I had a humdinger of a panic attack last Wednesday. Many readers ask me after reading My Grape Escape and My Grape Village whether I still get them. Short and honest answer - yes, as last Wednesday proves, I certainly do.
I no longer waste precious time and energy trying to eliminate panic attacks from my life. I have been having them, after all, at random intervals since my mid-teens. They come. They go. They are always epically unpleasant and unwelcome.
I no longer believe they happen for a reason. I have come to the conclusion that searching for triggers or reasons for my panic attacks is a colossal waste of time.
On Wednesday, I was just sitting on the couch talking to a friend on the phone when my heart started beating faster than usual. The anxious part of my brain seized on this and started going, "Why is your heart beating faster? Something must be wrong! Redalertredalertredalert!!!"
Within three minutes my hands were shaking and my mind was spinning in that hellish anxiety vortex, making note of every uncomfortable physical sensation, amplifying it by approximately a million, and creating a logical case for my imminent demise (or worse yet, being trapped in a situation I can't control aka Just Kill Me Now).
Even though I consider myself a writer, I find myself at a loss for words when I try to describe the intensity and sheer terror of a panic attack to anyone who has not experienced one before. Conversely, when I talk about panic attacks with people who have experienced them, words are not necessary. I can just tell by looking in their eyes that they get it.
Even though I hate them I have come to a place of acceptance that they stem from a glitch in the way my brain is wired. I think we ALL have glitches in how our brain is wired. Some people have the depression glitch, some people have the jealousy glitch, some people have the fear-of-intimacy glitch...as for my brain, I suspect my panic attack glitch is the same or closely related to the part of my brain that allows me to imagine and write.
I am no longer ashamed of my anxiety. Indeed I think the stigma around mental health is one of the most corrosive forces in existence. However, I certainly don't want to feed my anxiety by treating it like the most exotic, fascinating animal in my own personal zoo either. I think my creativity, love for Star Wars, and humour are all vastly more interesting than my anxiety. Still, panic attacks are part of my emotional hard-wiring and chances are I will most likely have to co-exist with them for the rest of my life.
Something interesting, though, has been happening in the midst of my panic attacks since I began taking my writing and creativity seriously. In the middle of my Wednesday anxiety roller coaster ride, in the midst of my shaking hands and my pounding heart and my spinning head full of thoughts of certain and imminent doom, another little voice popped up. I like to think of this particular voice as the voice of my creative self.
"Remember Tillly?" it whispered to me (Tilly is the protagonist in my paranormal romance - she doesn't suffer from anxiety disorder but she does experience plenty of well-warranted fear). "You have to remember how you are feeling right now. How exactly is your heart pounding? What muscles are contracting in your chest so it feels like you cannot take a full breath? What is making you so viscerally uncomfortable right now? You have to make note and remember so that you can depict Tilly's fear more effectively."
One of the things that I am trying to learn through my mediation practice is to create some distance between myself and my thoughts and physical sensations that are always, even though they never feel like it at the time, transitory. Meditation encourages us to be curious about our thoughts and feelings without judging them.
Creativity does the same thing. By looking at my panic attack-y feelings and thoughts as a potential writer hoping to harvest them for future use, I create some much-needed space between myself and the deeply uncomfortable sensations my crocodile brain is creating for me.
The sensations are still wretched, but having curiosity about them brings a glimmer of transcendence. And then, when I actually use the material, which I always do sooner or later, the circle is complete. I have used my own misery to do a better job of writing and to hopefully make others who have felt profound visceral fear (and who hasn't?) feel less alone.
In other words, for people who have managed to carve out a creative outlet for themselves, even the really, really bad stuff is useful. Through our creativity we make even the unwanted and the uninvited serve a purpose. As I have said before, IT'S ALL MATERIAL.
I am not a subscriber to the belief that bad things happen for a reason, but I DO believe that we can choose to give even the yuckiest things meaning. This ability, in fact, is one of the things that makes us uniquely human.
Creativity won't make my panic attacks disappear for good (godammit), but it does make them slightly easier to cope with, and remains one of the most best ways for me to render useful something that is inherently useless.