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How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant
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Tuesday
Aug052008

Down here on earth.

A few days ago I was lying on my bed, talking on the phone with my friend Jessie. I was telling her the grim details of the horrific flight I had on my way home from BlogHer. I haven't said too much about my homeward flight, because every time I think about it I end up hyperventilating under my duvet, and one fewer trauma to relive would be nice. All I can say about it now, without the flashbacks driving me to peel the skin from my face, is there was some turbulence. And by "some," I mean "a lot," and by "turbulence," I mean "death was a near certainty." Except it wasn't. So that was a relief.

At any rate, I apparently felt well enough while talking with Jessie to really let loose on the whole ordeal, including the panic attack that kicked into high gear as all the conscious passengers were gripping our armrests and praying fervently. I didn't realize, while I was talking, that Henry was in the next room. So there I was recounting the hours of dry-heaving into an air-sickness bag as my tears soaked my copy of O , when my boy strolled in and asked, "What's a panic attack?" I was still on the phone, so I screeched, "You hush up while Mommy has her Me Time!" Actually I stared at him, wondering how much he had heard, and then I told him we'd talk after I hung up.

Then he asked me thirty more times in rapid succession. Making it really hard to say goodbye to my friend. I still did it, though, because I am able to both talk and wave dismissively at a child. I am a professional.

Again he demanded to know what a panic attack was, and was I really going to die on that plane? The second part was easy, because I definitely did not die on that plane, so obviously those thoughts had more to do with my panic than with the brain-rattling shaking I hyperventilated my way through. "But what's panic?" Henry wanted to know. I contemplated telling him it was a fun new video game I was playing on the plane, but instead I went for the boring, awful truth. I tried to explain, but it sounds pretty silly, all the fear-over-nothing and adrenaline and nausea and so forth. I hope he never has to find out firsthand what a panic attack is. It doesn’t look good for him, given his family history, but a girl can dream.

"Are you having a panic attack now?" he wanted to know, which was silly because I wasn't on a plane convinced that I was going to die at any minute. Except, whoops, I was having a panic attack, actually; I've been gripped by stupid low-grade panic since I got back. There's something so embarrassing and ridiculous about being this panicked all the time. How do you express that feeling to someone else? How little sense does it make that I feel like each step I take is the last one before I hurtle off a cliff?

"Nope," I said, "Come lie down on the bed with me." Which he did. And we laid there for a while. He stared at my face while I looked out the window, attempting to approximate some kind of contented expression.

"You had a bad look on your face," he said to me. "Are you having a panic attack?"

"Not at all," I said. It's really hard to lie to him. Damn it all.

"I'll be okay," I told him. Which felt like the truth.

Reader Comments (85)

I believe your little man will develop some compassion through this. Don't be ashamed to tell him your truth, or to acknowledge your truth to yourself. There's a lyric from a song I like that goes, "You can't heal what you can't feel."

No charge for the unsolicited advice!

~a fellow panicker
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGeo
Hi, lurker here.

Like most of the other people who commented, I have been there, too. Keep the faith (in yourself, in whatever grounds you), you will prevail.

As Henry gets older, you might want to think about (and perhaps consult with somebody about) how to talk to him about what you're going through. I'm sure it is scary to him, and kids always notice more than we think they do. I don't have children myself (which is, obviously, why I should be offering you advice about this, sarcasm alert!), but if you can figure out some age-appropriate sort of way to talk with him about it, it might relieve some of the worry he may have. And, talking about it will show him that it *is* all right to talk about such things, so that if (knock on wood he doesn't) he ever feels that way, he knows he can talk to you about it.

Unsolicited advice aside, I just wanted you to know that here's another person who knows how it feels.
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLinds
It will be okay, and the fact that you know that is actually part of why it will be.

(Okay, that really was a heartfelt sentiment, although rereading what I said I feel a little bit like Yoda, only less smart. Hopefully you know what I mean.)
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMir
I was just talking to a friend who has social anxiety issues about how to talk to her (older-than-Henry) kids. She found this link to be helpful and I thought it might have some language that you could pick up if you end up having a more in-depth conversation with Henry about your panic attacks.

http://www.parentinginformation.org/2004Talking_Children_ICP.pdf

I don't know if you're there yet or if he's old enough. My daughter's only one so I don't know where the too-much-information line really is with toddlers but it might be helpful?

Still pulling for you, Alice. :)
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJen
You know, reading this got me thinking...maybe I have small panic attacks and I am not aware of it.

Sometimes I just feel afraid, like you said low-grade, hiding beneath the surface fear.

I don't know why I am afraid, just that I am...maybe it is a small panic attack.

Interesting.
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterthotlady
Fellow sufferee...sufferer?

EMDR is a great solution.....also meds really help,,,,it is the patience in finding the one that works best for you. we are all totally individual with these meds so you have to try a few to find the right one/combo. worth it when you find it. I swear.....I used to be so anti med but the more I learned the more I understood it is not about willpower or coping, it is a brain definciency of certain chemicals. Some kinds of anxiety are of course treatable with therapy, related to certain incidents etc. Then the EMDR works well.Generalized often just needs meds to go away. Heaven........

Love to you alice, you are just grieving. I just went thru it over my dad and couldn't leave my house or talk to anyone but husband for two months. Meds the only thing that changed anything and then I could just feel my normal feelings. KWIM?xoxo
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDeb
It WAS absolutely the truth.

