Written October 2015.
I cannot say I remember the first time I left reality without having even left the room.
“Julia. Julia. Julia. Are you with me?”
Once I began to “come back to life” ⎯ blinking, breathing, moving my muscles ⎯ I did not have any concept of this self-induced trance. I felt the sharp stare of her ⎯ my therapist’s ⎯ ice blue eyes piercing deep into my skull, as if two knives had shot out of them and stabbed a pair of gaping holes into my head. I reached up with both hands to touch my forehead, just to confirm that my face was, in fact, unharmed.
“…what?” I asked.
She repositioned herself in her chair, giving herself time to think of the ‘correct’ response. “Do you really have no recollection of what just happened?”
“We w-were talk-king about ⎯” I started.
“No, after that.” I wrinkled my forehead, my eyes squinting. “This is a trick. She’s trying to trick you!” my thoughts whispered.
“We’re having… we’re having this conversation r-right now,” I said. My words came out robotic, but I didn’t notice.
“Before that.” Taking my lack of reply as indication that I had blocked it from my memory, she continued, “I lost you for a few minutes there. What is going on?”
I moved my eyes from side to side before answering, “N-nothing. I… I’m fine.”
“Really?” she said. I nodded. “Come on, Julia. You’re not fine. If you were fully back in this room with me, you would be able to hold a conversation.”
“I… I can ho-hold a c-convers…conversation.”
“I… c…an… talk,” I rephrased, trying to ignore the fact that I could still not feel both of my hands up to my shoulders. When my legs began to shake even more uncontrollably than they had been moments prior, my arms, like a reflex, swung around my knees, attempting to hold them still.
“Usually when people go in and out of reality, it is because they experienced trauma as a child. Can you remember anything particularly traumatic?” I shook my head. This time, I wasn’t lying. Instead, I think it is because of my anxiety disorders.
When I tell my closest friends what it feels like to have constant anxiety, I often compare it to the feeling of being on a roller coaster – going up, up, up, up, stopping for a brief moment at the top, breathing in the anticipation, wait, wait, wait… wait… shouldn’t it have happened already?… wait… AND DROP. As your roller coaster car plummets down the steep tracks, your stomach sinks with it. That feeling in your stomach is what I feel all the time.
As for panic attacks, it is a little more complex. At first, I feel like I am six years old again, learning how to swim. As soon as the instructor takes his eyes off of me, that’s when it happens. I dunk my head into the water, but I am not yet skilled enough to know how to come back to surface. I am drowning, a weight tied to my ankle. The water feels like it is getting deeper as each second passes, and I begin to feel dizzy. My eyes are unable to focus on the bottom of the pool; everything becomes a blur. Breathing the chlorinated water in, my lungs become entrapped in their own swimming pool.
Perhaps that is a poor example. Let me try this one.
I was in my Honors French class about to perform an oral presentation – a dialogue conversation – with my partner. At the moment my teacher said the words, “Je suis prête!” something within me shook.
It was like I could feel my soul being lifted from ⎯ no, more like ripped, clawed, yanked out of ⎯ my shrunken frame, hovering above my head like a colossal storm cloud, as if to say, “Nyah, nyah, good luck down there without me,” before letting out a loud crackle of thunder accompanied by a gush of cold rain. As the cloud of my soul spiraled bigger and stronger, I could feel my body shriveling and weakening, as if it were a stale grape hanging from its vine, dangling from a support structure, not having fallen yet but, at the same time, not quite belonging to its home anymore.
“Julia? Julia? Oh là là!” I faintly heard a French accent in the background say.
I wanted to respond. But I was frozen. Every bone in my body refused to move.
I’ve heard that some people declared dead for only a few seconds swear that a force sucked them out of their bodies. While, in reality, they had stopped breathing and had lost consciousness, they can specifically recall watching the scene from above ⎯ floating over their dead bodies, observing the desperate doctors and nurses trying to bring them back. These people were not able to interact with the events in reality, so they, essentially, felt stuck.
Stuck is how I felt. Stuck is how I feel every time I undergo a panic attack. My panic attacks start with depersonalization ⎯ having an “out-of-body” experience ⎯ soon followed by derealization ⎯ feeling that both my environment and I are not real ⎯ ultimately aggregating a full-blown dissociative episode. Experts say panic attacks may result from dissociation. When I use the term dissociation, it is not synonymous with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), once known as Multiple Personality Disorder; in this case, dissociation refers to a changed state of consciousness. If dissociation were to be measured on a scale of zero to ten ⎯ ten being individuals with DID ⎯ those with panic disorder, like myself, fall around four or five. In a sense, my way of coping with the world is to just not. If I am not mentally present, then I do not have to deal with whatever is happening in reality. In theory, this sounds like a desirable defense mechanism, but the way you solve a problem should not be by creating another problem. That’s counterintuitive. So, dissociation is not a skill one can acquire; it is not like I woke up one day and thought, “You know what would be fun? Forgetting who I am and that I am even a part of this world!” Like any defense mechanism, dissociation has become all I know. It is addicting.
The first time I remember having a panic attack, I was in history class. A few years earlier, my uncle had suffered and died from a heart attack, so when my chest began to ache and my heart started to palpitate, images of what I had been told about my uncle’s death played in my mind. From what I knew, I was going to suddenly run into the bathroom, throw up, and collapse. “How is Mommy going to deal with this ⎯ losing both her brother and daughter?” “Oh my gosh, okay, I can potentially be okay with the dying part, but do I really have to throw up before it?!” “How much longer do I have to say goodbye?” While irrational, I could not stop these thoughts from running through my head. As I sat there, I didn’t notice my lack of breathing ⎯ and moving ⎯ altogether, or the tears bubbling in my eyes. My history teacher sent me to guidance, and the guidance counselor had to send me to the nurse in order to convince me that I was not having a heart attack.
“Are you sure?” I said, still crying hysterically.
“Sweetie, your heart is beating. That means you are alive,” the nurse told me for the third time.
“Debatable,” I thought.
“You might feel really tired in a little bit, because your body just used so much of its energy while panicking,” she said. This confused me. I wasn’t panicking. I had nothing to panic about… right?
Yes, it is true that I did not, at the time, have anything to panic about. But panic attacks don’t care. My body’s “alarm system” is just a little more sensitive than it should be, so most of the time, my panic attacks are false alarms. This happened to be one of those times.
Brooke told me that she woke up again last night to see me crying in my sleep.
“Dude, you were sweating and sobbing in your sleep,” she said. I looked at her, tilting my head.
All I could come up with was a weak, “I’m sorry, Brookie,” in response, Brookie being my cute nickname of adoration for my roommate. The previous night, I had remembered waking up in a panic, sweat dripping down my face, my pants and shirt clinging to my body. This wasn’t unusual for me. I had described having panic attacks in my sleep before, but nobody had noted any concern. I was concerned. Brookie told me she didn’t wake up to me crying last night (progress?), but she had woken up to me screaming in my sleep (no.).
These panic attacks while sleeping are actually quite common among those with panic disorder who tend to dissociate. They have a medical name (that’s how you know they are legitimate): nocturnal panic attacks. Like dissociation is not interchangeable with DID, nocturnal panic attacks are not the same as nightmares. Since sleep is an altered state of consciousness, much like dissociation during a panic attack, people with dissociative tendencies might wake up in a panic because their bodies interpret the change in sleep stages as “danger.”
“Do you need a hug?” Brookie asked. I went to hug her, and once I had, she started to laugh. I leaned back to give her a questioning look. Trying to hold back her laughter enough to speak, she said, “You just shake so much!”