26 April 2011


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.


  1. I totally want to give you a bear hug right now.

    I don't have panic attacks, but I can freak myself out pretty good, thinking about death, nothingness, etc. Also if I think too much about my own importance, or if I try to think too globally or too locally.

    I definitely think daily about what if today is my day or someone I love's day. It's almost like an OCD thing at this point, if I think it, it won't happen.

    But, I can always manage to rein myself in before real panic happens. I cry about it, but it stays distant enough that I don't experience actual terror over it.

    I think there is a part of me that finds the inevitability of it..not comforting, but maybe like a relief, like...I dunno. I guess that there's nothing I can do to change it(contardicting my OCD thing), so I don't have to try. But that sounds more hopeless than it feels, to me.

    Anyways. Hugs.

  2. Thank you, Bad :)! You always know what to say. I hate that I love when other people understand what I'm talking about.

  3. I understand entirely. As someone who suffered through a pretty serious panic disorder for a long time before things started improve enough that I could go to work or live my life I completely get where you are coming from here.

    So many people I know say they have panic attacks and when most of them describe them I can't help but think "that's it?" There is a huge difference between "anxiety" and "anxiety attacks" and so many people don't get that.

    I try to explain it like this:

    Picture a large animal runs out in front of your car on a fast highway. How that first second you lose your breath and your mind goes entirely blank and all you can feel is pure fear then as the seconds wear on the panic starts to subside little bit by little bit. Well Anxiety attacks are not like that... Things don't immediately start to feel better. You don't have that one second of extreme panic that subsides quickly. Instead the one second of pure fear lasts anywhere from minutes to hours. The worst part is most of the time nothing terrible happened to spark that fear in the first place. It comes out of nowhere, at any time, with no rhyme or reason and the worst part is eventually it gets that you just start fearing the panic itself and the more you fear it there more it happens.


  4. Teelums, it's exactly like that! I'm thrilled to say mine only last for like 2-20 minutes. I'm glad to hear you've been getting yours under control! Congrats :) - I hope it only gets better from here for you.

  5. Yeah. I understand it. Selling life insurance freaks me out because of it and I always scare myself a little when writing those policies. It freaks me out that someday I will have to deliver a death benefit, a cancer benefit, or any number of other things for tragedies that happen.

    It scares me that I'll have to deal with it in myself and those I hold dear.

    This post is exactly the thing which keeps me up at night.

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  7. Haha, I get you..God do I get you...
    I'm lucky because my anxiety attacks have mellowed out now (maybe once a month?) but in high-school and a fair share of middle school they were pretty much a constant (because you know, high-school isn't fun enough without constant unexplained heart stopping terror and insomnia).

    Thinking of death would trigger it, but not very much because I'd pretty much come to terms with the fact that everything dies back in grade school and expected everything around me to drop dead at any moment (morbid little shit that I was). My real trigger was thinking of space and the infinite and just how little I, or anyone around me mattered. The fact that I'm essentially nothing in the scheme of things and if I stopped existing nothing would change and the universe would just keep going until that one day when everything would just end...which was (and still is) another completely terrifying topic for me...

    I stopped looking at the sky at night for about 7 years there just because it would trigger what I called the "thought spiral" that would in minutes, inevitably, have me feeling like I'd have to claw at my own skin to escape...

    So I most definitely feel for you
    That shit sucks...