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 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.
5 hours ago