Panic Attack

Emptying Tomorrow

What's said in the marriage, stays in the marriage. Mostly because age is kind and I can't remember the petty comments we've flung at each other over 21 years. The loving comments are said often enough they are ingrained in my heart. But there is something Brendan said to me long ago which I will share with you: "Julie, you're not happy unless you have something to worry about." This resonates still because, well, it's mostly true. I would cut the word "happy" -  worrying doesn't make me happy. It makes me.

Let's rewrite that sentence: "Julie, you're not, unless you have something to worry about." Anxiety is my fuel.

This terrific blog post about anxiety and the creative process flowed into my Twitter feed last week: Let's Talk About Anxiety and the Creative Process. It got me to thinking about the nest of anxieties I create and where it fits into my writing life. Author Dan Blank reminds us we all bear the burden of uncertainty and our fears are relative - no more, no less than the guy in the coffee shop we are eavesdropping on. But in this up-by-the-bootstraps, My-Facebook-Life-Is-Perfect society, we are loath to name our anxieties lest they reveal the gross flaws in our character.

On the heels of Dan Blank's blog post was an interview with comedian Marc Maron on WHYY's Fresh Air. Maron is hilarious guy, clever and endearing. And a chronic fretter (Fretterer? Fretishist? Chronically fraught?). When asked by host Terri Gross if he related to the idea of suffering as inspiration for his creativity, Maron replied "...I have found that ... I experience a tremendous amount of dread and fear and panic. I think that misery for people that incredibly anxious or frightened is something consistent. I think obsession sometimes works as almost a spirituality. You know, you have a routine that your brain kind of loops around that you call home, but that's usually in defense of some other part of you that's unruly. And for me, I think it's anxiety and panic and worry and dread." So what you're saying, Mr. Maron, is that you are not, unless you have something to worry about. You bow at the altar of Dread. Hey, we're a religion!

A couple of weeks ago I went out for a trail run. On uphill stretch I realized my heart was trying to leap from my throat. I stopped but could not catch my breath. This scared the shit out of me and made my heart race even faster, which made me panic more, which... A man passed me and we waved at one another. I thought it would be bad form to collapse in front of a stranger. Finally my heart slowed and my lungs opened. I hobbled back to the car, chilled and cowed by my body's betrayal of my mind. I'd been on that same stretch only days before and bounded up the same path. I chalked it up to running on an empty stomach and tried to push away darker fears.

Early the next morning while sitting on the sofa, writing and drinking my morning joe, my heart zoomed. I could have been sitting in a cramped airplane seat in the middle of a 10-hour flight, the way the panic attack came on. Now I was scared. I know, I know, I should have called my doctor (new in town, I didn't yet have a GP and I was one week away from a new health insurance plan taking effect. God Bless America, Land of It's Cheaper to Die Than Visit the ER). The next day I sliced my coffee intake in half (a fun few days of withdrawal drudgery ensued) and all but eliminated alcohol. I wondered, at nearly 44, was this the start of hormone-induced perimenopause? I eat clean, I run, swim, bike, yoga - I'm fit as a fiddle. A little creaky and soft in many spots, but sheesh...

Although I couldn't completely rule out a physical cause for my racing heart (and I do have a doctor's appointment scheduled. In June.), I'm pretty attuned to my emotional heart. I knew all those tiny eggs in the nest of anxieties I've been incubating over the past several months were hatching in the warmth of spring. And some of them are full-grown birds of prey, coming home to roost. Here are my chicks and hawks, complete with ID bands so even if I set them free, we'll keep track of each other:

Things I Worry About Constantly

  • something will happen to Brendan and I will be alone
  • I will contract a terminal illness (Cold comfort that I already have a terminal illness. It's known as being born)
  • I will fall victim again to depression and an Amber alert will have to be issued for my soul
  • I will have another running injury and be denied the addictive substance I crave: endorphins
  • I am irrelevant. This is wrapped up in the heartbreak of infertility, miscarriage and the failed attempts to adopt. I have a surplus of love that feels like it's draining into a black hole of regret and sorrow
  • Money. This is back again, after taking a few years' hiatus. We've given up a lot to follow our hearts' calling and the compromise, at least in the near future, is financial security
  • I'm missing fundamental truth of my life, something that's right in front of me. And I'm not getting any younger.

