Thursday, 20 August 2009

Don't panic!

There have been some fascinating blog posts about this week thanks to a meme called 'transformative moment' that started (I think) over here. Our friend Titus wrote one of the most amazing, heart-stopping contributions but the posts have all been interesting in their way (that JoAnne McKay, though, she can't half write...).

I wasn't going to join in (after all, I barely know Steven over at the Golden Fish and it's a weird week getting Girl back to school and all...) but then the subject started to interest me. Of all the things that have happened to me what would I choose to write about? What would be interesting? Every single thing we do changes our life in some way – but what was especially significant for me...what has made me the strange bundle of features that I am? I think about other people a lot ('why did he say that?', 'what is she up to?', 'is he really what he thinks he is?') and to be honest a lot of the time I try not to think about myself (you might not believe that but it's true). With this question, however, there was no getting away from it. Here was a mirror. Who dares to look?

So I pondered a little as I walked the dog and got back into the term-time routine. I thought about happy changes (the evening I first caught Mark giving me a sparkly-eyed look, the moment I realised I did want to try and be a Mum after all, the day our Girl was born) and then I thought about some of the old miseries (I can't even be bothered to list them – what a load of tiresome old baggage!) but then this morning I had a thought about what I might write after all.

Panic.

Yes.

Panic.

Panic is something I've touched on here sometimes (jokes about driving, comments about crowded places, stuff about general nervousness) but it's not a subject I've ever really written about in any detail before (anywhere, ever...I don't think). I've read plenty in newspaper features and in famous people's biographies about panic attacks but it's something I've kept back from a little (as if hoping, perhaps, that if I didn't write about it then it would magically disappear). There are bits about panic and anxiety in my poems of course but nothing too laboured (I hope) and if anything I've tried not to make too much of my panic experiences because I know that it's kind of a boring subject in a way - especially to people who've never really experienced it. It's a somewhat invisible problem but it's something that affects a lot of people. And it seemed the thing to write about today.

So my transformative moment (or one of them) would have to be....my first ever panic attack. It went a little something like this.

I was on an aeroplane (bad choice – no possible exit!). I was in my mid 20s. I was wearing a suit (or some other kind of horrible mid-market executive outfit) because, unbelievable as it sounds now, I was on a business trip. I was even in Business Class! Can you imagine?

I was working for an advertising agency (in the Research & Planning Department...what a load of rubbish, honestly) and because I knew a few languages I'd ended up getting sent with one of our clients (a large chemical company's fibres division!) to an international synthetic fibres convention in Germany. It was not exactly a milieu where I felt at home (suits, suits and more suits) and I'd been bored at the convention all day and bored at the horrible drunken business dinners by night. By the end of the few days I was desperate to get back to Leeds, to my then boyfriend and to my weird double life (ad. exec. by day/crazy loved-up, bug-eyed raver by night). I got on the plane with no thoughts of fear because I'd never been scared of any kind of travelling up to that point, I'd never really known anxiety as I'd been a confident child and a know-it-all young adult who found almost everything easy. I got off that plane quite a different person.

I think the panic started as we got near to the clouds on take-off. I was sitting next to a guy who looked a bit like Neil Kinnock and I think he worked in a shoe factory or something. I think I remember that he had a magazine about shoes in his hand. I think he was sat by the window. All I remember clearly is suddenly looking out of that window and thinking 'what the hell? How did the ground get away so fast? Where are we? What are we doing? Does everyone else know we are so high up and going so bloody fast?' There were lots and lots of other crazy, crazy, very fast questions too. I didn't say anything out loud of course (panicking people rarely do – it's mostly internal torture) and it's quite possible I even carried on a boring conversation with the Kinnock guy about where we'd been and who we worked for and what we'd had for breakfast. But inside I was thinking like a car alarm 'panic, panic, panic'. It was really terrifying. It was really surprising.

