In not unrelated news, I had a panic attack on Sunday.
PTSD is a strange phenomenon. I can be doing well: feeling strong, and confident, and as though I’m moving through things, in control of my symptoms and sometimes even symptom-free. Things that I think might cause me distress turn out not to bother me, to be non-events. I stand straight and I feel happy and I feel like I’m facing a bright future.
Then there are the things that hit me, out of the blue, small things which you wouldn’t think would impact. A fellow chorister reaches over the top of me for his music, holding me in place with one hand on my shoulder while I cringe away from the touch; a flashback, a brief visual memory so vivid in its intensity that for a heartbeat I’m no longer in the safety of the choristers’ vestry but plunged back into a living darkness which leaves me breathless with fear. It only needs to last a second: a slap only lasts a second too. The solid loud thud of an accidentally slammed door which causes most people to look around but which causes my war-zone instincts to scream danger! at me until every atom in my body is tense with frightened expectation of a blow.
Often I can control it. Breathing exercises, self-talk, visualisation. Holding tight to something solid – a stone or the brass railing behind which I stand to sing on Sunday mornings. It sounds counter-intuitive, but a strong physical sensation – like pain – can help me to narrow my focus down, away from terrified rapid breathing. Sometimes even the knowledge that I’m having a panic attack can help me to move gently away from it.
Not this panic attack. This one was bigger than I am. This one was strong. This one took all the air from around me so that my oxygen-starved lungs gasped out my fear. This one rushed through me like a wind, shaking me to the core of my being so that my whole folder trembled as I tried to sing. This one gripped my throat in a choke-hold and killed the beauty of the music before it even reached my lips. This one crashed down upon me like a wind-whipped wave, engulfing me in mindless terror and sweeping me out of the range of thought. I literally fled from the Cathedral to the safety of the choristers’ vestry; I remember sitting on one of the chairs, hunched almost double, my arms wrapped tightly around myself, struggling to contain my breathing. I remember the concern in the face of my choirmaster and friend who asked if I was ok but understood that I could not answer. I remember running from the building, gaining the relief of the vast open space of the sky; I remember nothing else until I found myself sitting on a rock by the sea, staring out into the calming expanse of the ocean, bigger than even my fear, finally able to breathe again.
I don’t know how to finish this blog post. I had to face my friends later that day, return for another rehearsal and another service. I didn’t want to: I felt tired, drained, numb and distant, as though I was watching them all from behind a thick pane of glass. As though I didn’t properly exist. I felt ashamed, as though I had disgraced myself, or done the wrong thing. I felt ashamed of my limbic system, my fight-flight response, which kept me safe and alive for so long and which now lets me down when I’m trying to sing beautiful music and when there’s no threat in sight. I felt ashamed of my past and my present. I felt ashamed of myself.
I shouldn’t, I realise that. It’s like someone with diabetes feeling ashamed of their blood glucose level, or someone feeling guilty because they’ve caught a cold. So I used the words: I have PTSD and I had a panic attack. And that day and the next I let my friends hug me and ask me questions, and I tried to answer them as honestly as I could. I’m choosing to try not to be ashamed. Because I don’t want to be.
I’m kind of hoping that’s a choice I get to make.