Panic came a-knocking recently, and it extracted the last of the seven shades of shit from my what at times appears to be a kittenesque psyche. Or perhaps the better analogy would be a mouse, but there’s something, some intangibly feline quality, to my mortal vessel that just seems to better capture the fragility of my haphazard effort at existence. I prowl. Unintentionally, but I’m a prowler all right. Sidling along, I’ll loiter around the fringes and occasionally contribute a few words, scratching out in the affirmative that I am indeed still present. In familiar and hospitable surroundings, something resembling a purr will escape my lips, a sort of self-soothing utterance marked by great fluidity and little hesitance. It’s guttural in origin but not in style, flows like Niagara, and operates without the shackles of a constricted chest. My purring is a rarity, however, generally being reserved for special occasions or states of tranquility. And I was most certainly not purring when panic tried to establish a dictatorship the other night.
Gripped by common-or-garden variety fear and ‘the fear,’ my vitals seemed to fall away one by one. Higher states of concentration had eluded me all day long, and all I was fit for was reading inane articles about things I’d immediately forget and watching clips of my tried and trusted YouTube favourites. My state was one of stupor, the previous night’s alcohol having battered my mind and body. Dehydration was almost certainly a factor; dumb and numb from the booze and in the throes of the fear, I forgot to have my usual half gallon of tea over the course of the day. I know, I know, water’s better, but when I do think of getting the tea into me, it seems to do the trick.
There was no doubt I was easy pickings for panic, so vulnerable was I after the excessive indulgence. There’s also no doubt that hangovers and panic attacks bear many similarities to one another, but there is a distinct threshold at which they begin to diverge and go in radically different directions. While hangovers hammer at your temples, poke at your eyes, and squeeze your gut, there is a finiteness to their reign of terror, an end in sight, and as you take the necessary measures and apply the best elixirs going, you’ll see yourself progressing through the various stages of suffering. And you’ll almost always know that it is just a hangover, that the agony has its genesis in the revelry, and that your life is in no immediate danger. Panic, however, takes on a guise of a vastly different disposition, and, wicked ghoul that it is, often leads one to believe that death is imminent.
The panic attack of which I speak took me into unchartered territory. Its onset was faster than the blink of an eye, taking me face to face with my demons and the demons of those before me in an instant. You mentally step back from your outer world and find yourself sucked into an inner experience to which only you are privy; a veritable theme park of atrocities, it slingshots you high and low across a landscape of cruelties and barbarities that seem to operate individually, each one battering your weakened defences, and collectively, forming a unified entity that seems to wreak far more havoc with your soul than you’d have expected had you combined their individual threats.
Having mentally retreated somewhat involuntarily, you feel as though you’re operating well behind your usual frontline. From the safety of these trenches, one would normally expect to be able to plan and execute all activities with greater precision and diligence than usual, but this does not turn out to be the case. Isolated in the trench, control seems to slip through your fingers like a slug would the narrowest gap. Great distances suddenly begin to manifest themselves between you and your environment. A walk across the kitchen becomes fraught with danger, and your hand seems to be filling the kettle of its own accord. Remote from everything, you are at one with nothing. Dread rattles around your hollow rib cage, burrowing deeper and deeper until it is your rib cage that is rattling around inside your dread.
Futile attempts to pacify oneself come to mind, and so you hit play on what you believe to be the gentlest and most placid music, but somehow or another Lisa Hannigan or whoever it was that won the Grammy for mellowest album of the year seems to sound like a neverending loop of deeply unsettling noises like faltering angle grinders and that shrill shriek of someone drilling through concrete. A change of album seems like more stress than it’s worth, so you settle for a low volume setting of the first appropriate alternative.
Swirling like a blender, bubbling like a shaken soft drink, thoughts race from ear to ear and forehead to chin. A few will stand out and demand the most attention, but it’s chock-a-block in there and the mayhem seems to increase exponentially. Suddenly, that faint throb inside the cranium becomes a pulsing, swelling, stretching sensation, and here’s the point of departure from previous panic attacks. A twitching muscle deep inside my head has often triggered the attacks before, and with enough experience, I thought I had them licked, but this movement of membrane, this upheavel of neurons and synapses, wasn’t so much a glacial inching as a tectonic fracturing, each jolt delivering my body’s own maximum shock to my frazzled senses.