I learned very quickly what this kind of panic is like. Things happen when you panic that no-one else sees for a start – like suddenly the place where you are shrinks (so the plane felt really, really small...a bit Alice in Wonderland...horrible, not at all funny). Also the voice in your head gets really, REALLY loud. And you sweat. And you worry that you'll be sick or crap yourself or something (and when I say 'worry' I don't mean a mild concern...I mean worry like every cell in your body is stretching and going to pop). You are hyper-hyper-super-self-conscious and it's really, really revolting. You want to be beaten over the head with a mallet ('please stewardness, hit me hard!'). You want to lie on the floor and have people trample all over you. You want to die. And as quickly as possible, please.

Do you think I'm exaggerating? If you do then I would say you've probably never had a panic attack so (a) you should feel glad about that (b) you should to try be a bit more empathetic and (c) you should watch your step because it's often the people who think they'll never succumb who end up going through these kind of emotions and experiences. I suppose I had always been a bit emotional but I'd never had confidence problems or anxieties or travelling worries before this flight. I'd been on planes before. I'd even enjoyed flying up till then. Now, suddenly here I was at however many thousand feet with a shoe salesman and a panic problem that made me feel like a human warhead. I'd never panicked before so I didn't know about deep breathing or anything simple like that. I didn't know anyone on the plane and I didn't know who I was either all of a sudden. I just sat and freaked the fuck out (sorry, polite readers). It was, what, an hour in the air? But it was a very, very long flight. I don't remember getting off.

I suppose if I'd found a good doctor straightaway, immediately stopped taking recreational drugs (and never taken any ever again), had a less confusing family, if I'd learned to meditate within weeks...stuff like that...then maybe the panicking business wouldn't have taken such a hold on me. But I didn't do any of that. I carried on with my life as it was, I saw bad doctors, I didn't listen to them anyway, I started panicking all over the place (buses, cinemas...anywhere with a row to sit in)...and then I walked out of my job and started panicking professionally (well, I was a nightclub DJ too - who would notice in the dark?). After several years of dedicated lunacy I even started panicking whilst driving and had to give that up too. A lot of things changed in my life as a result of this new ability (far too many to go into in one paragraph) but they weren't all bad changes. Some of them were very, very good changes in fact (nothing's ever simple, eh?).

That first panic was getting on for twenty years ago now which is hard to believe in many ways. That change in my life (in my habits, in my opinion of who I was, what I did, what I was capable of) changed everything for me. For a while (quite a while!) it made everything hard. At one point (about 15 years ago) I couldn't go out on my own and walk to the corner shop without panicking. But now I can do most things again...well, little by little...and I know it's made me a kinder, gentler person (which I'm glad about...I think I was probably quite an arse as a youth). It's not been easy and it's all kind of stupid...but what can you do? Them's the breaks.

x

43 comments:

steven said...

hi rachel, thanks for this. only a couple of people now that i very occasionally have panic attacks. they're exactly as you describe yours just the setting 's different. they usually reflect a deep deep desire not to be somewhere that i have to be. they're horrible but i've learned to manage. i love this line that you begin your writing with: "Here was a mirror. Who dares to look?" yeah exactly. it's about a dare to yourself. i think that if you wander 'round the rest of the contributions you'll see that there ar epeople who have (like yourself) put something out there that is deeply personal for the first time. by the way, i linked this piece to my page so people can come have a look-see. have a lovely day. steven

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for calling by, Steven. This must have been a busy couple of days for you!

Yes, that mirror. I've been half thinking about a series of mirror poems for the past couple of months. They won't be all about the self. They'll be about all sorts of things and people.

There were lots of posts I liked with this meme...another was this one.

x

Rachel Fox said...

And yes, I too have learned to manage. More or less.
x

The Weaver of Grass said...

I found your post very moving Rachel - I know one or two people who have these attacks but I have never before read such a graphic description of how they feel when one occurs - so thank you for opening my eyes a bit further. I would imagine that writing about it as you have done is in its way quite therapeutic.

Rachel Fox said...

Oh I hope so, Weaver! I'm really tired of them now (and have been working really hard at banishing them forever this year - hard work though and I'm an idle fop at heart...). What's worst is that they make you feel so useless (to others and yourself). I hate that! I like to be useful!
x

Sorlil said...

I've only ever had one panic attack, reading this brought it back all to clearly. Couldn't imagine having to live with it on a regular basis, so glad for you that things are much better.

Poetikat said...

