In the subway there are pictures of children drowning in a bathtub, the water just brimming past the tension point to collapse in on their eyes and mouth. It’s an advertisement for cystic fibrosis.
A panic attack feels like that poster. Most of my therapy group would describe it as quicksand, but quicksand implies a texture to me that panic simply does not have. The important similarity is a downward spiral.
Water is silky, if any texture at all, and it gives a quality of weightlessness. All is quiet, and few sounds can penetrate the thick atmosphere. Moving is difficult, breathing irregular. Panic to me is not heavy – it is lost and windy and swirling.
When I have a panic attack, it arrives without warning, and knocks on my mind-door with insistence and increasing speed. It doesn’t really matter what I am doing; I get distracted by the loud pounding, and I head to the door to see what’s the matter. There comes a point where, despite my fighting – oh bugger, it’s Panic again, that annoying bastard – despite my ignoring – just keep swimming, just keep swimming – eventually I open the door. Or it gets knocked down.
Meanwhile, there I am, body housing my frantic brain, at the bus stop, late. No bus is coming, but walking guarantees a worse situation. It’s always late, it’s always late – surely then it’s my fault – what a fool I am – now I’ll get in trouble – now I won’t get as many shifts – now I can’t save for graduate studies – now I can’t pay rent – it’s all my fault – I shouldn’t have bought that hot chocolate – I shouldn’t have forgotten my hat and gone back for it – gone gone gone!
The door opens. There is a rush of wild wind containing one big Thought: a combination of “Oh God!”, “Not again!”, “Help!” and “It’s happening!” The wind is blown out of you and you feel like clutching the nearest wall. At the same time, bursts of energy come forth, causing desires to hit, thrash, run, and paranoia mounts.
What’s wrong with me? I can’t think – I can’t slow down – thoughts moving moving moving, smacking me with guilt charges, whirlwinds of disasters and what ifs and it’s going to be the worst possible – I’m still just standing here! I’m standing here and what is all this happening in my mind – this isn’t me talking! This isn’t what I do! I can’t stop it! I don’t recognize myself in the screaming – I must be screaming out loud.
Loud, louder, with gasps and glances and twisting turning to see who’s watching, who’s going to hit me, who’s going to get me, while the screaming gets louder and everyone can surely hear me – I can hear nothing else.
I must be going crazy. This is what going crazy is. I’m losing my mind. I’m not human anymore, I’m not myself. I don’t know who this is or who I am or if I’m myself and what is happening and I can’t stop.
I’ll hurt someone. I’ll hit them if they touch me. Don’t touch me, don’t come near, don’t talk, don’t think, don’t call, don’t help, don’t wonder, don’t – stop! I’m a power bullet ready to explode on reflex. Hit my button and I’ll destroy you. I have no choice. I’m locked. I am a hurricane. I am a tornado. Do you see me? Do you see me? I am barely in control, gnawing at the leash and I am helpless and dangerous, and scared.
And underneath this is a little girl standing in the corner. She’s rationalizing. No external danger. Nothing really wrong. It’s just the bus. What’s the matter with you? There is no reason, it isn’t rational to be like this – therefore, since there’s no reason, it must be me. I must be losing it. If there is no reason to be so caught up, then something must really be wrong because the problem must be in me. I’m irrational, which is wrong, which is terrifying.
The girl and the tornado fight a war for my thoughts, with the girl slowly gaining ground, quickly to be thrown back down with each rising gust triggered by another powerfully terrifying thought. Eventually, my frantic beating of wings against the mason jar on my head exhausts me, and with stupor and tears and sleep, the mason jar is lifted away, and the little girl stands her ground, scolding me ruthlessly as I tremble and collapse.
My panic attacks almost always ended in a half-sleeping weakness, too emotionally drained to get up. The tears signal emotional release – once I break down into quiet sobbing, then I can relax, and let waves of distress leave my body. I curl up and sleep fitfully, recharging.
That is, as best as I can currently describe it, my train of consciousness in a typical panic attack.