Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down – Inside the Cycle of Panic
Laura Marie Marciano shares her story of being plagued by recurring anxiety attacks, and how she is learning to cope with them.
“Where's the purple crayon?” the question was pumping my little heart as I searched in drawers, under the bed, and in the bathroom. ¶ "We have to go, Laura, we will find it later," my mother called to me from downstairs.
I was frantic. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I felt my chest light on fire and my cotton shorts stick to my body as I fell into a deep sweat. I needed to put the purple crayon where it belonged. I did not want to leave this undone. I didn't know what was happening. I felt like I had completely lost control of my own thoughts, like an outside force was pushing me, punching me in the stomach, telling me ‘to figure it out’, make it happen, stop messing up!
“We can't leave until I find it! Mom we can't leave until I find it! We can't leave until I find it! We have to find the purple crayon! Please! Please! Please! Please! Please!” I screamed as I scurried around the house, my breath running short, and my eyes welling as if I had lost life itself.
This is my first memory of having an anxiety attack. I was seven years old.
Although an estimated 40 million people in the U.S. suffer from similar patterns, when you are stricken with panic you can't help but feel like the last and most desperate person on earth. At seven, my anxiety attacks concerned misplaced feelings that surfaced through missing objects. As I got older, it was personal relationships, communication, and my aversion to aggression and confrontation that triggered me.
I've been plagued by this condition since I was a child. I think I knew, even then, that the world was moving too fast for its own good. I couldn't process feelings as quickly as they came to me. As I got older, I presumed people just didn't give a fuck about each other, and things were going to hurt like hell and take my breath away on a daily basis.
I felt like I cared too much about the feelings of others, and I'd better stop, before I ended up a lonely freak that no one could relate to and whose only friends were stuffed animals that I kept in the back of my car. Even through this dark self-actualization, it never got easier.
When I was 21, a psychologist diagnosed me with “general anxiety and depression.” Easy. They could give me pills. Anything real or concrete was just too much work. When watching TV, overeating, exercising, masturbating ... my escapism, avoidance, deflection, denial, being an asshole, being a coward, my loud music, my aggression, and oversleeping didn't cut it, drugs could take the hard edge off of life. I started to think maybe everyone had anxiety and they were all on a pill. No one was actually feeling. Why should I?
Don't let me generalize anxiety or make it seem like it is something easy to deal with. It's not. When I have an anxiety attack I literally cannot breathe. My body shuts down, and it feels like I am being punched in the stomach repeatedly. The physiological responses have been so bad in the past, that I have violently hit myself while sleeping, or banged my head against a pillow over and over, trying to beat my body into submission, even when unconscious. This type of self-harm has been a coping mechanism for me since I was a small child. At five, my dad told me to stop banging my head in the car as scared strangers in the parking lot stared with offense at me through the window. At twenty-two, while living in an old convent in Chicago, a friend woke me from my sleep, as he watched me punch my own chest over and over while I slept. Other coping mechanisms have included going for long car rides without a destination while listening to LITE105, taking three to five showers in one day to (metaphorically?) wash away the problem. Burying myself deeply and with abandon in the arms of someone who understood, until it was safe again to face the world.
Being diagnosed with a disorder made it easier to name. It gave me a starting point with other people, to tell them that I am suffering constantly from panic. Informing people that a doctor has validated your issues can make them less likely to write you off. It's complete bullshit, but it's better than those insensitive, naïve responses: ‘calm down,’ ‘get over it.’ If it were only that easy, y'all!
The people I have hurt while experiencing intense anxiety is what bothers me most. Even when they insist that I haven't hurt them, I will never stop worrying that I have. The cycle of panic is deep.
At fifteen, I was dying to go to a friend's wrestling match. It was the first warm saturday in Spring and my mom agreed to drive me. The wrestling match would start in a half hour, and we were running late. I grabbed my mom's keys to hurry her along, and ran through the screen door outside. I could feel the beginnings of an attack. My breath was shorter, heart faster, and of course, the loss of control. I got into the car. I didn't have my license. I was in a panic. I started to beep the horn to get my mom to come outside. I could feel my body being brought into a different dimension, one where logic had no agency, and the only thing that mattered was getting to that wrestling match on time, at all costs, because I had promised my friend that I would.
