I said Sunday I was going to write about sleep yesterday. That clearly didn’t happen. I’m kind of super busy at the moment. So I thought I’d share a post I wrote a while back – I’ve been waiting for the right time to share it, when I really felt like I was in the mood for it. I’ve been in the mood for a long while now but I haven’t had me a classic attack so I thought, nah, I’ll wait. But a series of recent events just conspired to make me realize I might as well post what’s been constantly nagging at me this semester. So here goes:
You would not believe how many people in this world have never had a panic attack. I was shocked.
I know very few people have them because it is something I have asked people as part of a medical screen for a psychology study. We do MRIs in this study and apparently you really shouldn’t have an MRI if you have panic attacks. (This is crap. We’re mostly concerned about claustrophobic anxiety, so get as many MRIs as you want. But we have to ask so our subjects know it’s a consideration.)
And would you believe I’ve only ever gotten a rare handful of people to say yes, they’ve had a panic attack? And even the majority of those people are just burgeoning hypochondriacs because what they’re describing is nothing more than a bad stress day.
What I want to hear about is something real. I want someone to describe something insanely damn petrifying that clamps onto your heart and stops your breathing and paralyzes all your muscles and focuses your attention down to a pinpoint of overwrought terror. I wish I could say that was hyperbole.
I want everyone in the world to have one of these so they can understand what I mean when I say I’m terrified of death. Fellow psychologists, please don’t bloody argue with me that it’s not a true panic attack if it’s triggered by something consistent and real. I don’t think that’s true and I don’t care if it is. What I have are panic attacks and no one’s going to convince me otherwise.
I don’t think it’s fair to say that you can’t understand my fear of death if you haven’t had a panic attack. But whenever I try and explain to anyone how I feel I never get a reply that gives me the sense people get it. You know? I think my sister probably gets it, and I think my husband tries really hard to get it. I guess if I were a more selfless person I would be exceedingly grateful if no one ever got it. It’s a painful and awful thing to get.
But I want you to understand me and my writing and why it’s important to me. For a long time I didn’t quite know what was wrong with me and particularly what exact concatenation of stimuli was setting off these waves of attacks, so I started writing an anxiety diary in the hope of seeing something in the patterns. And just before I gave it up, I wrote this:
“Sure, everyone’s scared of dying. To some degree. A lot of people are. It’s just they don’t perseverate on it, see it in everything… I’m seeing it in more and more these days and I don’t know why. Every time I see [husband’s] face I’m reminded that he’s older, that I’m older, that we’re advancing steadily toward one inevitable end… every time I’m in front of the television all I can wonder is how long it will be like this, in this configuration in this house the way it is now – how long before it changes, before we move to another phase, before the advance occurs? I see plane crashes and homicides and bicycle accidents all the time. I imagine how I’ll react when my family is dead. I’ve envisioned every single one of their deaths. I’ve thought what I’d say to them, our last words, I’ve imagined what I’d say at their funerals. I hear phone messages and I wonder if I shouldn’t delete them because it’s a record of these people who could disappear from me at any moment.
“Halt there. Am I worried people will disappear from me because for the first time people are disappearing from me? Granddad died. Kaycee [my dog] died. Things that I’ve treasured are forever missing. I prepared myself for Kaycee. For years I predicted what it would be like to have her dead, for years I sat and watched her, petted her while she slept, memorized every inch of her so that I still have her with me now that she’s almost two years gone. I distanced myself from Granddad admirably. I didn’t really know him, not really. But I watched him die, I saw through him and Kaycee what death was, up close, I watched those last breaths and the stillness and the way the world goes and goes afterward. I saw that miraculous moment. I thought about my own moment, I think of it constantly, I fear it with abandon. I see it like a train I can’t stop, and I freeze in front of it and it hits me and there’s nothing I can do. I’m powerless against it. There’s nothing I can do.”
I dreamed about my moment, once. I dreamed that I was dying in a hospital and all my family was around me, sympathizing, teary-eyed, counting down the seconds until my death. The closer the seconds got to zero the more terrified I became, and by three…two… one… I was so insanely terror-stricken I actually woke myself up. And I sat there in bed thinking about it, and I realized that the reality was even worse than the dream – because one day I will be there, counting down my seconds, and I won’t be able to wake myself up.
I use writing as an escape from my perseveration on the inevitability of my own death, the certain cessation of my consciousness. Panic is no small part of what makes me write. Sometimes it forces me to write. The husband is always warning me to get to bed rather than stay up typing because all I’m doing is making it worse trying to escape it. He’s such a good husband.
I guess what I’m saying is that of course I care what you think and I want you to love me. Of course. But I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing this for me. And actually, if you’re sitting there reading this right now and you hear a long-sought grain of empathetic truth, then I’m writing for you too and I hope that what I’m saying touches you and I’d love for you to touch me, too. (Okay, I can’t let that slip by without acknowledging the double entendre like the middle schooler I still am!)
Recently I went to a PostSecret exhibition at our university art museum (“PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death and God” – if you haven’t experienced PostSecret I encourage you to look it up!) and I read a postcard. It had a plain lavender-gray background, and on it was written simply, “I’m terrified of nothingness.”
I cried. That person gets it.