Notes from the Dark
Warning : the following content is related to struggles with panic attacks and anxiety, and other mental health topics.
What happens when you drop down into the dark? Into the place that is close to death? I have travelled there. Let me tell you what I found.
In early June of this year I visited the emergency room, more than once, for panic attacks. It was a terrifying period of constant intense anxiety and panic that persisted for weeks on end. Persistent high anxiety and panic attacks were not new to me, however, when this kind of thing had happened before (always during periods of higher-than-usual stress), it hadn’t been this intense and it had subsided more quickly.
I was disconcerted, unhinged. I felt my grip on reality and on my sanity erode. I felt ungrounded, disconnected from any normal experience of being in my body and mind. I felt unheld within the scope of reality, or by Nature, unconnected from anything kind, warm, comforting, or real. I began to feel like I didn’t exist. Maybe this is what sheer terror feels like when experienced for an extended period of time.
I couldn't work for two weeks, nor engage in any physical activity that was too strenuous, like the yoga classes I usually attended, nor expose myself to too much sensory stimulation, such as loud noises, bright lights, etc. The threat of a panic attack was near-constant. I couldn't do anything, because I spent most of the time trying not to have a panic attack, which took immense concentration. (So, whilst experiencing terror, one can also feel extremely bored, I found.) Some nights (the panic was worse at night) I lay awake from dusk until dawn practicing breathing techniques lest the panic overtake me. They didn’t calm me completely, but they kept me on the edge just before a panic attack. The stress caused my body to start menstruating fifteen days too early, which had never happened before.
Why this descent into darkness?
Was it the unstable and uncertain state of the world? The isolation, fear, and disruption of normal routines caused by COVID-19 (I was someone who liked not having to leave the house anymore)? Was it the feeling of being completely out of control?
Was it too much “screen time” and blue light interfering with my body’s balance and health?
Was it the fact that my sister, the mentally-stable one whom no one would expect to have any mental health struggles, had gone to the ER for panic the night before I did? Had this unhinged me? Were we connected, one soul to the other, with the mysterious and invisible bond of siblinghood?
Was it isolation, the feeling of being utterly alone and loved by no one?
Was it the trauma I had experienced in recent years? The trauma from my childhood?
Was it my too-broken heart? The profound sadness that lingered with me?
I cannot say. But I can assert that I gained a few things from the darkness.
— I sensed a hostility to my inner landscape, that my mind was not a kind or hospitable place toward me, and that this was not helping. Though I have done a lot of work on loving myself in recent years, I found that I still need to do more. Like regularly cleaning your house, it's a practice that needs to be tended to constantly.
— I became extra vulnerable, tender, direct, and childlike during my time in the dark. I cried openly in front of everyone. I went on a campaign trying to save the rats (which we found out later were actually mice) that my uncle had hired someone to exterminate. (I think they were able to escape from underneath the house before the entry points were sealed). When you feel like you’re going to die soon, you stop caring about social niceties, and you act based upon what actually matters.
— Before this panic visited me, I had been isolating myself increasingly. I felt quite estranged from almost all humans. In the dark, I felt it was not wise to be so solitary. An I Ching reading I did, crying out for help, corroborated this, stating, to put it shortly, “Cling to Brightness.” I clung to brightness by seeking help from those who truly cared about me. Recent traumas and hanging around people who didn't treat me kindly had contributed to an even more-than-normal negative self-regard, which made it difficult for my fragile mind to ward of the panic and feelings of unreality.
— I felt I needed to look people in the eye more. This was a grounding practice for me. I also felt calmed when entering lush, green forests with tall trees, areas of relatively protected nature. The trees, those silent and wise guardians, reabsorbed me back into a sense of interconnectedness, safety, and belonging. Be among trees more often!
— I realised how much of a gift it is simply to feel OK, and held within the sphere of reality. The heightened nervous system characteristic of panic is a state in which one cannot function normally in day-to-day life. I even prefer a deep depression to a panic attack. Truly, it is a gift to simply be breathing, and I was reminded not to forget that.
I got a lot of help, and I am feeling more stable now, but I still need to take care of myself like mad, for the panic lingers on the edges sometimes. Self-care and healing are not concepts to be thought about sometimes, they are a lifestyle and practice to be tended to constantly.
I share these notes from the dark that they may be helpful for anyone who has experienced trauma, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, or similar challenges. Here ends my tale from the dark. May it now be a light for those in dark times.