I put the key into the ignition of the car. I left the car in park and began to rev the engine. The beeping and the revving were not working. My mom was still inside. At least five minutes had passed. I put my sweaty hand on the shift and placed the car into reverse. In that moment, my mom came onto the porch. She saw me behind the wheel, and ran towards the car, worried that I would hurt myself. I went to rev the engine again, thinking it was in park, forgetting my last panicked step. The car flew backwards, knocking my mom off of her feet, running over her legs, leaving her on the ground, in severe pain. I stopped the car, placed it in park. It was inches away from the wall behind me and just a few feet from my mother. I froze. I felt my soul fly above my body to watch the scene. My dad came outside, screaming; my mom was crying in pain. I had caused this. Me.
The doctor said that it was lucky I had been going so fast, because, the impact wasn't enough to break my mom's bones. Of course this was a relief, but for weeks, all I thought about was how it could have ended differently. Had it been her head facing the wheels. I could have killed my mom over a wrestling match. These shadowlands were following me more intensely, and I knew I had a problem.
These panic attacks over pleasing other people, over making people happy, not rocking the boat ... they put me in the perpetual service – or worse, fear – of others. Having to please people made me a danger to myself, to my own well being.
As a ninth grader, I stopped talking for two years and became lost in my head when some girl I barely knew called me “annoying.” I shrunk inward, cast my eyes down, wrote three-thousand poems, and became withdrawn. All so that no one could be displeased with me. I remember the heat that overtook me the night I lost my voice. I was at a ring-blessing ceremony at my high school. Some dude told me that this chick I had been hanging with called me annoying. I ran upstairs to find my mom, and told her we had to leave immediately. As we were rushing out, the school nurse saw me, and lucky for me she did. She never forgot that look on my face, and recognized it over the next four years. Recognized when I needed help.
The fear of panic made me a bad communicator. I was afraid to ask for help. Afraid that someone would be mad at me, or think I was taking up too much space. If I thought someone was going to be aggressive towards me, I would dodge them. However important my reason might have been, I would avoid them just to stay in my serene bubble. To avoid the swing into another violent attack.
This bubble-living is totally fucked and painful, if you ask me. I didn't say how I felt and I wasn't facing my problems, which only exacerbated my desperate need for acceptance from others. I was missing out on half the point of being alive.
The communication problems never really affected me at work, and still don't. I am sure the fear of being a shitty worker, or failing my students (I am an adjunct professor of writing), trumps other social insecurities. In fact, the professional sphere is where I feel I have most control, perhaps because things are laid out for me, perhaps because I am expected to have control, and I don't want to let anyone down.
Sometimes I think the panic is predisposed, a part of my DNA, and that may very well be. As a baby, my mom once found my crib five feet from the wall after I had banged my head so much I had actually caused the crib to move! As a little kid, my nickname was cry baby since more often that not, you would find me in tears, and not the bratty kind, but the really feelin' it kind.
Yes, I have gotten anxiety attacks about having to tell a roommate they are being too loud. I have gotten anxiety attacks about someone who is mad at me calling on the phone, to the point of severe and prolonged weeping. I have gotten anxiety attacks about not being successful enough, of failing as a writer, and letting my family down. I often feel that my addiction to social media and the internet makes my fishbowl of tension into an ocean of despair: comparing myself to others, feeling left out of the fast-paced world around and beyond me. It's not constant. It's not every minute of every day. But when it comes, it can take me out, propel me into that land of shadows, where I will be lost for days trying to find my way back to stability.
It helps to be direct. Slowing down, processing each feeling, and learning to face issues head-on. What helps is getting my ass to therapy, listening to others, and supporting my friends. It helps to not focus on myself so much, to get out of my own head. Above all, I try to be more upfront. More direct, more intentional. Through group therapy and dope friends, I have learned that direct communication – finding my agency – lessens my anxiety tremendously and puts me in control of my own body. If I can speak up for myself, ask questions, and tell others what I need, I can slowly shed the protective shields that have kept me from life. Sometimes taking an anxiety pill for a few months, to regulate your moods and help those around you to cope, isn't so bad.
I have found that, in the long run, relieving anxiety is mostly about being realistic – telling yourself “it's OK” if the purple crayon is missing. “It's OK” if your best friend forever doesn't want to talk to you for a few days. It's also really “OK” that not everyone is going to like you, and guess what: you shouldn't even want that! We can't be perfect, but we can slow down, we can speak directly, and we can live with a bit more intention. To all my friends out there in a panic: don't forget to breathe.