Sunday, January 27, 2008

letters to The Sun (part two)

Those who know me well enough will understand why this has meaning for me...

The most severe panic attacks I've ever had all occurred in airports. The panic would be triggered by feeling trapped in the fluorescent-lit concourses crammed with rushing people. The worst was Chicago's O'Hare, where the crowded tunnel between concourses was outfitted with flashing neon lights and piped-in hustle-bustle music designed to get everyone through as fast as possible. For me the sensory overload was so great that more than once I clung to the tunnel wall, shut my eyes, and felt my way from one end to the other, crying and praying the entire way.

My panic disorder was at its zenith in the summer of 1976, when I'd survived a protracted and brutal divorce and was faced with raising two young children alone. There was one bright light in my life: I was in love with a man I'd met in my therapy group. But then, at summer's end, he got a job more than a thousand miles away, in Denver, Colorado.

I was determined to fly out and visit him, even though it meant changing planes at O'Hare. A friend rationalized that I had an invisible handicap and needed a visible one instead, so that the airline employees would help me. She lent me a pair of crutches and told me to wrap my leg in an Ace bandage and say that I had a broken ankle.

Another friend, who lived in Chicago, agreed to meet me when I arrived at O'Hare. I got off the plane to find my friend waiting for me, along with an airport employee who had orders to put me in a wheelchair and take me to the gate for my next departure. My friend insisted we have a drink first, so the employee wheeled me over to the nearest airport lounge and said he'd be back to get me in half an hour.

After a few drinks it suddenly dawned on us that he'd forgotten me, and my plane was due to depart in two minutes. My friend yanked me out of the wheelchair, and I put the crutches under my arm and ran down the concourse. When I got to the gate, the doors of the plane were closing, but the crew took pity on me and let me squeeze on.

The man I was flying to see has been my husband for nearly thirty years. Together we have traveled the world.

- Ciel Bottomly
Montrose, Colorado

For me, it's always been malls. Not that I ever go to malls...maybe once or twice a year at most. But something about them freaks me the fuck out. The panic disorder doesn't limit its manifestation to malls, unfortunately; that would completely kick ass because I hate malls to begin with. But for whatever reason, that locale cranks the internal weirdness behind the disorder up to eleven, much as the airport does (or did) for Ms. Bottomly.

In addition to relating to this letter on that level, though, I also really love it because it brings to light one of the most notable idiosyncrasies of panic disorder...or maybe just one that I share with the author, anyway. But even when panic symptoms are at their worst, they are always trumped by any unexpected urgency of reality. If anything legitimately important were to suddenly arise - car accident, news of a loved one needing assistance, etc. - panic symptoms...POOF!...cease to be. Which says a lot about the disorder, I think. Not that it makes it any less real or upsetting for the person experiencing it.

And it makes me wonder why therapists don't recognize this phenomenon and base some type of exercise around it. (Or maybe some do and I just haven't heard of them.) In my experience, there are two or three types of therapy for the person who suffers from a panic or anxiety disorder. First: drugs. Obviously. Because that's the first line of defense for any mental or physical ailment these days. There are drugs to take on an ongoing basis to prevent the unpleasantness, and drugs that can be taken in response to (or, as the neocons might prefer, as a preemptive strike) an "episode." Second: exercises - usually involving breathing patterns, physical activity, or thought processes that encourage the examination of the symptoms as they happen - designed to help one "get through" such an "episode." Third: variations on some form of ongoing cognitive therapy as a means of overcoming the disorder.

I'm not going to go into the various theories I have about why anxiety/panic disorders have become so common in America...mostly because I'm still trying to craft them into something more measurable or verifiable than just theories. But I wonder how universal this is amongst my panicky peers...that an immediate, unexpected, usually-physically bona fide emergency will squash panic symptoms like a fucking grape. If there's anyone out there who happens to be reading this and can comment from the perspective of a sufferererer...I'd love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, I think I'm gonna dink around in my laboratory with this idea and see if I can...I dunno. See what happens, I guess. Can't hurt, right...?

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