Saturday, July 8, 2017

PANIC ATTACKS AND THE FOURTH WALL


I had an unexpected and (for me) quietly embarrassing panic attack last night, so these are foremost on my mind today, as I am writing. I have something occurring in the future that I fear might also prompt a panic attack, so they are weighing on my mind quite heavily.

I’ve been under a great deal of internal and external stress lately relative to almost every aspect of my life. It has made symptoms that I thought I had somewhat gotten through (like panic) come back into my experience again. This is really challenging for me.

New York is a hard city to live in as an extremely sensitive person. Almost every situation I walk into feels too sensorially and emotionally complex, and it is very hard for me to understand and deal with these experiences. Loud restaurants with lots of people, for example, torture me. I often use friends as buffers or safety blankets, but that comes with its own set of problems.

Teaching was (and sometimes still is) a situation that has often sponsored my panic attacks. My base “trigger” for a panic attack is the expectation of performance, whether direct or indirect. Getting up in front of students causes panic, but so does being in front of people I don’t know (with the social expectation that one performs one’s personality in order to be social). While I love meeting new people and being social, I find that when I am with new people, it can, out of the blue, just be too much of an expectation of a performance.

Teaching is interesting, because I’ve actually been able to cycle through a panic attack by being honest with my students about what is happening. I tell them I’ve suffered from extreme shyness since I was child, that because of this I didn’t believe I could be a teacher. I then tell them that I learned some tools to cope with it, and that I am happy that I can now be a teacher while still dealing with my shyness, panic and anxiousness relative to performance.

I am hoping that this fairly radical honesty and authenticity can be incorporated in other aspects of my life beyond teaching. Years ago, I got absolutely skewered on a blog for my performance moderating a panel discussion. In that situation, I was in the throes of a panic attack that I could not shake off, and I had no idea what to do about it. It caused my performance to suffer greatly.

I love public talks and desire to improve my performance when I am invited to do them. I know that I have many things that I want to talk about in a public way. I also believe that, in my one-to-one conversations, I can communicate these ideas with dexterity and innovation. But it is much harder to break the fourth wall of a public talk than it is to break the fourth wall of a classroom environment. And I think it is even harder to break the fourth wall of a NYC social setting. I’m fully into adulthood, so these panic attacks embarrass me and make me feel like a child again. Which only makes them worse. My behavior becomes erratic, and, in the aftermath, I beat myself up about how I’ve behaved.

From what I understand, few people with completely normal and healthy childhoods deal with panic attacks in adulthood. I don’t have panic attacks because I am insecure or have low self-esteem, or because I haven’t “prepared.” I have them because of a deep physical fear/trauma of putting myself in front of people for approval. I grew up in a chaotic and violent household where hiding meant safety. Staying quiet, being by myself, playing with animals and reading and writing became the way I dealt with life. Staying in those zones forever would obviously severely truncate my existence as a human being. I do believe I deserve a more fulfilling existence. So I want to be able to tell others when I am suffering, rather than just act strangely. I am trying to figure out a way this might work. People are not very compassionate about this subject, I have found. But I am still looking for that compassion, because I believe it exists.

In general, I think the world I operate in needs some radical reinvention with regard to how it deals with authenticity and emotional expression. I feel like people are completely terrified of strong emotion, and this keeps everyone operating at this extremely surface level of expression. In my worlds, this leads to a hyper-focus on intellectual and political conversation (and sometimes just plain old mean gossip). Having, over the past few years, become much more engaged with my emotions and authentic self, I often feel let down by the relative superficiality of conversation in New York. While I like intellectual and political stuff very much, I feel like people’s guardedness around their own emotions keeps those conversations spinning in the same loops.

It is hard to want to be vulnerable, when you feel like you are the only one and you are throwing yourself into the lion’s den. But, at this point, I’m REALLY not sure what else we have to talk about. I’m not sure what else is real. I hate that I had a panic attack last night. For me, however, what is worse is the fact that it was my authentic experience, and I felt (whether correctly or incorrectly) that I could not trust that anyone I was around could truly accept that about me.