“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” – Martha Graham
Towards the end of my summer road trip, I had a panic attack. Rather, Panic visited me and smacked me down.
“Listen,” it hissed in my ear. “Or else.”
Panic is derived from the god Pan, half human, half goat, who according to Greek mythology is said to have terrorized woodland visitors by stomping his hooves. That’s about what it felt like, being shaken by an invisible if not malevolent prankster. My heart rate seemed to have accelerated beyond reasonable and sustainable. My body became a vessel that happened to be attached to my head. Whose body it was I couldn’t be sure. Despite a long-term relationship with anxiety, I was unprepared for Panic’s intensity and its complete indifference to my usual coping strategies: walking in nature, meditating, and swimming. My illusion that I had some control was revealed to be just that.
Panic doesn’t announce that it is coming. It barges in like an unpopular biblical prophet tasked with disrupting the status quo or a Mafia capo delivering a message.
“Listen, or it’s going to get worse,” it warns.
The dissociation I experienced both terrified and freed me. I was no longer myself, which meant I could be someone else, even though I felt that whoever I was at that moment was about to die. At the time, I was in Estes Park, CO, a popular destination on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. In an attempt to not exacerbate my odd symptoms, not yet corroborated, I moved through town slowly and deliberately, part zombie, part ghost. I tried breathing deeply and using my senses to remind myself that I was still present, despite feeling that I was no longer fully in this world. Oddly, I felt gratitude for the crowds of tourists, even the smokers. That I was able to smell and identify smoke reassured me that I had not lost all connection to my embodied experience. Maybe that’s what it’s like to be near death, suddenly appreciating everyone, including those exhaling toxic fumes into the atmosphere.
But that wasn’t the main lesson Panic wanted me to learn.
Panic tracked me down a week or so after a rendezvous with a fellow I’d met just once when we both happened to be in Santa Fe last spring. We stayed in intermittent touch and, a few months later, decided to meet in a Colorado mountain town, a 2.5 hour drive for each of us, and spend part of the weekend there. He offered to bring inner tubes to use on the river. Since I was in adventure mode, taking life one day at a time, if not an hour at a time, an approach that suited me when I was alone, I dismissed a sense of unease when, in finalizing plans with this person, he waited until the evening before to get back to me, later than I had requested. It was after 6pm when he texted the address of a restaurant where we could meet for lunch the next day; it felt too last minute, even for me. I ignored the red flag and decided to go anyway, figuring I had nothing to lose. By then, a 2.5 hour car trip seemed as easy as running errands, even though the exhaustion of travel had started to catch up to me.
During lunch, he was preoccupied with work, to the point that I felt like a third wheel. He ate quickly, remarking that he had barely tasted the food. Since we shared a few dishes from the same plates, I noticed that I was no longer eating at my own rhythm but had started keeping pace with him, as if I were a timepiece automatically synchronizing to an atomic clock. Although we shared similar backgrounds, it seemed as though our lives were not just heading in different directions but also moving at different speeds.
“Thank him, pay and leave.” I felt a quickening in my body, a surge of life force at hearing this guidance that came from nowhere.
“Maybe you’ll warm up to each other,” countered the chorus of Inertia, Propriety and Fear, who didn’t want to create awkwardness or appear rude.
“Give it a chance,” murmured the echo of my late father.
“You’re so picky,” kvetched a collective of female Jewish archetypes, for whom being single is a shanda, a disgrace. He was what they would consider a good “catch”: highly educated, well-traveled, an outdoorsman and entrepreneur. But “catch” is not a synonym for match.
“You haven’t met anyone in a long time,” squeaked Scarcity and Urgency, as if this person were the last unattached male on the planet.
Could I just pay my half of the check, leave, and resume my solo adventure which, at that moment, would have meant napping?
Years ago, I went on a blind date with a man in Cambridge, MA. Beforehand, we decided to go for a walk and get a bite to eat. After the walk, he shook my hand, thanked me for meeting him and left. In that moment, faced with an unexpected hole in my evening, I felt sucker punched. But later I realized he had honored his intuition rather than follow a script.
Why couldn’t I do the same?
My mind drew a blank as my body fell captive to a strange energetic thrall, one that has frequently allowed conditioned expectations or fear of judgment to squelch my instincts.
After lunch, we walked around town. With the skies clouding over, we decided to postpone tubing until the following morning. Instead, we visited an indoor hot springs, driving in his car while leaving mine near the restaurant. While soaking in a pool filled with families, I caught a glimpse of his playful side; maybe that was his true self, and more of it would emerge in time. Still, hopefulness did not dominate my experience. I felt heavy, as if shackled by the decision to stay. By then, late afternoon thunderclouds blackened the sky. Rain pelted the town. He broached the issue of sleeping arrangements. We decided to share a room with two beds. I can’t adequately explain why I didn’t get my own room, allowing for the possibility of solitude and quiet, as essential for this introvert as oxygen and food. Partly, I was being cheap, wanting to economize. Perhaps curiosity got the better of me, too, the kind of curiosity that has a person slow down and gawk at an accident, even though they know better.
After agreeing on a hotel and getting the room keys, he dropped me off at my car.
“You could just drive off now,” came more guidance. “Call or send him a text saying you changed your mind.”
Stunned at the brazenness of this message, I paused in the driver’s seat. I was physically capable of texting or calling, turning the key in the ignition and going anywhere I pleased.
What was stopping me from taking off?
