I really don’t like to drive. And if I’m honest, I don’t think people like me should be allowed to. But living in a large spread-out city with no decent public transport means I have to get over myself if I ever hope to leave my suburb. It’s not the actual driving that starts me up. I’ve had years of practice and I drive an automatic – a circus monkey could drive my car. It’s getting lost that gets me.
Some languages have built-in navigational constructs that train the brain into crafting a sense of direction. Their languages develop around geographic directions: east, west, north, and south. So, when they’re describing where something is they might say “it’s southeast of you”, rather than “it’s behind you on the left”.
English is my native tongue so all I have to go on is: straight, back, left or right. And the direction I’m going in is always “forward”. Adding insult to linguistic injury, my directional cells missed a few days of class and now I’m left (or right?) constantly questioning myself at every turn. Google’s diagnosis is ‘spatial dyslexia’ which can be successfully managed with a GPS. The good news is, with practice I can train my brain to become better. But for now, I don’t go anywhere without using some sort of directional app.
I recently visited my friend Dez at his new place. Together with Google Maps I successfully navigated my way there. When I left, as I’d taken my third (or fourth?) turn toward the exit booms I heard the worst thing a directionally challenged driver could possibly hear “GPS signal lost”. I managed to message Dez for help but couldn’t accurately describe where I was, never mind give an account of how I got there. I was on a road he didn’t know and hopelessly lost in his suburban labyrinth of one-ways and no-entries. I might as well have been on the moon. And that’s when it happened…
Instead of a rush of life-giving blood, with every pump of my beating heart I can feel a pulse of acid licking my joints as it circles my body. My bones are made of stone and grind against each other when I move, making bone sand that sinks to my feet and starts to weigh me down. Breathing isn’t effortless, each heave is a monumental struggle and as each pocket of air escapes, my sand-bag body submits a little further to the ground. I can feel my heart beat in my pursed lips and hear the fast-paced thuds over the shrill ringing in my ears. My jaw is in pain from my teeth biting together and my eyes can’t choose one spot to focus on. The surrounding sound is underwater, unclear and barely audible but the thoughts in my mind are a ceaseless crescendoof questions and statements, all posed with simultaneous urgency. Finally one becomes clear. “It’s okay. Keep breathing. You’re having a panic attack.”
After 7 or so minutes (also known as FOREVER to anyone with anxiety) of sheer terror and a whimpering cry, I managed to flag down a security guard and *convince him to lead me to the exit boom. Why did two seconds of feeling lost spin my brain out of control? I was in a safe place. Home was 15 minutes away. It was the middle of the day. What’s the worst that could happen? I could have driven around the neighbourhood for an extra 10 minutes and probably have found the exit booms myself.
I know it’s an irrational reaction. I understand the blindingly obvious ill-logic driving my brain into a psychosomatic frenzy. But that’s the thing about panic attacks – they’re irrational. If I had that same reaction, only there was an armed gunman in the scenario, it would make sense. Telling me all the ways my brain isn’t seeing things clearly and defeating my fears with logic doesn’t help when I’m in the throes of panic. Most of the frustration comes from knowing you’re responding in a ridiculous way, but feeling completely helpless to what your body is doing. Your brain betrays you and your body follows suit. I don’t always know when a panic attack is going to hit. I know what might set them off and I make an effort to avoid those things and situations but I can’t control my environment all the time.
So, if you have someone in your life who occasionally goes bat-shit anxious for no apparent reason, understand they might be as confused and frustrated as you are when it happens. The best thing you can do for your poor frazzled friend is stay chilled, breathe deep and for the love peace don’t tell them to calm down.
*more like coerce. I had streaming mascara eyes and I’m pretty sure he thought I was drunk.