Panic. Yesterday I caught its scent. Unchecked, this is how panic could go down…
The equation of doom
Stressful, scary thought + spinning of related, old and broken thought-records + automatic body reaction (e.g., tight chest + fast breath + light head + throwuppy belly) = Panic
Years ago, at its worst, this equation could, eventually, result in a full-blown panic attack. Not, shall we say, fun. Over the years, though, I’ve studied this panic monster as if my life depended on it, and these days I usually catch things in the stressful thought or anxiety stage, before things get to code red. Also, rather than trying to push the panic monster away, I’ve learned to turn toward him and get, even if just a little to start with, curious.
For me the trigger for an equation of doom is pretty much always related to loss.
Enter, new factor
Awareness is, hands down, the factor with the most potential to change everything. Awareness —which can look like curiosity, noticing, presence, being mindful— is the super-est of all personal(ity) superheros. With awareness as a new factor, a different outcome for the old equation is not only possible but inevitable.
Yesterday, in the grand scheme, I did pretty darned well: Nothing close to what used to happen years and years ago did. I was triggered, and sure enough, responded with fear. I could tell on account of the obsessive thoughts, the checking, the replaying of scenarios, and a sinking feeling in the belly. But as I went about my day I held it and watched it all with kind attention and then last night I went out with my friend and her cousin. We went to a comedy show and laughed. A lot. Which means that the anxiety was not so great that I couldn’t enjoy funny things. Over the course of the evening I took a few pictures to send to the love factor (who, yesterday, was doubling as the possible loss factor) in the equation of me. I wanted to connect. I wanted to include him. I wanted to be included. I got no reply (for whatever reason) and then watched another wave of anxiety, tending toward panic, arise, exacerbated by memories from long ago.
Anxiety/panic is like a fucked up game of mad libs wherein the blank lines get filled in by a mind whose neural pathways have all been primed with fear. Naturally, then, the blank lines (what I don’t know) end up looking like all sorts of doom and gloom.
For example: “He hasn’t texted me because I told him some things the lady who says she sees things said and it scared him.” Or, “He’s pulling away because I mentioned that she’d mentioned the m-word and now he is freaking the hell out.” Or, “He thinks that the little rain package I made for them was the dorkiest thing ever.” If I traced these mad libs a bit further to find the underlying fear, I’d complete the final line: “…and it means that ____.”
Yesterday, all of my mad libs meant that I would lose him.
Yep. Like I said, scared.
Same old triggers, plus awareness
“Oh, Sweetheart, there there. Shhhhh… Everything’s going to be OK. C’mere…”
First order of business when panic is in the house of me is to calm the disturbance, and those simple words —cliché though they may be— have the effect of dialing the scary down at least a notch. Hearing those words is just enough to then be able to proceed to the next bit wherein I remind myself that I don’t actually know what is going on for him. Not really. Other than that he and his 9-year-old are camping. And I wish I were there.
Actual bit (not fear-primed)
She is adorable. I didn’t meet her till yesterday but I’d seen lots of pictures and pretty much I had already made a nesty pillowy blanket fort for her in my heart.
But yesterday, after they picked up the rain package, I obsessed.
I’d been sitting in the chair by the back door reading when they arrived, hair messily pulled up, un-showered and dirty from having my arms and hands in the dirt… None of that would usually matter too much to me, except for how panic can turn the most inane of proverbial molehills into mountains. I replayed the scene: The car pulling into the driveway. They getting out. Waves. Shy smiles. Quick introduction, just names. Hey’s. Me walking down the driveway slowly, nonchalantly. (As if!) La la la… More slightly-awkward smiles, a few words about shiners, about fishing, about the rain and the sun and about how camping would be great anyway. Canoe secured to car roof. Touching a knot. Not touching him. (I am, after all, just dad’s friend la la la. Too early to introduce full out.) Inside, my heart is warm and full and beating quickly, my senses on high alert, but on the outside I am —I like to think, at least— calm.
La la la.
Afterwards I don’t hear from him. A couple of hours later I text, “She’s adorable… twinkly-eyed like you.” A few hours later I get a picture of cherries: “Ate a whole bag. Thought of you.”
OK. Interesting bit: A picture of cherries with a note like that, without panic? Love! A picture of cherries with a note like that, with panic? Oh noes!
