“My husband falls asleep the moment his head hits the pillow, with big band jazz blaring on the Bose; but it takes half of what the R&D folks at Sanofi-Aventis and Sandoz have concocted to knock me out and, even then, every night, it’s a near thing.”—By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
Ruminant With A View
By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
“The ancient Greeks attributed the emotion of panic to the Greek god Pan. In The Emotions of the Greeks, David Konstan explains that when people accidentally ran into the wild beast that was the god Pan, he would instill them with terror.”—N.S. Gill
“The word panic derives from the Greek πανικός, ‘pertaining to shepherd god Pan,’ who took amusement from frightening herds of goats and sheep into sudden bursts of uncontrollable fear. The ancient Greeks credited the battle of Marathon’s victory to Pan, using his name for the frenzied, frantic fear exhibited by the fleeing enemy soldiers.”—Wikipedia entry on “Panic”
“The anxiety of Panic Disorder is particularly severe and noticeably episodic compared to that from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Panic attacks may be provoked by exposure to certain stimuli (e.g., seeing a mouse) or settings (e.g., the dentist’s office).”—Wikipedia entry on “Panic Disorder”
BRIDGE & TUNNEL New Jersey—(Weekly Hubris)—6/2/2014—When I was 13, my family returned to the United States after almost three years in Athens, Greece. Since I had left “home” so early, and “come of age” in Europe, experiencing a chill autumn in New York City and, then, the horrors of a deep Chicago winter, entering a new school, and living in America in general were too much for me to bear without coming apart at some seams.
One moment, I was sitting on a simple, silent, swept-clean verandah above the Aegean, in my one pair of Bernardo sandals and my only sundress, writing poetry; the next, I was fitted out in scratchy, pleated school uniform skirts (navy blue: my least favorite color), and experiencing nosebleeds in Mr. McCutcheon’s math class at Francis W. Parker.
And, yes, math had given me similar nosebleeds at the American Community Schools in Filothei, but there were always, somehow, means of escape open in Greece which were closed to me in Illinois.
The result of my family’s move to Chicago precipitated, for me, a descent into Panic Disorder, and the “stimuli” that triggered my “attacks” (and I remember them then, and whenever they have recurred over the decades following, as continuous) comprised . . . just all of “America.”
My father was a therapist, and so he knew what to do when his daughter began, for no obvious reason (but certainly neither mouse nor dentist), over-breathing, turning blue, and fainting. We had a supply of small, brown-paper lunch bags in our kitchen, and he would sit next to me on the floor and hold a bag around my nose and mouth until the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in my bloodstream was restored. Until the next time.
In the early 1960s, very little was known about panic; very little was known, even in my father’s therapeutic community, about panic in children. No one could tell me much about what was happening to me, and it did not occur to me, myself, to remark to anyone that my entire world had just been turned upside-down by a geographical relocation that, to my mind, seemed as dramatic as Persephone’s annual relocation to Hades. And, unlike Persephone, I knew I, we, were not going back to Greece any time soon; that Chicago, with its myriad aesthetic, social, and pedagogical horrors was a more or less permanent (what is, for a child, more permanent than . . . high school?) situation.
I know now that the dramatic individual “attacks” eventually leveled out to what we now call generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, which became my default position in life—like the foundation supporting all the other “superior” architecture of my metaphorical structure—but that, in periods of more obvious emotional fragility or stress (when several of my heart valves began, more seriously, to malfunction; over the year that my mother was dying of cancer; just before or just after tectonic shifts in my life, usually geographical), the discrete “attacks” would again return.
In fact, I’ve just been through nine months—now there’s an odd “gestation”—of panic attacks and GAD which, this time around, have led to deeper and deeper insomnia.
It all makes great sense to me: if one is terrified, even if for no clear reason at all, how in the world can one fall asleep? All my life, I’ve half-joked that my forebears along my paternal line, many of them pretty morbid and jittery ladies who cast a basilisk eye on everything life had to offer, survived because, back in the days of the cave, it was they who could not, for the life of them, drift off at night but who, instead, sat vigilant at the edge of the great fires, stirring the embers, and keeping more than half an eye peeled for saber-toothed tigers.
