My incredible husband gifted me with tickets this weekend to see a well known singer/song writer that I truly love. The concert was about an hour away from our home on a Saturday night, on the campus of a well known university. The concert was in a city that was cold, dark and unknown to me. For many the excitement of going to a concert outweighs the trivial details of times, places, weather, traffic, even the routine. And if any of the listed things truly do bother us, many of us turn to the incredible amounts of alcohol that are offered at these kind of events. These days even if you go to see an elegant opera there is alcohol to help you with any anxieties you may have.
Of course, I don’t drink. While I may have half a glass of wine about once every six months, I have learned through the years that the medications I take and the alcohol I love do not mix. I have learned that self-control is not something that I actually possess especially during times when that alcohol is a crutch that I am leaning so heavily on. I have come to recognize that I can often spark a maniac attack during times when I am drunk simply by the euphoric feelings that simple glass possess. So, I don’t drink.
Oftentimes, especially when I am headed into the unknown, I truly wish I had the constitution and the strength to have a bracing drink and still pick myself up off the floor. But the truth is that alcohol can’t be a crutch for me; even when it is the only one available to me.
So there I was sitting in my seat for this concert, with multiple opening acts getting ready to come on stage, and that strange mixture of fear, anxiety, helplessness, and confusion began to overtake me. I wish I could tell you it was precipitated by the cold weather or my being in a city that was unfamiliar to me. I wish I could tell you my complete breakdown that began the moment I entered that city could be attributed to my tiredness, my embarrassment, even the claustrophobia from the hundreds and hundreds of young and old men and women piling into the arena. But it isn’t that simple; it is never that simple.
I realize that I am different. I make it my life’s work to talk about how different I am in the hopes that others will find comfort in the similarities they can find within me. I even pray that there are those reading my words and telling themselves how lucky they are that they don’t have to live in my world; I pray hard for this. And while I acknowledge openly that I have a disease and can at times predict what is going on within me, there are many, many more times when I can’t explain the mundane to those I love much less my own self. I am not an enigma, I don’t have secret powers, and I certainly don’t have a crappy situation that I can’t resolve. Instead, I am a mentally ill person who lives a quiet and peaceful life with a family that loves me and thousands of opportunities offered to me. I am not close to being perfect, but the world I inhabit is about as good as it gets.
While I can recognize this goodness, recognizing what I went through at that concert is much harder to analyze. Why is it that the hundreds of drunk college children being loud and dancing in ways that I don’t believe I can actually perform anymore got to me that night? Why were the masses of people that were getting up and down throughout that concert, for more beer and bathroom rushes, bothering me to the point that I had such a hard time breathing? They weren’t stepping on my toes, they only existed in my side views. Why was the noise of the concert, which was almost an affront on my ears, the reason for me tensing up? Why was the smell of the spilled beer, the deodorant, the bathrooms being used by so many caustic that night? Why was the taste of the cold air mixed with all the warm bodies enough to make the arena spin around me? Why was the feel of the excitement mixed with the annoyance of thousands enough to make it impossible for me to be okay in that situation? I was with my husband, someone I trust completely, and yet I couldn’t find my footing – even sitting down. All my senses were engaged, bombarded by the thousands of uncontrollable details that exist in those situations. All I could see were those stairs, that take one at a time would lead me to the many exits and eventually to the car that could finally take me far away from there.
And yet, while I pictured that escape, I dreamed of it while sitting quietly in my seat, I knew that I couldn’t move to take the obvious exit; my husband had spent money to buy the tickets, he had taken the time to drive me, he had gone out of his own comfort zone to take me to see music that I truly loved. So I sat there in misery…until I didn’t.
For the first time in my life, a sudden notion popped into my head and I realized that I might, just might, have a chance to change the night. I didn’t know if my plan would work. I didn’t know if my husband would figure out what I was doing and insist on fixing it, which usually ends in a frustrating night. I didn’t know if it was worth the effort but I did know the plan would get me one step closer to that shining exit sign hanging so brightly, like a beacon in my night. So I took a chance. So I took a risk and followed my intuition and found not peace but at least enough breathing room to get through the next minute. And as anyone who has ever had a panic attack knows, the next minute is the only one that you can truly hang your heart on and hope somehow you don’t lose the most precious thing in your arsenal, a path forward.