So yeah, so not about the cherries. So not about the note. Fear is the only factor that changed.
This morning I wake up and write. I sift out the most insistent stressful thought: I messed up. And then I do what I know to do with stressful thoughts.
Inquiry to the rescue! (Or, Awareness dons a superhero cape)
“You messed up.” Is it true?
I don’t know. I sure do believe it.
Yes, Sweetheart, that’s why we’re inquiring. Can you absolutely know that it’s true that you messed up?
How do you react when you believe this thought, that you messed up?
I obsess. I feel ashamed. I want to jump in to try to fix and tidy everything up. And if that’s not possible, then I want to pretend none of it matters to me anyway. I think about being cold, aloof, even though I couldn’t be even if I tried. I think about trying to ignore him to make up for “too much” yesterday. To feign nonchalance. Ha. As if. (Very young part of me, obviously.)
How is all of that working for you, Sweetheart?
Who would you be without this thought that you messed up?
Woman sitting on porch sipping her early morning tea. Enjoying my time with Saffron, whom I’ve not seen much lately because I’ve been so much with him. Enjoying the house. Its spaciousness. Its rooms. Its porch. The plants I repotted. Caring for things I care about, things that are here, things that are now… Ahhh, the plants—
They were too big for the pots they were in. The Easter cactus kept hanging in there even though parts of it were struggling: it was leaning way over to one side of the pot and the soil looked way too tight and hardened. Yesterday I replanted it. I see it there now in its new and roomier, blue, ceramic pot with plenty of soil and space to grow its previously jammed-up roots into. The jade, too. The one I rescued from sure demise in the basement of my last apartment building. Now it has a larger and lovely, sage green, ceramic pot-home.
I imagine the relief the plants must feel: like a person finally able to stretch limbs out wide after being cramped for far too long in a tight place. A person, come to think, like me, stuck in ancient thoughts that no longer, really, fit but that I keep believing. Thoughts like, “I don’t get enough of him.” Thoughts, like, this morning: “I messed up.” There they are, these thought-children, these thought-orphans, coming to me from long ago, looking for home. There they are cascading down the familiar neural pathways they have always followed. They’ve gone down those mental grooves so often they’ve carved gullies into rockface. Except that now there are other options, other places, other ways the water could flow. Awareness helps.
I’ve changed. The triggers still smart (sometimes like hell), but the actions are different. With awareness, then does not have to be now. The roots of me have grown. And in a new pot they could get stronger. Grow freely. More space. More creativity. More expression. More juice. More me-ness. More he-ness. Love. Our very own we-ness. I’m getting to see, freshly, how old ways no longer feel comfortable. How I am, now, in a much roomier pot. What is happening this weekend is just acting the trigger for an old, outmoded dynamic that used to set in motion that ancient and very painful attachment thing. It no longer has to go down the way it went before. And whether or not I have actually “messed up,” I am different. I have made room for other possibilities. I have repotted the pot-bound plant of me. Whew!
Oh oh oh. Something in me tightens. Don’t want to lose him. The sweetness of him. The playfulness. The eyes. The softness. The strength. The sensitivity. The laughter. The butt and cock of him, too, shhh! The books we share. And the book, being written, of us. Ahhhh. It’s OK. If I do end up losing him, then those things weren’t mine. Or rather, only for the time they were and only for what they brought in me, for, regardless of what happens next, he has and keeps showing me me.
I am OK without him while he and she are camping. I am.
Bringing orphan-thoughts home
Turnaround (for “I messed up”):
I didn’t mess up.
Examples, please, of how, in this situation, you didn’t mess up:
1. I was perfectly me. I had such a good time making that little in-the-event-of-rain gift for them. One I’d have appreciated getting if I were going camping and I were he, or she, 9 years old, stuck in a tent in the rain.
2. I went out last night. And laughed. A lot.
3. I repotted several plants.
4. I made myself a gorgeous kale salad last night.
5. I noticed my thoughts, my reactions, and as I fell asleep last night I spoke out loud into the darkness to something, to someone, who, I imagined, cared. I said it like it was —“I’m afraid I messed up”— and the darkness was kind. She started bringing to my mind’s eye all the people to whom I matter. Including him. And this morning I woke up to re-pot the plant of me. And maybe tonight I will fall asleep thinking of all the people who matter to me, including him, including them, happy and comfy in their tent.