But you remain distant, an onlooker, which brings to mind other psychological phenomena, those of depersonalisation and derealisation, which I’ll not delve deeply into here but are worthy of a mention. As inner experience consumes all of your resources, and you find yourself a prisoner in your own perceptions and sensations, a drifting, a schism, occurs between that which is inner and that which in outer. As you float deep into what should be your own private paradise, you find that the heavens have opened and the rains lash relentlessly, drowning your efforts to grasp reality. You slip a little further away, and the laptop in front of you seems too far to reach, too hard to comprehend, too vague an object to even think about interacting with. Reality is anything but. The weird sensations tingling around your body originate internally; of that, you’re quite sure. It’s almost as if reality is superfluous, and though not aware of the thinking underlying that assumption, you somehow seem to be guided by it. Questions come thick and fast but the gist is much the same. Will this ever end? Is this real? Did I have a stroke earlier and die, and am I now experiencing an afterlife, which I had hitherto dismissed vehemently? I hope it was natural causes. How about the detachment? Why am I stuck in an unreality and is it really what the world is like and I’ve just suddenly woken up to it? Is it all just for me? Everything is a figment of my imagination – myself included – and when I close my eyes will that be it?
Hopping from one crisis to the next, an awareness haunts you. Death comes whenever it so pleases and though statistically unlikely, is this my last breath? Or this one? Or this? This one?
Convinced that you’ll die, you unlock your front door so that you’ll be found sooner. A walk sounds like a good idea but the dizziness scares you off it and a notion that your vision might fail you completely rubbishes the plan. You find yourself pacing the room and you’re not quite sure how long it’s been but then the clock catches your eye and you see that no more than 10 or 15 minutes have elapsed since the onset of the attack. Thoughts run bleak and black. You shiver as your mind bends the cast iron reality you’ve known all your life into an unstable quagmire of uncertainty and fear.
Time passes, each second seeming to intensify the agony. 30, 50, 70 minutes disappear in a spiral of despair, and you imagine the world without you in it.
The swelling intensifies and your skull feels like it’s about to pop with the pressure. Physical sensation and mental turmoil operate with military synchronicity and you descend further and further into madness. Double-teamed, you feel cheated by laws of the game, but the struggle continues, for, as many of you will know, you’re sure you’ll die if you don’t fight it. It doesn’t matter that you’ve read it in three books and heard it repeated countless times that the best thing to do is to simply let the panic come and it will dissipate in its own time. Your resistance probably only makes it worse, but all insight has been lost at this point and so you exacerbate the situation.
Eventually, you declare an all-out emergency. A trusted friend responds to your SOS immediately and somehow manages to appear at your door in double-quick time. Still pacing, still raving internally, you’re puzzled, her prompt appearance furthering the belief that nothing is real and that you’re locked inside some surreal, exitless maze. A phone call to the out-of-hours doctor secures an immediate appointment and further fuels your disbelief in the events unfolding around you. The car journey is unsettling but a necessary evil. The doctor examines me, concurs with the idea that it’s a panic attack, advises me to take some meds, and sends me on my way. I begin to feel a little better. A fraction. A glimmer of hope materialises alongside the foolishness one experiences when given the all-clear for psychosomatic ailments.
It’s slow, but progress is made, and after chatting with my friend, hydrating, medicating, and chilling, I start to feel a little more like myself. The bliss of the non-panicked state that follows a panicked state is hard to describe but we all know what relief feels like. Tiredness sets in. You know the following morning will be a write-off, and maybe even longer than that.
Panic comes. Panic goes. Panic takes. It’s greedy. Taking a philosophical approach, one could argue it gives too; gives an appreciation of the value of life and how lucky we are to have it. Near misses bring perspective and all of that. And well they might. Still, given the choice, I’d rather not have them. We need to work through our body’s natural impulses and rhythms and let them take their course, I hear you say. And while I sympathise with that philosophy, I know I’d rather live in a world without panic attacks.
They run their course, though. Always. So don’t outrun them, for they always seem to have more in the tank. Call someone, anyone. Share the burden. We many of us fear crying wolf. Screw that. In this your hour of need, shout it from the f**king rooftops.