I feel for you. It must have been awful to be on that plane and know you could not escape. God I don't know how you coped.

I had a panic attack in church once. It was a Good Friday when the church was packed (naturally) and I suddenly felt as if I was suffocating. You can decide for yourself if it that was literal or had something to do with church itself. All I know, is that I had one thought in mind, Get out! Get out of the pew, down the aisle and out of the church as fast as possible. I avoid Good Fridays now. It's nothing to do with the actual day, but everything to do with the crush and the length of the service. And maybe, in a way, it's a reflection on my belief (or confusion in it). It may have been the beginning of a lifelong quandary about my faith. I practice, but am not connected to a particular parish. I believe, but am conflicted in my denomination. Wow! I've never put that out there before.


I have never been particularly claustrophobic, so I don't think that was it. It was something else.

Kat

Rachel Fox said...

Sorlil - just the one! Well done you or lucky you. There have been times when my adult life has felt like one big long panic. People suffer much worse things though and I'm always aware of that.. And it can be controlled.

Kat - nothing like a good revelation in the comments box. You're a pal as ever.

It's obviously one of those get-it-all-out-and-share-it weeks on blogs. The serious, academic, emotions-are-for-plebs bloggers had better stay off-line!

x

Niamh B said...

A moving, thought provoking, and very honest post. Problems like this are too rarely discussed, it takes alot of bravery and confidence to share it so openly, and alot of skill to share it so vividly.

Rachel Fox said...

It's funny. The reason I don't talk/write about it much is that it seems so pathetic really - such a stupid thing to experience! I guess that's why it is (or seems) 'rarely discussed' Niamh - those of us who know about it just hate it (and ourselves!).

I'm glad you got something from it today. I really wasn't sure about posting it because there's personal and then there's just tedious...Hard to judge until it's out there being read.

x

deemikay said...

I've had my "moments". Really, really, really bad moments. They sound like your panic attacks, but at the time I never called them that. I just called them "bad moments". And the last thing I wanted to do was write about them (who would read? and why?)

Maybe they weren't panic attacks at all, but it's a better name than what I had.

Rachel Fox said...

Mine often lasted so long...I couldn't possibly have called them any kind of moment! But it's the feeling not the name that matters really. And it feels/felt bad...that's for sure.

As for writing about it...I suppose it's like anything - it can be interestingly done, it can be dull as dishwater. We choose what suits us, what we want to go on reading.
x

Niamh B said...

Not at all tedious, very interesting.

deemikay said...

One of my "moments" lasted about 6 years... (approx age 17 to 23)Moments can be long things as well.

deemikay said...

Oh and the fact of thinking "who would read and why" was all part of the feeling. I wasn't asking from now, I was asking it then.

Rachel Fox said...

Ah the confusing matter of time!

And now it's teatime...or at least it will be if I go and make some.

x

Rachel Fox said...

Make some tea...not some time...obviously. Hm.
x

Titus said...

Oh Rachel, brilliantly evoked long moment and that two word description to sum up the previous - human warhead - funny and terrifying. To have lived with this for so long and yet manage to do all you've done is telling of both strength and determination. Plus you found a positive to it all - strange how it's the bad times that can make us better people.
Blogging really personal stuff is strange, and I wonder if the fact that steven is so very open (in a not-quite-British way) is what's caused his meme to produce so many deeply personal tales. Though he did grow up over here, to the best of my knowledge. Is there a difference in the continents' blogging practices? I wonder ...
Neil Kinnock? I thought only Neil Kinnock looked like Neil Kinnock. Poor man.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks T. After reading your piece my subject seems really wimpy in comparison...but then (like us) they have things in common too.

I think these big, open-up post topics come round now and again (in whatever continent). We couldn't write this kind of thing all the time (it would start to feel like that section in Smiths with all the personal tragedy books) but we all have our tales and now and again it is good to share them (just as it is good to share triumphs and discoveries and news and humour). And if people don't like the big emotional pieces (or find them unBritish!) they can just look/click away.

x

Rachel Fox said...

As for the strength and determination...obviously I have had help too. Lots of help.

x

deemikay said...

Time's the easy one... I can make plenty of that.

Kay said...

