Panic attacks are a screeching ambulance siren.
“You look like you’re ready for lift-off,” said the dentist.
“Bracing for the Novocaine needle,” I said, still gripping the armrests. He smiled and reminded me it was just a teeth cleaning.
The muscles in my neck spasmed, and my shoulders scrunched up to my ears. My chest thumped wildly, but my diaphragm froze mid-breath. I wanted to jump up and bolt.
Panic attacks are an assault — a terror-filled hijacking.
My head said, “You will never be okay again.” But, thanks to a skilled therapist, I had learned to recognize this primal feeling. I was in fight, flight, or freeze.
I knew what do to ease my body out of high alert: mindful meditation.
I closed my eyes and imagined I could hear the soothing voice in my iPhone app, “Being Still — Short Body Scan.” My attention switched to my breathing. Inhale, 1, 2, 3, 4. Exhale, 1, 2, 3, 4.
A body scan is like being introduced to body parts. Hello, pinky toe, how are you? Hello, heel. I notice you’re achy today. Ordinarily, I do the body scan while lying flat on my bed, but the dentist’s chair worked fine. I mentally massaged the kinks out and reset my system back to normal.
While anxiety is no fun, it is a helluva lot easier for me to deal with than panic. Anxiety is a jittery, twitchy sensation, like the operatic portion of “Bohemian Rhapsody”: “Bismillah! NO! We will not let you go!”
Panic attacks are a screeching ambulance siren. The first time I had one, I called a friend.
“Wendy, I need to go to the hospital. I’m having a heart attack.”
“Can you describe what’s happening?”
“We don’t have time,” I barked. “Just get here.”
“Okay,” she said sotto voce, “I’m on my way.”
My legs wobbled, so I plopped onto the stoop of a brownstone. Dizzy and sweating, with arms prickled by pins and needles, I hyperventilated. What if I die right here on the sidewalk?
A taxi pulled up. Wendy got out and helped me into the back seat. As soon as the cab door shut, my pulse normalized and the perspiration stopped.
“It’s a panic attack,” Wendy said. “I get them all the time. Just call your therapist.”
April’s office had a cushiony couch and a menagerie of stuffed animals. At my first appointment, they’d seemed so uncool and embarrassing.
I explained the way I floated up to the ceiling or into the trees, becoming much larger. Then I’d watch myself from a distance as if peering into a dollhouse.
“That is a very common response to trauma,” said April.
She asked if I had sudden mood swings without knowing why. Yes again! Sudden rage or suicidal despair made me feel crazy because nothing specific had happened that would warrant such extremes. With April’s steady guidance, I learned that traumas can get trapped in the body. Physically, my noggin was fine. But, psychologically, my mind had been operating with a scratched disk and corrupt files that created glitches in my system. My problems began to make sense the more I read about the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Close your eyes,” April said. “Imagine somewhere safe.”
My thinking drifted back to the lake at summer camp and a wooden raft tied to the dock. I would position myself just right — lying on my back and bending my knees at the edge so I could dangle my feet into the water. The raft gently rocked me to sleep while the sun’s warmth caressed my face.
These exercises called “creative visualization” taught me how to find peace no matter where I am. Claustrophobia on a rush-hour subway can make me angsty, but by simply closing my eyes, I can find peace by transporting myself to the raft on the lake.
Meditation became a way to be with myself. No judgment. No right or wrong reflections. I became an observer, a witness to my thoughts.
Leaning back in the dental chair while tools poked my gums, I went back in time to the hospital bed. My parents told me I’d been unconscious. I was thrown from a pickup truck, and three people died. When I gazed in the mirror, I saw the face of a ghoul with teeth yanked down and dangling. A broken nose. The ghoul’s face was round and mottled with bruises.
I was unfamiliar to myself.
“No cavities!” the dentist said. “See you in six months.”
I was okay. My neck didn’t hurt. My shoulders were back to where they should be.
When I left the building, I was struck by the azure sky. It was the same blue as the day that the pickup truck crashed. But this was not that day long ago in the past. I was okay. I focused on my breath. Inhale, 1, 2, 3, 4.
Image via flickr.com.
Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and multiple publications including The New York Times.