Not on this list:

  • Writing

I search for it. I listen for the scratching the door. But I feel no anxiety about my writing. This is not a matter of self-confidence - I have no illusions about my skills and talents. It's simply the one open space in my life not crowded by my fears. Perhaps more importantly, I don't feel anxious when I write. The world slips away and I don't feel much of anything - not my belly, my bladder, my stiff neck or aching shoulders. I feel the story.

Nor do I entertain illusions about publication, as least not through the traditional channels. I've released myself from that pressure and those expectations. When I finish this monster and return to writing short stories before tackling the next long-form project, I'll hope for the same publishing success as my recent short story endeavors. I'll do all I can to bring my novel to the shelf, but I remind myself daily that the writing process is what brings me peace and fulfillment, not the reward of extrinsic acknowledgment.

Perhaps this is the fundamental truth about my life over which I seem to lose so much sleep. And I'm not getting any younger.

But I did run that damn hill again.

bending not breaking  admiralty inlet may 2013

Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths. Charles Spurgeon

Hello Panic, My Old Friend. You've Come To Fly With Me Again.

It starts with a red-hot ball at the bottom of my rib cage and shoots on a wire up my chest, to the back of my throat, and flares in a starburst of electricity that flushes my cheeks. My lungs clench and the red-hot ball drops into my bowels, where it run molten through the twists of my intestines. My legs tremble, my feet tingle, my fingers turn to ice. In my brain the screaming begins. I can't. I can't. I can't. The plane rolls forward and I know it's my last chance. If I scream aloud, they'll stop the plane. They'll let me out, into the open air. I won't spend the next ten hours trapped inside a titanium tube, hurtling across an ocean, unable to step outside, unable to breathe. It's my last chance before an ascent into madness. I pull the wire-bound collection of The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles from the seat pocket in front of my knees. I direct my remaining bright spots of rational thought to the first clue of puzzle #24: Fly with a long proboscis. My hand shakes as I write "Tsetse" into the squares. My body presses back into the seat at the plane tilts toward the sky. It is too late. My next breath of fresh air is ten hours away.

Julie, you can't recall a time when you weren't claustrophobic, can you? Remember that Hootenanny in a barn on a dairy farm on the Olympic Peninsula? Hot apple cider, fiddlers, and a maze made of hay bales. You crawled in the dark, through the musty bales, bumping nose to tail with giggling grade-schoolers, searching for the exit. You got about twenty feet in and began screaming in terror, scratching and crawling your way out, to emerge choking on wails and hay dust. You would have been about five or six.

Or that show of silly bravado when you were twenty-one and descended into the gurgling bowels of Paris to gawk at piles of bones in the creepy half-light that reflected off weeping stones. You came to your senses just as they began to take leave of you. Fortunately, your companion was a Paris beat cop who had a crush on you. Bruno whisked out his flashlight, his badge, and you held onto the back of his leather jacket as he pushed back through the line and up the spiral staircase, shouting "Step Aside! Emergency" You emerged in a December downpour that ran with the tears you couldn't help as your heart unclenched and you gulped the air.

Elevators? Oh yeah. All about elevators. Was it San Diego State? UCLA? Some shiny-hot campus where you had to deliver a presentation to a class of International Business students. The classroom was on the twentieth floor and you walked it, didn't you? Damn straight. You're the one walking through four levels of the parking garage to reach street level without taking the elevator, the one whose husband curbed her enthusiasm about registering for the Big Climb Seattle - a charity run up the stairs of the Columbia Tower - by reminding her she'd have to take the elevator down.

And there are elevators that simply cannot be avoided (Hello, Swedish Women's Clinic on the 14th floor of the Nordstrom Building). So you'll wait at the bank of elevators, letting cars load up until everyone disappears so you can take one alone. Should even that be unavoidable, you will hover next to the control panel, helpfully punching in everyone's floors, just to be certain no one fucks around with the buttons and somehow stalls the car. Because then it would be over.

