Médecins of the fourth kind

THE WRITER’S LIFE

PANICcolor2-jpgAnxiety attacks are frighteningly common and terrifying experiences (The Blade)

What if when we dream, we’re not dreaming at all? What if the dream dreams us?

I wrote that speculatively last night, as an idea for a future short story, and immediately after a rare indoor attack of anxiety. A kind of first aid in the third person.

Living alone for the last four years, I’ve only had to employ some self-administered first aid I learned on the streets a couple of times. There are two main things you learn to treat yourself for: choking and a heart attack. Life in the wild was a less solitary one than this though. Tempting though it may have been at times to let nature take its course, I’ve saved myself from choking twice.

Top Tip: If you ever need to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on yourself, simply use the arm of a chair in place of someone’s fists pumping your diaphragm, and be thankful you were there to choke up the blockage.

If you’re ever in the unfortunate situation of having a heart attack when no-one else is around, the simplest way to jolt your own heart is to cough, as violently as you can. Of course, you have no-one to blow air into your lungs. So your breathing and your heart functions – both vital to survival – are fighting for life, and you’re on your own.

And that’s a bit like how a panic attack feels. Indeed, a proper terror can cause hyperventilation and heart palpitations. What I never learned on the street was how to deal with a panic attack when there’s no-one around to reassure you, when you’re in that room on your own.

I’m prone to episodes of anxiety and panic, sometimes a magnet for them. I liken them to stalkers and muggers respectively, both more common outside. An indoor assailant is not something I’ve experienced since I started hosting them before my last breakdown, before I was on the streets. Why had one broken in now? Why was I being robbed?

With my finances and personal liberty now secured for the next couple of years, my main worries are over for a while. Of course, that’s tempered by my dad now being very much in his dotage, and knowing that the two years ahead will be on shaky ground. I think there’s a dual relief at play: Relieved that the social cleansing machine didn’t consume me, the other areas of my life which I’d pushed back becoming more stark in relief. I’m almost scared of having my life back, anxious about living. I have to face up to it, and I must have face.

When that demon came in from the cold last night, and I was here alone, I had no-one but myself.

It started with a ringing in my ears, then a gradual descent into deafening silence. The dark cloud started to gather around me, touching my skin with a warm tingle, if you can imagine an opposite to a tickle. Then I felt light but confined, a place familiar to many and the catalyst for the escape I made: Take a breath, get up and walk around, breathing. Tell yourself to do it. Be grateful there was no-one else there to patronise you by telling you to calm down and breathe. You did it. You did it yourself. And only you can.

Once I was out, I looked back. I’m still in the same room (my studio) but I’d been transported to another place. It was somewhere I was so relieved to be away from, I almost thanked it for showing me what was inside. I don’t want to go there again, and fear of it should keep me out. Yet I dealt with it last time, so I know I should escape again. I don’t fear curiosity about that place as much as I never knew I did.

I feared that if I wrote about it, I might invite it back. But confronting it again has helped, just as it did not running away last night, even though I couldn’t as I was frozen to the spot.

These things are subjective, and as individual a cocktail as the vessel which carries them, but if you’re prone to panic and anxiety attacks like me, just tell yourself there’s a space outside this one, and when you get there, you’ll be grateful you were here. Otherwise you wouldn’t appreciate the beauty of recovery through breathing again.

It’s a bit like performing the Heimlich Maneuver on your mind. What if the dreams dream us? Sometimes a familiar fear can be an old friend.

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