My husband falls asleep the moment his head hits the pillow, with big band jazz blaring on the Bose; but it takes half of what the R&D folks at Sanofi-Aventis and Sandoz have concocted to knock me out and, even then, every night it’s a near thing.
I can honestly say that, all in all, things have got worse since the days of my beloved father sitting comfortingly beside me with the little brown-paper bags.
The drugs for panic wreak, and have wrought, havoc with my synapses, and I’ve long faced the fact that I am now what my GP terms, euphemistically, “dependent” upon them for life. Would that I’d never been prescribed Clonazepam. Would that anything else had worked.
Therapy, therapy, therapy; meds, meds, meds; sleep specialists; intensive solitary research; canvassing of authorities in the field; Yoga; Reiki; etc., etc., etc.
Late, late in life, I finally came to the realization that my angst, my sleeplessness, comprises a neurological disorder as opposed to a psychiatric one; that I was hard-wired from birth to be tetchy, vigilant, excruciatingly sensitive, and damnably easy to startle. Caffeine? Hip-hop music? A sonic boom? Scrape me off the ceiling. I was not made for these times at all.
This year, I read deeply and widely (well, I was awake all night, wasn’t I?) and found some solace in quite a few non-fiction titles, specifically: Insomniac, by Gayle Greene; At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch; Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks; and Silences, by Tillie Olsen.
All of these books, all of these authors, helped me propel myself very slowly forward towards the realization that so much of the received wisdom of the 20th century comprised, as Rachel Maddow phrases it, sheer bull-puckey. For about 60 years now, I really could have used the good offices of a great neurologist, as opposed to the largely lunatic counsel of a Rogues’ Gallery of trick-cyclists.
Freud sent many, many of us off down a dark and clowns’-car dead-end: now, at least I know that entire generations of so-called mind-specialists conflated the physiological with the “psychiatric,” and their “treatment” of millions of us has constituted nothing so much as abuse.
Please just think of Larry Kramer, the gifted, irreplaceable author of “The Normal Heart,” and founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis . . . and the myriad psychiatrists who told him that homosexuality was a mental illness.
Where I imagined, and was informed, repeatedly (primarily by old, white men, I hasten to add), that something was “wrong” with me, that something needed fixing, it would have been far more useful, far more helpful, to be told what I have finally been told by my young (incidentally female) GP: “You are an astonishingly creative individual, with ebbing and flowing tides of inspiration and emotional expressiveness. In this wretched environment [as opposed to Greece, a country and culture the woman knows well], you are the equivalent of an Irish setter confined to a tiny cage. You have been as you are now from birth, and what you are is not covered—nor should be—by any edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).”
Of course, the woman also opines, matter-of-factly, that I still have to sleep and, thus, must take the meds (Ambien and Clonazepam), or I really will be sleepless in Seattle, or Salonika, and mad as a hatter. Given its cage, the Irish setter must be medicated now, or sleepless.
So . . . perhaps it doesn’t matter so much if the predicament is biologically determined, or the end-result of “neurosis or psychosis” . . . except that it does very much matter to me.
The fact that I am, and have always been, so hair-trigger, so mal-adapted to modern, urban life, is not, finally, a matter of the round peg being “at fault,” but largely a matter of the square hole being a damned poor environment for any peg at all.
I do just fine in Greece. In non-urban Greece. I sleep better, I feel better, I am better when I don’t own a car, and can swim for c. eight months of the year, and eat food grown by locals, and interact, on a daily basis, with a great number of people who truly prefer faces to screens.
Remember, my panic attacks began when I left 1960s Athens for 1960s Chicago, and my nervous system, already finicky, declared that, no, it would simply not thrive at that particular latitude and confined to that . . . small and artificial a space.
It turns out that mice and dentists hold no threat for me at all, but 20th and 21st-century America have left me with a permanent case of the heebie-jeebies.
Note: The painting illustrating this column is “Pan Comforting Psyche,” (c 1872 – c 1874), by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.