It’s 5:47 a.m. when I wake, trying to figure out how to fit my laptop into an antique desk that’s falling apart. My worry about the dream desk starts galloping into many manner of other worry, from the sublime (climate change) to the ridiculous (having to wake early for a gig next February, and what if I didn’t sleep well the night beforehand?). I steer my mind as best I can away from the tar pits of habitual anxieties (“don’t think about the kids, don’t think about the kids, don’t think….”) and thoughts catalyzed by the shock of cancer and trauma of treatment. But still.
Lately, this human has been easily tipped into tiny or not-so-tiny panic attacks, usually in the middle of the night (their breeding time) and sometimes, out of the blue, mid-morning for no apparent reason. Realizing who the little man is behind the curtain is — the after effects of the cancer diagnosis most likely, come out to roost in prime time now that I’m through so much of the recovery — doesn’t help all that much except to remind me that this is a common kind of thing. I work enough with people living with serious illness to recognize how, months after being spit out on the beach from the whale of chemo, surgeries or radiation, the terror catches up with us.
At the same time, as a person prone to anxiety (I come by it honestly given my family and ancestral history), I’m not unfamiliar with my friend, the panic attack. I say “my friend” purposely here because I’ve learned it’s best not to run and hide, call the panic names or otherwise diss it, but get present enough to breathe, name what’s happening, and remind myself of some logic (hey, there’s nothing I can do to reform Mitch McConnell, so let it go). It’s helpful to tell myself that it’s just anxiety talking, and all will be sunnier in the morning. Yes, I have meds to take proactively or as needed, plus this great Gaba (an amino acid that helps calm the brain) supplement to spray into my mouth, and a lot of breathing and relaxation practices. I also know that in the middle of that panic gripping the center of my belly, it’s likely I’ll forget everything I just named here, so I lie in the dark, and aim my thoughts toward remembering how to breathe and what to think.
I’m also far from alone. Friends and family often reply, “me, too!” when I tell them of a recent running of the bulls in my body and mind. Maybe it has something to do with a particularly energetic full moon lately, the reality that we are in the sixth age of extinction (200 species vanishing a day, Greta Thunberg recently said, and yes, she’s right), and so many people and other species experiencing so much avoidable suffering born of oppression, greed, arrogance, and ignorance.
Perhaps it’s also a natural response at times to the reality of being human. When I was talking with Neela Sandal, my integrative physician, last week, he told me an old story from India that included the question, “What is the most amazing thing in the world?” and the answer, “That everyone is dying and no one believes it.” Mortality is a kick in the ass, and it makes sense that given how much we live in a death-denying (and at times defying) culture, that sometimes the space between a sense of control and the reality of life’s fragility and mystery fills with adrenalin.
So for all of us who occasionally experience any size panic attack in any nook and cranny of our lives, it’s good to know that we’re in good and honest company. Sometimes there’s a quick fix, and often there’s not, but there’s always time, turning us from the temporary into the next moment, then the next. Like now when I write this to you on the porch, breathing easy and appreciating the wind, the first leaves falling, and the occasionally monarchs migrating through on their way to somewhere else. I tell myself now and also in the middle of panic to embrace some measure of gratitude: remember all those I love and who love me, remember the sky, remember the river, remember the wind and how it’s always moving and changing.