She comes sometimes without warning, she leaves with tremendous effort, she is part of me, she is not me. Ms. Anxiety Pants is part of my life. She arrived four years ago and I’m still trying to understand our relationship. She’s kind of clingy, actually, and she doesn’t take a hint to skeedaddle, even when I make it a point to meditate and breathe deep belly breaths in my life.
For those of you who experience a version of Ms. Anxiety Pants in your own life, my empathy extends beyond any boundaries to reach you. We are of a tribe. I wish our tribe involved eating strawberries and disco dancing instead of hyperventilating and buckling over, but we are where we are, right? And truly, we can dance and eat strawberries, too. We are versatile beings!
Below is my latest art journal entry. I created this piece while navigating a panic attack. I’ve never done that before. I usually get into the fetal position pretty quickly. This time, I worked through the tremors and pain and created what at the time represented how my panic was manifesting. I call this piece, “Anxiety: A Study on Breathless Art-making.”
I’m also posting an excerpt of my memoir-very-much-in-process (like way, way in-process) called Altered. This all feels a bit exposing, but part of my journey as a healer, an artist, and a woman continually weaving her way through loss and anxiety, is to share my process. My aim is to bring the shadows of panic into the light and to find healing in knowing I am not alone in my journey to, as Pemo Chodron writes, “stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.” Here’s a look:
Ms. Anxiety Pants
Even early on, on an unconscious level I knew my father was dying. I had felt it many times in my own body – eruptions of panic burning through my skin like the death I was trying to take away from him. Give me your pain, my body demanded. Give me your illness. Give me your death. Instead, I received heart palpitations, trembling, nausea, hyperventilation, and a prickling-burning sensation emanating from my solar plexus and reaching my legs, feet, and even scalp. Dad, my body said, I’ll take your death from you, your pain. I will stop you from dying.
I didn’t know I was doing this, I just knew that ever since my father was in the hospital for his kidney surgery in February, I felt different, permanently altered. I no longer had control over my bodily sensations and my nervous system’s reaction to them. Two ER visits and a few psychiatrist sessions later, there was a term for a daughter taking away her father’s pain: “panic disorder,” which I quickly re-labeled “The Visits of Ms. Anxiety Pants.”
My partner Walter raced me to Northwest Hospital at midnight the first time it happened. I held my head between my legs as he sped to the ER and somehow got me to the triage nurse’s station. The nurse noted the empty silver bowl in my hand and said, “Ah, a tell-tale sign you’re not feeling too well tonight.”
I would have laughed at this normally, but I didn’t want to waste a breath on laughter. “No,” I said, “but I didn’t need it. Well, not yet.”
The nurse took my blood pressure (a high 160/90) and escorted me to a room where I was to put on a hospital gown. I felt my body heave at the thought of wearing what my father had had to wear for the last month, but I put it on anyway. Walter touched the vertebrae between my shoulder blades where the hot coal burned behind my heart.
“Please keep your hand there,” I pleaded, for even as his hand was warm, it felt cooling to the coal.
When the doctor finally arrived, I was trembling and rocking on the hospital bed, shaking like an animal after a fight. After a quick examination and some basic questions, he returned with a little pink pill called Xanax. He told me to wait 45 minutes until the pill took full effect. For those 45 minutes, Walter stayed at my side until I felt my body lose its grip on the terror of dying. My legs loosened first, then my arms, and finally my stomach and heart. I felt calm, drugged, and finally, tired.
As Walter helped me put my clothes back on and I set the hospital gown back on the bed, I knew I had tasted a terror that would return. My body had absorbed the nervous rattle, the deep-seated worries housed in the brain; the tremor was recorded in my cells and I felt it had a purpose. To protect me? Or was it to protect my father?
c. 2012, Courtney Putnam