by Ann Palmer
The stuffy atmosphere in the theater was getting to me. I could no longer just sit there. The events on the screen all seemed to pertain to me and to upset me further. I could feel my heartbeat getting faster. I broke out in a cold sweat. It was getting hard to breathe.
I had entered into a completely different reality. Everything around me seemed strange, alien, happening in a world I was a stranger to. I didn’t feel well and worse, didn’t feel like I could tell my friend. I finally told him, “I have to get out of here.” I had put that off as long as possible, because saying it would make it not only true, but it meant admitting that there was something wrong.
Pulse in my throat, the sound of blood pumping in my ears, feelings of being not of this world, having no control. Simply put, I felt like I was dying, being taken over by fear and despair. Every movement I made seemed like a terrifying deja vu, slow, purposeful and unintended. All sounds were grating to my ears. Sights were painful to my eyes. I had to escape.
The world outside the dark theater seemed even more totally surreal, a nightmare, scary, alien. People’s faces were gruesome. This was what lay underneath my usual vision. THIS was what was real. My mind had finally been stripped of the last veil of illusion. I felt I had asked for this.
I tried not to look around me, tried to block out sights, sounds, sensations. I felt more afraid than I ever had. I wanted to know what was happening to me, but I was afraid of knowing the truth.
I had to stop thinking. My mind was going a million miles a minute. Saying “stop” just tripped more commands in my brain. I felt my thoughts were thinking without me. I was a visitor to my own brain.
Accepting help, asking for assistance, telling someone what was wrong -- it all would make it more real -- a permanent condition. These were inexplicable feelings. Going to the hospital, the psychiatric ward, meant accepting that what I was experiencing was a real phenomenon.
Back then, I was constantly mired in fear. Not merely afraid, I was terrified of everything. Overstimulated by people, places and things, I was paralyzed internally. There were days I imagined horrific consequences to any action I might take. It was sheer terror. The medications I was taking at the time were meant to relieve the symptoms of acute anxiety I was experiencing, but I still manifested psychotic and paranoid symptoms. For example, listening to television took on a nightmarish quality, as I believed horrendous omens were being broadcast to me; no one else in the room appeared affected by it as I was. A bus ride, sitting in a room of people, sitting alone, going to bed at night, rising in the morning -- all to face the same dreadful nature of the universe as I perceived it -- any daily activity was overshadowed by the evil tricks my mind was playing on me.
There are ways out. Wherever you are, I hope a message can get through. One sentence, one phrase, one word can help guide your way. Am I in a better place? I think so. I have made my way though terror and misery by making choices. I overcame many fears by facing, naming, accepting, and responding to them. I still do.
What can you do when you start feeling panicky or paranoid? It is ultimately up to you. Make up your own plans to manage symptoms, something, anything, that makes you more comfortable. It may seem like trading anxiety for obsessive compulsive rituals, but would you rather panic?
To cope with panic I’ve used the following suggestions:
Ø I remember that although my feelings and symptoms are very frightening, they are not dangerous or harmful.
Ø I understand that what I am experiencing is an exaggeration of my body’s reaction to stress.
Ø I don’t fight my feelings, or try to wish them away. The more I am willing to face them, I trust that the less intense they will become.
Ø I do not add to my panic by thinking about what “might” happen.
Ø I stop adding frightening thoughts to my fear.
Ø When the fear comes, I expect and accept it.
Ø I choose to change my primary thought focus.
Ø I stay in the present. I notice what is happening in the here and now.
Ø I have labeled my fear level from 0 to 10. I note that it changes.
Ø I carry out a simple and manageable task, i.e., dusting, going out to buy a pack of gum.
Ø I count things. (I have tried counting backwards from 100 by 3's.) I count words on a sign, letters, occurrences of letters. I’ve looked outside myself to count windows on a building, buttons on a shirt.
Ø I repeat an encouraging phrase to myself.
Ø I sing along with a song on the radio.
Ø I make up lists.
Ø I write down my thoughts.
Ø I take a deep breath, hold, release, and repeat.
Ø I picture my “happy place” by visualizing some place comforting or safe.
Ø I play simple word games (spell words backward, switch letters, count the letters in words).
Ø I make physical contact with the things around me.
Ø I have figured out for myself what is important to me.
I hope you find your way through, as well.