Because we had a mutual acquaintance and I feared being badmouthed? Because doing so was “inappropriate”, “selfish”, “rude”, “impetuous”, “impulsive”, “crazy”? Because I still entertained the slimmest of hopes that I’d leave the weekend feeling connected rather than alienated? By connected, I’m referring to the possibility of more warmth and humor, a rekindling of the small spark I felt when we first met months before.
Rather than drive away, I headed to the hotel in what I can only call a trance of obedience. Not obedience to him, but to some old paradigm that was still unable to change on a dime, despite my attempts to practice just that. That evening after dinner, we chatted before turning out the lights. He asked if I minded if he watched television. I told him I preferred to have the TV off, as the sound made it hard for my nervous system to settle. He honored my request and later said he appreciated the quiet. I asked him if he snored. He said he didn’t think so. My earplugs were still in the car, I was beyond tired and the temperature had dropped, so I talked myself out of getting them. It turned out he did snore. At 1:30 a.m., after dozing in fits and starts, I slipped on my shoes and jacket and retrieved my earplugs. Eventually I slept, neither well nor enough.
I awoke exhausted, head foggy, agitated. Maybe I didn’t have enough steam for tubing, after all. Had I been paying closer attention, I would have declined. But I had never tried it before and the voice of Adventure coaxed me along, murmuring that it might be a fun way to cap off the weekend. After breakfast, we headed to the river. We parked my car at the terminus of the tubing run, a few miles from town, and drove his vehicle upstream to the launching point. At the last minute, we rented lifejackets, required by Colorado law.
The outing began well. He instructed me how to turn and paddle. He placed the tube in the river, I plunked myself in and headed over a tiny rapid. The cold spray on my face enlivened and refreshed me, redeeming my sleepless night.
Floating down the river, I practiced turning. At first, I couldn’t. The gentle current determined my course and I relaxed into the temporary surrender of going with the flow. At some point it dawned on me that I’d need to exit the river on my own. While seated in the tube, my arms didn’t reach far enough into the water to give me any power. I maneuvered so that I lay atop the tube, gaining more leverage. I paddled and turned with some effort. So much for a carefree excursion; tubing was more strenuous than I had expected, and I had far less energy than usual.
The river stretched before me, a liquid highway without lanes but with rocks and low hanging branches as obstacles. Unable to steer completely clear of either, the rocks bruised my buttocks and I ducked to avoid being whacked in the face. My hands chilled into nearly numb paws. I clapped them together and circled them in the air, hoping to restore blood flow. My energy collapsed like a pricked balloon.
A group paddled by on a large red raft, an ocean liner compared to the dinghy-like inner tube, amplifying my vulnerability. After many long minutes, I spotted the exit, a patch of sand along the right bank, preceded by a cluster of rocks. Those same rafters stood on the beach, removing their life preservers.
“Grab onto the rocks and don’t let go,” my companion said from behind.
I steered to the rocks but my brain and body failed to coordinate. I couldn’t grab hold. Time seemed to stop as my tube continued downstream, taking me with it. I looked at the people on the river bank. They looked at me. I was too flummoxed to ask them to grab the tube and reel me in. I kept going, as if in a tilt-a-whirl. I spotted a branch and clutched it, thinking it would hold me. It came away in my hand.
Stay calm, I told myself.
I dropped it and grabbed another. That one held firm. But what had seemed like a gentle current while floating downstream became a powerful force when I was hanging on, fighting the river to stay in place.
“Don’t let go of the tube,” I heard him say, as if from miles away.
I had only enough strength to hold onto the branch as I lay nearly prone on my left side, muscles straining, my torso keeping the tube in place. Had I stood, it would have disappeared downstream. In hindsight, I should have released it and reimbursed him, rather than wasting precious energy protecting a replaceable object. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably just minutes, he waded over and relieved me of the tube.
“Not the most graceful exit,” came a voice from my mouth, as if I were a ventriloquist’s puppet.
Slowly, I stood. Cold. Stunned. Off-kilter. Aware that, without the last minute life jacket, without one solid branch, the outing could have ended very badly. Returning upstream to the river bank, I paused every step to secure my footing and brace myself against the current. While he deflated the tubes I trudged to my car on thick legs. My sore arms shook as adrenaline shot through my system. I noticed an urge to cry, but an old, fast acting reflex stifled it. Deadness filled my torso as I drove us back to town, my social mask firmly in place. When he asked me if I wanted to have lunch before we parted ways, I said yes. Even then, I was unable to leave.
The body doesn’t always forgive easily when we betray, overtax, or disrespect it. If we’re lucky, our spirit – that life force, the energy, the quickening – doesn’t permanently abandon us when we block or ignore it. That Panic smacked me down was, I believe, a delayed response to that weekend, an ex-post unleashing of my undigested feelings and of Spirit’s growing impatience with my lack of badassery.
“Listen,” Panic hissed in my ear. “Listen to yourself.”
As he trotted away on his cloven hooves he shouted, “Speak your truth. Or else.”
I don’t expect Panic to visit again anytime soon. I’m simply surprised it took him so long to find me.
A very powerful piece, Ilona. Thank you for writing it. Amazing what our body/psyche does when we don’t listen to it at first (or second or third). I have never had panic attacks, per se, but have definitely had other rather violent reactions to situations I chose to ignore in the moment. Again, thank you for your wise and vulnerable write.
Thank you for commenting. It was a bit scary to post this but not doing so would have perpetuated my silence. It is amazing that our bodies will, eventually, wake us up to reality in whatever way they see fit.