I had a panic attack for the first time when I was 26. I was sitting in a theater with my friend Olivia, watching a play at the school where we were studying acting. It was set up as theater-in-the-round and the seats were situated stadium-style in such a way that once the show began, you would have to walk across the stage and across the action to get out. The realization that I was trapped inside unless I wanted to ruin the play didn’t dawn on me until 15 minutes into the 1st act. Seemingly unrelated, I started to have the feeling that I was having a heart attack. It wasn’t that I had the idea and that I was clearly reacting to it, it was as if some other brain had put the pieces together, separate from my consciousness. Olivia could see my distress and when I told her my feeling, she knew immediately what was going on and it was calming to have the words ‘panic attack’ whispered into my ear. It didn’t make the symptoms diminish, but it made me believe I wasn’t dying. We went out into the parking lot and decided to stay out.
There’s an insidious element of panic attacks in that they have their own hard to decipher logic and can happen at any moment. And the fear of that happening at any moment can create the meteorological conditions to make them more probable. Recursive goading by each of these components will dare each other to act, presenting a unique climate for mental health and personal torture. The intense “publicness” of having a dance company tested my resolve in every way and in fact pushed me into the new realm of uncontrollable bouts of paranoia. There was one morning that my kind General Manager had to drive me to the emergency room because I was sure that there was no returning to reality. The fear and compassion in his eyes reflected how far I had disappeared.
There is a switch that flips and the reasonable caution that keeps a person safer in the world, jumps off a cliff into a dark infinity. In this state, my body and its neural pathways feel like the squishy rubber-ball filled with jelly that, when you squeeze hard, makes the unsupported part lurch out into a tumor of clear projectile bubble. My body becomes like that, but in high-speed, with projections jutting in every direction, each with their own detailed rainbow of a puzzle to solve. It pushes past the point of perceivable thought, and random gibberish and fragments of words zag like electrocution as my intent tries to end the unbearable danger of living. Tries to solve the impossible task of life. The paranoia tries to perfect and make danger impossible. Tries to make an impossibility possible.
After ending TMP, and through an intense period of work and reflection, the mountain of catastrophizing has diminished in frequency in a profound way. In some ways, it makes it more heartbreaking when it rears its head and kick me off the cliff once again…because I know what I’m in for and I know the peace that I have created is something I am now saying goodbye to.
I’m moving to LA today. I’m very excited to fulfill a lifelong dream of living and creating in that place. My preparations for the move would inspire you. So organized. So masterful. I have felt so clear with myself in the whole process and haven’t even given into my habit of hyperbole and idealizing the challenges. There has been no perceivable fear. And then it happened. I woke up from an afternoon nap in total debilitating paranoia. It’s hard to connect the exact inspiration. The frustration of actual moving, the argument with my boyfriend, the weight of not having an apartment yet, the probability of cancer, the impending World War. None of that matters because the trigger is never really the point. I spent about three days getting worse and worse. I could barely carry on a conversation. My fingernails were raw from trying to prevent slipping down into the canyon but falling is inevitable.
I had this lucid dream that the cause of the paranoia was the act of trying to stop it. So in my dream I totally embodied the worst version of my fantasy. Felt myself homeless, felt my body riddled with cancer, I sank into the worst scenarios I could summon. And from that release, a hole shone through my body and I was able to feel sad for a moment about leaving a life behind. The terror of uncertainty. The volume turned down a little and I could just be sad about goodbye before greeting a new home.
I want to understand why it is that our lives are filled with the kind of deafening noise that makes the truth so hard to reach consistently. The truth is never permanent. I want to know if it is intrinsic to our nature as humans to distract and invest in approximations (false gods) instead of loving presence. Or is it that our culture has developed because of greed or control or a thousand different things that the thing that stands in front of the real thing, the actual thing that feeds us, that that other thing is so much safer, more appealing, tantalizing, sexier? I want to believe that getting lost is related to our higher purpose. I want to believe that the conflict, that the greasy, painful path of always trying to get there has some higher purpose in and of itself. To constantly find myself back with the same demons in new forms feels like failure, but I suspect that in way that we value the crunchiest plot arcs of great fiction, the PROCESS, the heroic trying and failing, is the actual point.
And I think that this is somehow to say that to let go of the quest to end my anxiety, to make room for the struggle of getting there instead of striving endlessly for an unattainable perfection and freedom from any bad feeling, somehow grounds me back into knowing that everything is going to be ok. Life is filled with grace. Most of us survive pretty well the seemingly unsurvivability of life. That paranoid beast can live in my house and I will still be fine.