I am fortunate never to have had one of these attacks...they sound terrifing!!...thank you for being so honest in your post...i think this little task of stevens has made quite a few people open up as they might not have done before..thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

Rachel Fox said...

Hi Kay
I think this post has been on its way for a while. In January of this year I was writing about fear and ambition and careers and resolutions....all linked in, for me, with the subject of today's post (in one way or another).
But yes, it feels OK to have it out now (like a rotten tooth or something). I have talked about it before with folk but not publicly in such a concentrated way.
x

hope said...

And I honestly always thought of you as fearless! Standing in front of crowds, sharing poetry...couldn't do it.

Now I can see how far you've come in your life and truly special all that public sharing is. Good for you! And thanks for sharing...I know that sometimes it's not easy, even when we feel like we're among friends.

Eryl Shields said...

Good grief Rachel, I can't imagine having to deal with something like this on an ongoing basis. I've heard the term 'panic attack' but until now had no idea of what that actually meant. Now I think I do, and it sounds bloody awful.

I'm not good in crowds and can get a bit sweaty and feel like I'm going to puke, but that's the nearest thing I've ever come to anything like what you describe. And it's not nearly similar enough, I can usually avoid crowds for a start. x

Rachel Fox said...

You're not the first person to say that to me, Hope! I suppose I have my fearless times and my completely paralysed by fear times (and I am reducing those). Contradictions everywhere. Extremes even more. One of my big subjects.

Eryl - sounds like you have a flutter of it there though, like Sorlil, you have been lucky/clever enough to manage it (rather than let it manage you!). I have been a bit slow in this regard. Once again my favourite Eels song comes to mind. I'll get there in the end. Where ever it is. Thanks.

x

Rachel Fox said...

And one of the things that has always made me least nervous or fearful is speaking/reading in public. I really enjoy it. Strange eh? Probably a bit twisted. I should probably go on Big Brother (JOKE!).

x

Kim Ayres said...

Firstly I wanted to thnak you for taking the time to comment on my blog.

However, I was also curious as to why you haven't fully explored these panics in your poetry. I see from your response to other comments (as well as in the post itself) it's something you feel embarrassed about because it feels, to use your word (not mine) pathetic.

And yet, it's very very real. How our brains decide we should react is rarely down to our own conscious decision making. There are all sorts of things going on in there which can be debilitating.

To feel embarrased by it is to feel that somehow you ought to be able to pull yourself out of it - and yet that's the very same language used by people who, for example, suffer from Depression. And it's something you can't do. It's a mental health issue rather than a conscious choice.

I know one or two people who suffer panic attacks and it is completely debilitating.

One of the "roles" of the poet is to help people see things in ways they otherwise wouldn't have.

You have a gift with words. Your explanation here is very clear. I think it's something you could write about in your poetry with great insight, passion and emotion.

Poetry can be such a powerful medium to explore our demons :)

Rachel Fox said...

Hi Kim
Well, maybe I was underplaying a little there. I have written about it and in all sorts of ways - I've just tried not to make it my hobby horse, my one subject...know what I mean? I'd hate to be 'that person who always writes about being nervous/depressed'...and of course those two are very closely linked often. Being so anxious is depressing! I come from a family with a some history in these matters (though there's nothing very unusual about that).

My website has a section of poems called 'distress and recovery' and there are quite a lot of mental illness issue poems in there! Plus in my book there is a 'freaking out' section which features some of those too. There is also a poem 'Pay heed to the special need' which is about mental issues and all kinds of other things (that's in the 'modern world' poems section) - that has been quite popular with some readers/listeners. The website is www.crowd-pleasers.net It has a lot of poems but does need updating too. More recently I have been putting stuff on the blog (just because it's technically easier and quicker for me to do myself).

Thanks for your comment too. That thing about 'pulling yourself out of it'. The thing is you can...it's just really, really hard (and you usually need help and changes and all sorts of other things). That's one reason it's so confusing. It does add complications to parenthood too (like that needs complications...).

x

Rachel Fox said...

p.s.I loved your photos of Eryl!
x

Rachel Fox said...

I have written song/poems about it all too. They are on the site's song page. There's 'Sing when you're nervous' and 'the light o'er the sea' for starters. Hastily done recordings (in the front room), I should point out.
x

Frances said...