Sometimes it just takes a little while....
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterkristi
It WILL be okay! Sending you lots of positive mojo, Alice.JulesHouse of Jules



August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHouseofJules
I had a panic attack yesterday morning driving through beautiful mountains next to my husband. It was triggered when I tried to explain a dream I'd had the night before to him.

All the usual symptoms - no breath, nausea, tears, hyperventilating, blah blah blah. He was supportive, and then concerned, and then some other stuff that should help in that situation, but oddly did not.

It was my due date. Of my third pregnancy. Only it was the due date of my third miscarriage. I had been doing really well for about three months - happy and medicated and stress-free (albeit all of those things in a pretend vacation world away from home). And the dream was about having another miscarriage.

Then, BLAM. I slept most of the afternoon, and read a book all night. Right back to my depressive isolation of the winter and spring. Not so yay-me. But, on the upside, no Xanax, either.

You absolutely will be ok, but occasionally you will not. And then instead of diving into bed and ordering all those who care about you away, just go ahead and take care of yourself, do the "ME Time!" thing. And then get up, take a shower, apply a bit of mascara and lipstick, and get on with it, sister. You get to be both things - OK and not OK - and I promise that the not OK will get less and less.



August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMontanaJen
As the old saying goes, "Little pitchers have big ears." (Why? Pitchers don't have ears, actually. Do they?) Naturally Henry overheard your conversation so that you'd have to explain this to him.

Anyway, I can relate. I am ordinarily relatively calm when I fly. Except if there's turbulence. Then I am not at all calm. One time a plane I was on with my husband banked suddenly and seemed to drop about 10,000 feet (it probably was more like 10) and I screamed. Loudly. In front of everyone. None of whom were screaming. It was pretty mortifying.

Seriously, though, I sympathize with the panic attack feeling. I used to get those a lot, for various reasons. I've gotten better over time, and medication does indeed help. Prozac, I love you. Also Xanax!

I hope you are feeling better every day. You've been through a lot.
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMauigirl
Just wanted to say I sympathize as well, and I understand. I'm sorry that you are going through this. I wonder why so many of us are going through this.

This weekend, driving back from a fun afternoon, I said to my husband, "This has been a terrific summer...so far." He said, "Yeah, I'd hate to think of all the bad stuff that's going to happen!" and laughed.

And I thought, Mister, you have no idea, the world I live in.
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterE
The current theory is that trauma is embedded in a body memory and like earthquakes there is a lot of settling and aftershocks! I feel an aftershock...
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterstarrlife
It would be less scary having panic attacks if someone had ever told me that they'd had them before, so probably you've done your kiddo a service even though it probably sucked having to explain it to him.
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJulie @ Letter9
I know that feeling.

And I loved the way you wrote this post. And especially the way you ended it.

Beautiful.
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAll Adither
i know the feeling too alice. thanks for writing this post.
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterkate
i know the feeling alice. thanks for writing this post
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterkate
I had daily panic attacks during a horrible period in my life. I was too young and naive to think my doctor could help me. After 8 months of staying in my bedroom I slowly got through it. Get help if you need it, I wish I had..
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAmyinbc
Panic and anxiety have been part of my life for more than 20 years. I have found help in both meditation and medication.My children (5 and 3) haven't seemed to notice anything yet and haven't asked questions, but I wonder how I'll answer. I am so freakin afraid that they will have inherited this problem and I don't want them to be afraid of everything like I am. If my children ask me about my panic attacks, I guess I'll do he flight or flight response and tell them something about the signals getting mixed up rather than tell them I feel like I am going to die a lot of the time and that I am afraid of everything.
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMaureen
My earliest memory is of me having a panic attack. Didn't know what they were though for another 20 years. I've learned to harness the energy from my panic attacks and use it to power a small travel torch so I will be able to see when all the lights go out.
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSTUFT
my god: how do you explain a panic attack to someone who's never had one?

i can't even imagine trying with someone who doesn't know what panic is, and who you wish with all of your being won't ever know.

thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. and for writing everything that you've written lately. these may not be the posts that people remember and say: "oh, she's so funny, she makes me pee my pants!" and, yes, that was me at the book signing. but, these are the posts that make this whole blogging thing REALLY meaningful.

you are amazing. that's all.
August 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commentersupertiff
I love Henry!!!!I vote for Henrii!or Henry!!or Henrie!?!!



Oh, what AM I talking about!?anw, your son, yeah, i like him, he;s nice.
August 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterla_chypriotte
Kids and dogs. More intuitive than you'd think.
August 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEllen
I have panic attacks. Sometimes they're brought on by traumatic events and sometimes they just hit me from nowhere. Those are the worst because I never know what the trigger was or when they'll go away and whether there's a real reason I'm feeling this way. Thank God for xanax. And for other people like you who talk about this and make me feel like less of a freak.



August 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJenny, Bloggess
Wouldn't it be nice if they could just stay small and cuddly and never curious about sucky adult things??

I think you handled it really well and in my opinion, telling them as much as they can handle at the time, is the best thing.

Sorry about your crappy flight.
August 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAngie
You know, I'm headed to my "talking doctor" (what my parents called a psychologist when I was little and dealing with divorce and a father with major issues that I didn't realize were happening) in about an hour, and I'm realizing you may have given me something else to talk about with her.

I panicked about someone I loved dying, not myself. I agree with all these other posters about figuring out how to tell Henry about it--maybe by deconstructing it a little for him, it will help you put things in simpler terms for yourself as well. I also agree with meds and meditation.

Keep being gentle with yourself, Alice. Everything really will be ok.
August 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdie Frau

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