A few weeks ago, I had my first ever panic attack. I was on a crowded train on my way to work, as I’ve done countless times, and suddenly, I began to feel like I couldn’t breathe. My body temperature rose up, I felt my chest tighten, and I felt like crying, shouting, and running all at the same time. I had heard many friends, as well as clients, describe over the years their own experiences of panic attacks. All those times I listened to people telling me how they felt and what it was like to suddenly feel like they might die, I kept thinking to myself that I couldn’t relate. Panic attacks are often fed by anxiety and stress, which are things that I do experience every now and then, but which I’ve managed to find healthy coping mechanisms for. In fact, I’ve always thought of myself as quite good at “not worrying until I have to”.
I texted one of my only friends who would understand exactly what I was feeling, and he helped me get through the train journey. I made it to work that day, but I felt dead and numb for the rest of it. Whilst I’m not able to be my own therapist – as much as my bank account would love that – I’m still able to follow some of the clues of what might have been going on, and follow the clues I did! Prior to that morning on the train, I had been having great trouble falling asleep, and then getting out of bed; I had been experiencing a pronounced tightness in my chest at both of those times of day; I had been eating poorly; my sleep had been erratic; and I could tell my nervous system was going through some kind of shock. But why? It’s not as if the relationship that’d just ended had been that impactful! Or had it? In a way, this was my first and only clue. The end of the relationship. But what else? And why else would I be having such out of the ordinary physical reactions to something I’d experienced before?
In Dramatherapy, it is common for us to ask clients, where they feel something. In their actual bodies. It is part of our approach to connect body, mind, and heart, because artists usually experience a greater fluidity of energy between these aspects of the self, and we believe everyone could and should experience the same. Our aim is often integration of the self. It also connects to theories that indicate that memories, traumas, and emotions, are often situated in actual physical parts of our bodies, trapped in a space and time that is different than the here and now. It is a question that sometimes throws people off their centre – usually, off their minds – and encourages them to explore other aspects of their selves. It can take some time, but the more you do it, the more instinctual and authentic it becomes. So, this is what I did. I asked myself where I was feeling whatever it was that I was feeling. Not sure if you’ve noticed me mentioning my chest a few times already. I was having trouble breathing and relaxing at specific times of the day, whilst experiencing great pressure and tightness in my chest. Everything seemed to be pointing to the heart, but what about it? Again, I’d ended relationships like this before, and this had never happened.
The morning after the train incident, I read some quote on Instagram that referred to the fact that our nervous systems will sometimes get caught up and trapped in some past trauma, causing all sorts of physical symptoms depending on the origin of that trauma. As I read that, I knew. It was the thing that only my therapist and an extremely close circle of friends know about. The thing I rarely speak about, and the thing that is the cause of all my wounds. I had to explore a bit further and deeper, to realise that it wasn’t the trauma itself that had been triggered, but my pre-trauma self. A self that was innocent, open-hearted, curious, and playful. A self that had fled for the sake of survival, and a self that had never returned until this most recent relationship. There was a moment of great and profound sadness when I realised that my heart had actually been closed off all these years. To everything and everyone.
The great paradox of life is this: it is often in moments of great sadness, that we may find great hope and joy. Yes, my whole life may have been an emotional haze, but in this moment, it wasn’t. By opening my heart again, I had allowed myself to feel many of the things I’d been avoiding for many years. My mind was raging with the lack and loss of control, and immediately set out to close the heart again. It gave me memories of painful situations and relationships, to remind me that life was so much better with a closed heart. It offered me all these nice options of what to do and immediately set all my old patterns to task. But the heart didn’t want to go back. And I realised that I didn’t want to go back either. No matter how painful this felt, I wanted to breathe and feel freely. I also feel like I need to say that it’s not as simple as this person arrived in my life and my heart opened. It’s that my heart had been opening very slowly for many years, until it was fully open again, and I hadn’t even noticed. This taught me, quite profoundly, that we might not be aware that we are ready for something until we are already in it. And so, I think this pain and this anxiety was really an internal battle to keep my heart from closing again.
You see, I spend my time as a therapist encouraging and guiding people to feel all of their feelings. To accept and validate them, with kindness and patience. This was my turn to walk my own talk. People don’t call it “the work” or “the process” for nothing. I have been to the lowest lows and the highest highs of my life in the past few weeks. I have been trying to find new ways in which to act and engage with the world around me that don’t entail my usual self-destructive behaviour, or my great ability of cutting people completely off my life. I’ve slipped a few times, but I keep reminding myself to be kind to myself. That I’m still learning. That I’m not perfect, and never will be. I have been pondering on this for some time now, but it is becoming increasingly clear to me that “the work” of therapy, and of life in general, is really about un-learning. And my god, there is so much that we have learned that is detrimental to us, or doesn’t make sense anymore in today’s world, and is only there in our minds as a kind of guard of some old, ancient, oppressive world that should just go ahead and die. So many beliefs, values, ideas, thoughts, feelings, that we assume are ours, but are in fact other people’s, or the culture’s, or society’s.
To untangle one thread is to begin a long and arduous process of awakening, of birthing a new consciousness, of un-learning things that were previously meaningful and purposeful, but which you now realise are just kind of bullshit. Why do we believe what we believe? Who gave us our beliefs? Who still gives us our beliefs? Obviously, we don’t live in a vacuum and therefore we will always be influenced by outside notions of right and wrong, but what would happen if we stopped more often to ask: Why? So what? Who cares? Whose rules am I following? And what rules are these? What gives me life? And what do I really want – not them, out there, but me, right here? What do I want?
May we be kind, vulnerable, and open enough with ourselves to allow ourselves these questions? In many and countless ways, I am very fortunate. And I believe my biggest fortune is my instinctive nature. I have always had great instincts and awareness. I have always had the ability to see things others couldn’t or wouldn’t, and particularly in recent years, I have really focused on the practice of living in the present, without expectations or pressures. And I can also say, without a doubt, that every single negative, destructive, or imbalanced decision I have ever made was due to my choice of not listening to my own instincts. Of listening to others, their values, their beliefs, even when they were so against my own. But alas, our deepest need is that of connection to others. This need to be loved, wanted, needed, validated, and accepted, is the strongest motivator of any human action and behaviour. The cause of every dysfunction, trauma, and imbalance may also be traced back to this need. It is often this need that sends us back to black, to great pain and suffering. But it is also this need that can bring us back from black, to great love, joy, and acceptance.
To be continued…