I could go into the details of a panic attack, even describe in minute details what I was feeling that Saturday night; but the truth is, my panic is just like everyone else’s: uncontrollable, unpredictable, and most of all unmanageable. Despite what the world would like you to believe there is no control in a panic attack. Despite what the doctors wish to make us believe there isn’t a pill that can magically take it all away; and while I believe completely in the promise of counting numbers (doing math) in order to find a way through the panic, there isn’t any guarantee that you are going to find a way out even with that small light. So I am going to skip all the gritty details of my panic attack and tell you how I found myself sitting in my seat listening to the concert that my husband gifted me with, with some of the joy my husband was truly trying to give me.
The first things I noticed after the initial waves of panic made it almost impossible to breathe was the sheer number of people walking up and down those steps. The arena, a typical college basketball arena, had thousands of stairs and people of all ages were walking up and down them over and over. It almost was hypnotic the way those waves of humanity struggled. Looking around the arena I was able to understand, in the smallest part of my brain, that there were more empty seats than taken. And while I knew that this would change as the opening bands began to play, there was a moment when I saw all the people in my mind moving to a beat I just needed to follow. Because if the seats were empty, and people were coming and going, that meant it was highly probable that all the people waiting for this concert were on the other side of those empty seats, mingling, drinking, and creating a far greater chaos than the one I was sitting in. To the layman, the idea of exposing myself to even greater chaos in the hopes of stopping the rising panic that was clawing within me sounds ridiculous, if not self-defeating. But I knew differently.
For me, descending into the masses of people drinking, meeting with friends, and basically standing around waiting for something to happen could give me what sitting in my chair quietly couldn’t: a moment to breathe. I wasn’t going to be able to breathe in the chaos that I was descending into, I was going to be able to breathe the moment I found that quiet spot within the masses. And there is always a quiet spot in the crazy; the trick is to find it. And finding it, means walking on broken glass, through the desert and hoping that life will give you a chance; a small chance.
So without giving my desensitized husband a chance to ask questions, I turn and left my seat for the chaos. I jumped into it deliberately, letting the hatred I felt for the smells, the sounds, the touches of strangers, the lights blaring at me to force me to feel an even deeper level of panic. I allowed the women, with their perfect makeup and perfect hair make me feel inferior. I allowed the drunk men, with their bellies and college team hats to push me around as I tried to walk the few feet that was open in front of me. I allowed the stupidity of human nature to wash over me. And then I ran into the nearest bathroom, closed the door on the stall and allowed myself to break.
This time I didn’t cry but I shuddered in fear and discomfort. This time I didn’t yell or punch a pillow, but allowed myself to have a moment to close my eyes and let it all wash over me; just like I do on a warm summer’s day with the rays of the sun. I let the noise become jumbled, I allowed the smells bombard all my senses and I let the sea of humanity right outside those doors remind me that there was a place that was safer. The seat that I had just left.
I imagine there are people out there who might be scared by the idea of someone immersing herself in the same chaos creating the panic attack she was trying to outrun, but for me, at that moment, it did the trick. I didn’t confront a monster, or the nightmares in my head. I didn’t solve any problems or give myself any healthy outlets. I ran into the problem and let it become a living, breathing inside of me.
By the time I got back to my seat, a seat that was mine and no one else’s, the panic had receded. It gave way to the other option. The option of standing and breathing in that sea of humanity away from the seat that was mine. The option of seeing only blurring lines and smelling noxious odors that was a simple step away from the one place that I could sit and try to exist. By going into the crazy, I found an inch of sanity to hold onto and capture for the rest of the night.
I managed the majority of the concert, and while I understand that some may believe that this is a triumph of some sorts, the truth is most of the night was a crazy, desperate attempt, to appreciate all that the man I love gives to me. There was no strength, no great moment of clarity, no preparation for the next time this same thing happens. Will descending into chaos help next time?
Will it help you? I don’t know. I don’t know if I would even recommend the approach. The risks were far greater than the potential gains. I feel no satisfaction from that night and how I handled myself. All I feel is the defeat I felt long before my husband ever bought those tickets in the first place. But it is another day and it is another night than the one I have to get through now. So I suppose I at least have that.