thought me is that this to shall pass, that even though you might feel like there’s no reason to go on living – that’s just a part of the panic and not your real opinion and that once this symptom goes away, you’ll feel like yourself again.

  2. I’m in therapy for other reasons than episodes of panic, but I’ve begun working with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction which you can take as an 8-week course through many hospitals or you can learn through the book FULL CATASTROPHE LIVING by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He’s been teaching the system, which is based on paying attention to the breath, for almost 20 years and it sounds like it is effective for people with symptoms similar to the ones you describe. There’s an excellent example of a firefighter who couldn’t go back into burning buildings or even put his face mask back on for six months after a serious bout of smoke inhalation on the job. Two weeks of the program brought him back to a place where he could fully re-engage with his work. It might be something to check into, especially if awakening is your goal. You can get a quick overview at http://www.mindfullnesstapes.com.

  3. Lilly: It’s true that we may constantly be on the verge of a panic attack, but we’re also always a single step away from death. I use to remind myself of this reality on a daily basis, and found myself alienated, unattached. I don’t ever want to forget, but it’s unhealthy to keep asking, “Am I alright? Am I about to have an attack?”.

    The problem is that although the one major panic attack has passed, the residual emotions haven’t. I’m still waiting it out, but in time I think you’ll be right.

    Lavaflower: Thanks for the information. Right now I’m staying away from all forms of caffeine, because they seem to trigger mild panic episodes. I’m not sure if it’s just in my mind, but it’s not worth the risk right now. If this program could rehabilitate a firefighter to directly face his trigger, then I’ll definitely have to consider it if my situation worsens.

  4. I did the whole therapy \ medication \ cognitive treatment thing, it helped, a bit, but it didn’t really solved anything, I did learn some techniques and ways of understanding what’s real and what’s enxiety and it also help to talk about it, nowdays when I meet new people, I try to expain why phone calls are difficults to me or why somedays I just dissapear, it helps me get less stress and maybe for them to be a little more forgiving about it.

    For me it’s always been there, my first childhood memories are related to anxiety, I don’t think it would ever go away completly, but this year, dealing with a lot of things and learning ot take care of myself is an important step.

    Caffeine make it worst for me as well, last week I had a major panic attack on thursday after having two cups of coffee. Since then I’m more or less OK it slowly deminished to anxiety and now it’s starting ot fade away alltogether. It’s such hard work though and it takes so much effort to just go past an ordinery day like that.

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