I am one of the (probably) millions who suffer with panic attack disorder. And even though many might put me into this category, I’m not going to join with all the “think the right thoughts,” “La-La-Lightworker,” “New Age” people who will try to paint panic attacks in any other way……when you are having one, before you have one, after you have one and every moment in between there is one very stark and real truth….PANIC ATTACKS SUCK! They suck. They suck. They suck. And they especially suck when you have one (or three….as was my case this past Saturday) while driving, most especially when you have one of your children in the car with you while you are having one. And they REALLY suck when you have one when driving and are then unable to get yourself home and have to pray like hell that your sister-in-law is home and has nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon than drive 60 miles round trip to get my stranded (and at this point completely undone) ass and my son and my car home in one piece. (Thank you dear sister in law and brother in law BTW!!!!).
For those that don’t have panic attacks….try to imagine that you are dying….because that is exactly what panic attacks feel like. For me anyway, it starts with a weird feeling in my belly….a stirring and a twirling that feel uncomfortable and disconcerting. This is often accompanied by a burning pain in the middle of my lower back. This stirring then starts rising up, first to my heart which then starts to pound, then my body starts to tremble, and then perhaps the worst part of it all, my vision starts to close in. It is like someone is taking my field of vision and drawing the curtain inward toward the center of my forehead while at the same time the top of my head is opening. As the panic rises, my field of vision closes and I’m sure that in just a moment I won’t be able to see and then I might pass out. In a way, it feels like how one might feel when their soul is leaving their body and in a sense that is the very fear one experiences during a panic attack. We are sure we are going to die. It is the most terrifying feeling that in spite of all our efforts to control (through breathwork, visualization, talking ourselves down, etc.), it has control over us. Once the panic attack is in motion….it will have its way with us…not the other way around. There are no “thinking the right thoughts” when it comes to panic. In the past, I have been able to head off a full-blown panic attack through the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen (breathing in the fear and breathing out love). If I could get to the point of tears, the panic would usually subside. Not this weekend however….nothing worked…not matter how hard I tried. Instead, I was forced to surrender to the very real truth that I was not in control, that I could not get myself home (safely anyway) and that I had to pull over, let the panic take me, ASK FOR HELP and then allow myself to receive it – without shame. Hah…good talk!
Surrender. Not in Control. Ask for Help. Receive it. Without shame!
As I write these words, I realize the lesson I had an opportunity to practice with this Saturday’s panic attacks. For a type-A, overachiever, introverted, perfectionist…..these are the hardest pills to swallow:
I have to surrender to the fact that:
I am not in control.
I cannot do it by myself.
I sometimes have to ask for help.
Then be willing to receive it.
And…..be willing to receive it without shame.
The last of these might be the hardest. As a spiritual director, I KNOW there is no shame in panic attacks. But as a recovering perfectionist, I believe panic means that I am not perfect and that I have failed in some way. As a spiritual director I KNOW that none of us should have to do it alone and that we thrive when we work as a team and support each other in our challenges. As a perfectionist, I am sure I have to do it alone and that I can do it alone. I’m great at offering help to others, but when it comes to asking for help….not so much. And challenges? Well….perfectionists have to be just that – perfect, which means there is no room for challenges and that challenges equal failure. Finally there is the receiving part. Asking for help and receiving it are two separate matters. It’s one thing to be brought to ones knees such that asking for help is the only option. It is another thing entirely to be able to receive that help without apologizing and/or getting into the self-flagellation game. “Bad Dobby…Bad Dobby” is what it mostly looks like for me. I would be more than happy to help another when asked and there are never any negative thoughts or feelings of being put out by another in distress…so why do such harm to myself when I ask for help? Why can’t I be as loving to myself as I am to everyone else I know and come in contact with? Why?
As I continue to recover from being brought to my knees by Saturday’s full-throttle panic attacks (recovery is usually a several day process for me), this is the invitation I am offering to myself:
Can I be as loving toward myself as I would be toward anyone else?
I’ll try this on, see what it looks like, and let you know.
Lauri Ann Lumby is the Founder and Director of Authentic Freedom Academy. Lauri can be reached at (920) 230-1313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.