I’ve recently taken to reading Pema Chodron‘s book When Things Fall Apart before bed. The subtitle of the book is Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Some might find reading about difficulties and fear a strange thing to do before falling asleep, but I find it comforting. Since I am usually fearful at bedtime anyway, I figure I might as well read some wise words about how to cope with the metaphorical boogie man.
Bedtime has not been my friend since as long as I can remember. As a small child, I used to try to keep myself up at night for fear that I might die in my sleep. Other times, I feared intruders might break in through my bedroom window and snatch me up or that a massive fire would devour our house. I found creative ways to lodge my body between the bed and the wall so it looked like my bed was empty; I also planned escape routes in case of fire. I did eventually fall asleep on these nights, but it was out of sheer exhaustion, and by that point, I surrendered to the unknown caverns of sleep and hoped I would wake up in one piece.
I’m now 35 years old. That little girl sometimes still lives inside me in the late hours of the day when half of me welcomes the replenishment that comes with sleep and half of me worries something terrible might happen. It’s not fires or intruders anymore, but I still worry I might ride that tender edge of sleep and slip off into death. Worse, though, I worry I will panic.
Ms. Anxiety Pants (panic disorder) entered my life in February of 2008, when my father was still in the hospital after kidney cancer surgery. My first panic attack happened at night, just as I was getting comfortable in bed with my cats flanking my sides. By the time my partner Walter came to bed, he found me curled in a ball shaking, telling him that it felt like my back and stomach were on fire. I went from a normal state to a panicked state without warning. I thought, as many understand who have panic attacks, that I was going to die — except the feeling of falling off that tender edge of life happened over and over. I was light headed, dizzy, nauseous, hyperventilating, and on fire. Walter drove me to the emergency room at midnight with the silver mixing bowl in my lap just in case the nausea expressed itself and that was the beginning of my life with a renewed fear of not only death, but of the night.
Pema Chodron writes, “Sooner or later we understand that although we can’t make fear look pretty, it will nevertheless introduce us to all the teachings we’ve ever heard or read.” She also writes, “We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”
So lately I’ve been holding Chodron’s words in my belly at night when I feel fearful. I say to myself, this fear I am having is bringing me closer to the truth. What can I learn from you, Ms. Anxiety Pants? I breathe deeply, sometimes even get up in the middle of the night to pace or do yoga poses (Walter is so patient) and ask again, what do I have to learn from my fear?
I don’t usually get an answer and perhaps I’m not meant to get one. Perhaps I am just meant to feel it and let it move through me. As Chodron says, we need to look fear in the eye, not to solve problems, “but as a complete undoing if old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking.” When I face my fear in the night, I am facing death, and when I face death, I feel my past fears, the loss of my father, and that first night of panic that seemed to flick the “on switch” for my nervous system. Chrodron believes that when we face our fears, we have “the courage to die, the courage to die continually.” When I read those last words the other night while lulling myself to sleep with musings about the nature of my fear, something clicked inside. Dying continually — that is what a panic attack feels like to me. My system shuts down, then I get about 20 seconds of reprieve before the nerve ending dry heave happens all over again.
When I have had the courage to face the fear of falling asleep and of reliving my first panic attack during my father’s struggle with cancer, I often end up crying. This is good. The tears, I have found, diffuse the panic. Tears show that I am feeling the loss of my father and the loss of myself (my “death” over and over).
I will not say that fear is my best friend (or even a nice lady I might meet at a potluck), but when she visits, I listen to her, taste her, smell her, watch her, and eventually…eventually I surrender to sleep.
What kind of relationship do you have to the fears in your life? Do you hide them in the closet with the clothes you never wear? Do they escort you as you drive to work or sift with the lint in your pockets? Do you get to know them over peppermint tea and a scone? Do you have complex sword fights or games of rock-paper-scissors? Do they appear to you at nighttime, like mine does for me, and if so, do you ask her, like a friend, what do you need?