But flying was never a problem.  After my first transoceanic flight in 1990, I flew around the world- to Asia, to Africa, back and forth to Europe. Then, one warm spring day in 1999, I sat on the tarmac of Willard Airport, outside Urbana, IL, in an idling American Eagle turboprop. I was headed for a connecting flight in Indianapolis, then onto Denver for a conference. We sat on that tarmac with the doors closed, as the central Illinois heat turned our little plane into a stalled rotisserie. That's when my first on-board panic attack took flight. Just as my mind began to pull free from its hinges the plane rolled forward and the air conditioning whooshed icy relief into our cramped compartment. Somehow I got to Denver and back again.

Since that day, I haven't flown without spending at least a few shaky moments in the grip of claustrophobic anxiety. But I've kept flying. I have no qualms about crashing into the ocean in a fiery ball of wreckage. Not a bad way to go considering the many alternatives. I just don't like being trapped. What deep, dark corners of my childhood hide my need for control, for space, for cool, fresh air? Exorcising those ghosts on the tarmac of Atlanta Hartsfield really isn't opportune. So, I turn fight the lack of control with deeper, darker forces of anger and determination. I can't not travel. Being forever trapped on one continent is worse than a few hours in the air.

Crazy, lovely irony has kept my wings aloft. I spent many years as a study abroad coordinator - travel is in the job description. To Australia and Spain, to Japan and Belgium, off I went my with my heart in my toes and my stomach roiling. One job kept me traveling nine months a year, several times a month, through a territory that spanned Seattle to San Diego, Phoenix to Portland, with staff meetings in London and Atlanta every six months.  I built up frequent flyer miles galore, and what else is there to do with frequent flyer miles but to fly someplace? My husband and I even moved to New Zealand, which is nearly as far as you can fly non-stop. Fourteen hours. In a 757.

So this is where I tell you that yes, I did seek help. I'd gone to a behavioral therapist years before, as a high school student. There I learned a trick or two, something to do with cognitive dissonance, about telling myself to panic just as I began to panic - my brain wouldn't be able to manage the conflict between forced panic and the avoidance thereof. That sounds pretty good in a textbook, but I reckon the therapist who led me through the mental image exercises understood as much about my phobia as I did about Geometry. Which would be for shit, since I failed Geometry. My own therapy is New York Times crossword puzzles. Cognitive dissonance via wordsmithing. It's hard to panic when you are trying to remember who won the 1962 World Series (Seven letters: Yankees).

But I'm no martyr to my cause. A few weeks before a major trip I present myself to my understanding physician and renew my prescription for an anti-anxiety medication. It takes off the raw edge of panic - a chill-pill for an over-active brain - but I can tackle a crossword without chewing my lips bloody. Several years ago, I forgot to take my pills out of the bag that I checked through on the non-stop flight from Paris to Seattle. I didn't realize the little orange vial was beyond my reach until I was on the jetway, fumbling through my carry-on. I was alone and my meltdown was invisible from the outside. I flirted with walking away from the flight, but realized my bags would travel without me. I could stay in Paris forever. Or I could take the QE II across the Atlantic and hitch a ride from New York Harbor. Or I could stop being ridiculous and muscle through the panic. I thought of the poor sods on my flight who might suffer from a fear of crashing and realized that they might need my steady hand if we started to go down. I'd be calm for them, just in case. We all survived that flight, I'm happy to report.

So here I am, packing my bags for another flight across the Atlantic. I am doing something ridiculously cool: attending two wine-tasting conferences in the South of France, followed by a few days on my own wandering in Paris. Hours and hours on a plane where I can read to my heart's content, fall asleep watching whatever pointless Katherine Heigl movie is showing on the "romantic-comedy" movie stream, and relax, which isn't something I do very often. We forget that in traveling, it's not just the destination that matters. It's the journey that offers us the opportunity to challenge who we think we are.

I just hope the hotels have stairs.