Every so often, a Black Thing comes knocking at my door, and with a wicked grin it demands to come inside for a short visit to relive the good old days. I know him well, because twice in my life he has been a long-term visitor. On one occasion, more than thirty years ago now when I was a troubled young man, the Black Thing not only dwelled with me for the better part of two years, but was a virtual bedmate. Some years later, when my mother was dying of cancer, he came for another visit that was mercifully shorter, only about two months or so in duration.
He's also popped in for spot checks at other times, and last night brought one such visit.
A panic attack for me begins quite innocently, with nothing more than an unusual and very particular sense of expectation. It's not an unpleasant feeling at first——more like the slight nervousness you might feel before speaking in front of a group, or like the prescient sensation you get if you awaken early on the day of a vacation trip to a far-off land. Last night, out of a sound sleep, I awoke to this feeling of expectation, which, even if it's been years since the last one, is instantly identifiable.
Within moments——or maybe its just a split second, because time is very hard to gauge--the feeling of expectation blossoms into an inexplicable terror. A friend once asked me to describe what a panic attack felt like, and the closest I could come to was this: it's like you're walking down a sunny street on a spring day, a song in your heart, when you step off the curb to cross a boulevard, and realize that a speeding bus is a split second away from smashing you into oblivion. The heart-in-the-throat, stomach-sickening, thought-exploding volcano is a panic attack.
Panic attacks for me can last anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours, and however long it might be, the doomsday bus travels at 90 miles-per-hour for the duration, and remains inches from crashing into you, never further and never closer. It defies all physical laws, as the impending doom never resolves itself, but hangs in the air eternally. Taken individually and seen in retrospect, no single panic attack is all that big a deal. It doesn't leave lasting damage, and once it's past, the feeling from moments earlier seems as distant as the moon.
In the very darkest times, though, when the Black Thing lived with me, the panic attacks were always on the long side, and I was seized by 10 or 12 each day. I awoke with them, went to sleep with them, and was roused from fitful sleep by attacks of panic. For two years in 1975 and 1976, my days consisted of panic, and the dread waiting for the next attack of panic. There was literally no room for happiness. Though not as graphic to onlookers, this kind of panic disorder is just about as debilitating as a pattern of frequent epileptic seizures.
T'was a very dark time, in other words.
That's really the horror of infrequent return visits of the Black Thing in the years since those times. An occasional panic attack isn't all that problematic, but it always does remind me of that time when panic attacks put me on the verge of madness. When they happen, even now, I wonder if it harkens a return to those days, or if at some point the doomsday bus will fail to disappear and remain forever poised inches from crushing me. I fear, in other words, that the panic won't end. There is likely an element of post tramatic stress in all this, I'm sure, since when it happens, I relive some memories that even today I haven't told people about.
When the Black Thing revisits like it did last night, there is some comfort in knowing that a drugstore a few blocks away does carry medicines that can help a bit. Long experience has taught me the very mild doses of a particular enhancer of neuro-transmitter action can help lessen the severity and frequency of panic attacks. Should they start to become frequent, that's an option. But as anyone who has lived through some kind of mood disorder——whether serious depression, OCD, or anxiety disorders——can tell you, medicines really address symptoms, not causes. A well chosen drug treats physical sensations associated with a disorder, and doesn't exactly cure or prevent them. The benefit of a drug is rather like putting on long underwear and a heavy coat when the winter night is bitterly cold. It makes you more comfortable, but it doesn't turn winter into summer.
Long experience has also told me that another part of the solution, the more real solution, is willful action that, on the face of things, seems entirely counter-intuitive. Although every impulse you have during a panic attack is to run, to flee, the truth is that if you actually try to run away from panic, the terror will continue to pursue you relentlessly. Strangely enough, though, turning directly into panic, staring it in the face, shining awareness into it, is one of the best ways to make it evaporate. If there is any one thing I can point to that caused the Black Thing to leave me alone, finally, it was this kind of meditative approach to the whole thing.
So very often the best solution is not to distract yourself, not ignore a panic attack, but to study it quite directly and objectively. In the throes of a panic attack, what I find is that gradually the observing aspect begins to come to the fore-front, while the panic itself recedes and becomes a subject for study rather than a beast that has you by the throat. The inner sensation is very much like dialing a radio tuner away from the channel playing terror, and to a frequency where a documentary narrator observes the pounding heart, the racing thoughts of horror, the wild impulses. Wes Craven becomes David Attenborough. It become evident that panic is drama, not truth, and that it carries no real long-term meaning or significance.
Last night's visit was a mild one——fifteen minutes or so——yet I admittedly feel a bit rattled today. Literally rattled, as though the nuts and bolts of my nervous system were slightly loosened, so that I clatter around a bit like the tin woodman.
It's not altogether a bad thing, though, as I find that this morning I am a little less full of myself, and a little more attuned to the people around me, wondering about what kind of quiet pain they are hiding themselves, and how they deal with their own visits from the Black Thing. It is more prevalent than we think, though it surely wears different costumes when it visits our friends, neighbors and coworkers. Perhaps it's true that some knowledge of our own pain helps us empathize with others. I also try to view it philosophically, even spiritually, and to learn something from these visits. Rilke, I think, said something like "perhaps every black thing just secretly wants to be loved." And the Buddhists have a practice called 'feeding hungry ghosts," which involves acknowledging that our spectres do truly exist and must be recognized if they are to be overcome. If the Black Thing's come back to visit, it very likely means that I've not paid close enough attention recently.