The first time I remember having a panic attack was in the first grade. Of course, I didn’t know it was a panic attack. It was just an overwhelming sense of fear that washed over me. Almost crippling, largely adrenal, but definitely a feeling of panic. It was a snowy winter in Ohio in the late 1970s, and we were outside for recess. There were large piles of snow around the school playground and a long strip of unplowed snow running on a grassy divider between an access road and the main school blacktop playground. Someone had dug a massive hole in the snow, massive at least by the standards of a 7-year-old. In my 7-year-old wisdom, I decided to make a bridge of my body and lay down facing into the hole with my arms stretching to one side and my thighs stretching to the other. I had just bridged the gap when gravity started to kick in. As gravity pulled my hips towards the ground I realized my arms were locked and would not bend. Additionally, because I was bracing against my thighs instead of my calves, my knees could not bend to release me. I felt gravity pulling down on my hips and pelvis as my spine started to compress uncomfortably. I began to panic.
I called out to my teacher “Help, I’m stuck, help me.”
Her callous response was “You’re fine, get up.”
I felt betrayal in my core. How could she dismiss me? She was my school mom! How cruel! I was not fine. I was stuck! my spine was going to snap. This would be a life altering moment. I was just milliseconds away from my tendons giving out and collapsing in a useless heap in the bottom of this icy hole. Once there they may as well cover me up with the snow. I was done for.
I gave one last effort to free myself prior to the inevitable black out. I struggled to unlock my shoulders.
One shoulder released and I was able to put my hand down into the hole, then shimmy my other shoulder free.
Released from an almost certain icy death, I took inventory of the damages. Huh… I was fine. The teacher was right. As I run off to make snowballs.
Only looking back can I label that feeling, that experience. That utter helplessness that comes with a panic attack. The speed with which my brain operates had suddenly turned against me. Instead of using my speed for witty banter and smart mouth behavior my mind had turned against me. In my moment of crisis, my mind had raced down a path of fear and panic. It had concocted a story of my ultimate demise.
It would not be the last time. But it is the first time I can go back in my memory and resolve a panic attack. Where I can see the thoughts in my head over-riding the condition of my body and the situation in the world around me.
Still, it has taken almost 40 years and many similar experiences to be able to go back and label the experience.
Does identifying an experience with a label actually help resolve the experience? Does understanding the bigger picture and context of that moment actually help make the moment be okay? I would argue, that to some degree, yes, it does.
There will always be the emotional experience. There will always be the memory. I can recall the look and feel of that specific moment, to this day. I can almost feel the compression in my spine as I retell the story.
I also feel a lot more compassion for the teacher. At the time I truly felt betrayal. I actually believed that she was dishonoring her care agreement for me. The she was abandoning me to the whim of the world. But looking back, and acknowledging that I turned out to be quite fine, I must admit, the teacher was right. I was going to be fine. And I did end up getting up.
It also gives me an astonishing context. How many other moments, where I was sure my very survival was on the line, were in fact examples of my brains abilities to exaggerate?
My brain is a powerful tool. My brain is quick. My brain has an amazing ability to focus. When my brain focuses on a negative story and quickly iterates the possible outcomes, my power is turned against me. I have two options. I can marvel at the ability of my brain to spin this tale, observing it with wonder. Or, I can lose myself in the story my mind is telling me, believing that is actually what is and will happen.
It’s only a story. Sure it’s based on real events. Much like a docudrama with dramatic music overlayed to heighten moments of tension. The story in my head was based on true events, but the details have been changed to keep the attention of the viewer.
I am going to be okay. I am loved. I am the hero of my story. It’s always darkest just before the hero triumphs.
This is true for you too. It’s going to be okay. You are loved. You are a hero.