When I was still too young to have learned words to express what was happening within my inner life, there were times I felt myself to be absolutely trapped in a sense of utter terror, seemingly without warning or understanding and without the ability to ask for help. It took until I was almost 20 years old to finally learn that there was a name for experiences like these: panic attacks. They were debilitating and confusing and scary. As a child, these experiences made me feel as if my whole world were off kilter and the ground might open up and swallow me whole. Most times there was no specific fear that triggered them. They would simply sneak up on me unexpectedly and felt scarier than any monster hiding under my bed because (a) I could not see them coming and (b) I could not escape them. I remember one of the things I would do to try to lessen the sense of impending doom was to draw near to my parents. I would search for them in the house and stay close. This was the only semi-remedy that I recall could sustain me until the terror passed.
In early adolescence, I slowly began to figure out a repeating pattern as to when I could most definitely expect panic to pay me an unsolicited visit. It seemed to always coincide with overnight visits or vacations. Being in a new environment where everything looked unfamiliar made me feel as if I had entered a sort of twilight zone. It was as if I was no longer on the same plane as everyone else, but rather in a space in between. Nothing felt normal, nothing looked right, I didn’t feel as if I was inhabiting my usual body and soul and again, I lacked the words to describe the experience to anyone around me. Panic would crash upon my shores like an unexpected tsunami. I can only imagine this made me an entirely unpleasant travel companion.
In high school, my frequent encounters with panic were joined by other unpleasant emotions, including depression. Between the frequent attacks of anxiety and the depression that would follow, it was getting increasingly hard to live life. Finally in a moment of desperation, I reached out and asked for help. My parents responded lovingly and within the week I was sitting in the office of a man who still, to this day, serves as my trusty psychologist when he is most needed. For years, not once did he give me a label as to what was this thing that imprisoned me. He listened and indirectly taught me how to better cope with my symptoms and slowly helped me to feel better and stronger. But there was this one day, when I decided to the look at the receipt he handed me after every session to pass on to my parents. On it I found a code for my diagnosis and I decided to look it up.
There is an old Chinese Proverb which reads, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names”, but in my case, I would like to apologize to the wise Chinese and put a wee little Irish spin on this proverb (simply because I’m most proudly of Irish descent) and rephrase it to read, “The beginning of freedom is to call things by their right names.”
309.28: Adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood.
Finally; my disconcerting experience of life as I knew it had a name. 309.28: Adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. Kinda like a title, a first name, a middle name and a last name. Having a name meant it could be known and maybe even understood. It meant it didn’t only exist in my head, but it was real. It meant it was so real that it was identified with a list of common symptoms in a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Practitioners of Mental Health.
In an article entitled, The Power Of A Name: The Power Of Naming, Rabbi Andrew Davids brings clarity to this experience when he writes:
God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, the biblical text affirms that humans–created in the image of God–may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming.”
Humans may seek to bring order to our chaotic world…through the process of naming. Though throughout my life, I’ve met many people who would rather not “be labeled” by their specific diagnosis, the day I learned the name of my nemesis is the day it lost a whole lot of power and my journey of freedom began.
In the years that followed, I made it my life’s mission to rid myself from my role as the unsuspecting victim of an unknown maleficence. In the pre-internet days I devoured every possible book I could get my hands on that would help me to learn the ins and outs of adjustment disorder and anxiety. In the early days of the internet I read of others’ experiences which sounded just like mine. Misery does love company because it teaches us there are others as miserable as us. We are not alone. We are not without understanding. Most importantly, it teaches us we are not without hope. Knowledge didn’t completely stop waves of panic from lapping upon the shores of my life. However, I learned to see it for what it was. I figured out some good ways to anchor myself in the sand, so that even though its cold and crashing waves might leave me worn out and tattered, they would not be able to carry me off into the sea where I could drown.
It has been nearly 30 years since my nemesis was named. Though I wouldn’t say we are on a first name basis, 309.28 and I have learned to co-exist, and on most days ours is a peaceful co-existence. The paradox is I know I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for its presence in my life. I will even go so far as to admit it prepared me well to be able to better respond to my own child who began experiencing her own panic attacks at an early age. By the time she was 10 years old she already knew its name and was well on her way on the path of liberation.
Definition of freedom (from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary):
1: the quality or state of being free: such as
a: the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action
b: liberation from restraint or from the power of another
c: the quality or state of being released usually from something onerous”
When I consider the definition of freedom I must admit that although I am so much more liberated than I was before I learned the name of my nemesis, it still constrains me in two particular ways: (1) I have allowed it to hold be back from the desire to travel and experience new places, lands and cultures. (2) I have also allowed it to steal from me the experience of being comfortable being by myself, let alone traveling by myself, for fear that without loved ones near to save me, I might surely be swallowed into the earth or carried off into the sea–and that would be a terrible thing, especially while in a foreign country!
My admiration remains strong for my friends and family members who have collectively seen most of the world and are better and more interesting people for having done so. Some of them even ventured out on their own and they lived to tell about it! Traveling vicariously through their stories is as good as it gets for a girl who prefers to stay in one place for fear of re-entering the twilight zone. Yet I am happy to report that in recent years, a dream has been born in my heart to take back the reins and to face the greatest anxiety- provoking travel experiences of my childhood. The name of my dream is Cill Rialaig.
On the southwest coast of Ireland, the Cill Rialaig Project rescued and restored a small pre-famine village, thus creating an artists retreat that has attracted artists from all over the world. It is a retreat for professional visual artists, writers, poets and composers who apply for a residency to live for a short time at the Cill Rialaig Retreat and work on their craft. Ireland is calling to me and to Cill Rialiag I desire to go, by myself, to work for a week on writing. Remembering from my youthful experience that good things can begin to happen when we reach out and ask for help, I contacted my friend Carlos, an editor of a locally published magazine. Within a short period of time, he had published my writing and continues to do so in hopes that I might meet the requirements to apply for the residency. Even now he remains one of my fiercest co-freedom fighters.
Although freedom is most certainly a process, one that takes at least an entire lifetime to attain and for all I know, probably some of eternity too, what I am certain about is that mine began the day I was emboldened to call things by their right name. Thank you 309.28!