I've suffered from anxiety and panic attacks too Rachel. Its the most un-funny thing on the planet. I've been in the 'couldn't get to the corner shop' situation too.
Like you, I crawled out of it all somehow and like you too I feel its made me a more sympathetic person. Good on you for admitting all this.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Frances. Yes - unfunny...I've laughed about it quite a lot but only because it's so bloody miserable!

I have hinted at my... mental issues on here for ages but suddenly this week seemed the right time to do more than hint. This year (for me) has largely been about trying to finally move on from phase total fecking panic. I've been on holiday abroad, I've been driving again. I think I found it hard to talk about while it was still a huge problem. It is a little better now. Been a long haul though.

x

Sid Smith said...

Hi there Rachel, thanks for sharing this. Your comment about how the panic attack resulted in you being ultra self-conscious really resonated with me.

I don't suffer panic attacks like you but I do battle with bouts of depression (have done for about 35 years and counting) and I recognise that hyper self-awareness and how uncomfortable it can be - as though everything we don't like about ourselves is magnified ten-fold.

I used to take me a long time to get around such an attack and truthfully it's only been about the last ten years that I've been able to get a handle on it so that the tail doesn't wag the dog.

The good side of all us this is what we can learn from it. Hard sometimes but nothing is truly wasted.

Thanks Rachel.

Rachel Fox said...

Hi Sid
Thanks for your comment. For all the things learned we'd swap all that for a life without all the crap though wouldn't we? Or would we?

I see that you are a music nut like me (and many others!). Certainly the music I love has helped over the years...and continues to do so. It can remind you what joy is when you're close to forgetting...and even the saddest music can do that. Fantastic stuff.

x

Totalfeckineejit said...

Recognised and empathised with every syllable of that post.I've built my whole life/world around this stuff for the last 30 years.I have medication now(2 years) and it really does help but the only real thing I can do is avoid the triggers and that has put huge (or I should say, tiny) boundaries on my life.Good to share though,Rachel,well done, you don't know who might read this and feel less bad. :)

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks TFE. It's a lovely comment and means a lot. I thought we had one or two things in common.

x

Jim Murdoch said...

My first panic attacks were a real wake-up call for me. Depression seeps around one but a panic attack is a slap in the face one can't ignore: You're ill, son. For God's sake, listen. You ... are … ill."

The one I'll always remember from that time is having a breakdown because I couldn't put the lights on the goddamn Christmas tree. Now who in their right mind ends up in the tears on the floor because of that? I tried it again the next day and Carrie had to order me to step away from the tree. Last year she put up the tree while I was out of the house.

Rachel Fox said...

Certainly the frustration around not being able to do ordinary things is one of the worst aspects of panic attacks. You just get so mad with yourself (which of course doesn't help at all!).

I spent all weekend away facing things that have made me panic (crowds, busy trains, sitting in quiet, full well-behaved audiences). I did OK. I did it all. I had one surge of panic but rode it out without taking flight and therefore felt much better as a result. It's still hard...but it is getting better. I am slightly less annoyed with myself.

x

Selma said...

Panic attacks are no fun. I completely sympathise. I used to suffer from them badly when I was younger (the first was when I got trapped in a lift) but I have had a few lately with no apparent triggers (or so I thought). I had one standing in line at the post office where I was positive I was going to faint. The people directly in front of and behind me were holding huge boxes that effectively boxed me in (no pun intended) and I began to panic. It is no fun at all when the panic sets in. I think it is very good of you to raise this issue. It affects a lot of people.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Selma. Once a few years back I saw someone else having a panic attack which was pretty weird. I'm pretty sure that's what was going on though of course she was doing what we all do...trying to hide it! We were on a tube train in Montreal and I saw this woman with just that look and with her companion reassuring her all the time. It was really odd to watch someone else going through it. I wanted to talk to her...go up and hug her or something. But I thought it might actually upset her more...so I didn't!
x

annie clarkson said...

Thanks for sending me the link to this, somehow it helps to ead people's accounts of similar experiences...

Rachel Fox said...

No problem! We have to help each other with this beast.
x