Panic: Where does it come from? How do analysts work with it?

by May 9, 2017Panic, Rage


Panic on a Saturday Afternoon

Eva is in her 40s. Married. Two kids, job she loves, smart, funny. We’ve been working a long time at twice a week. I won’t say more to protect her privacy. She has given me permission to tell this piece of her story.

For her birthday, a friend gives her a lesson in archery, so one snowy Saturday in January, the family piles into an Uber. Husband and kids learned archery at camp; Eva goes for her lesson.

The hipster instructors drip sarcasm as they outline the safety measures and show how to thread the arrow into the bow. A surge of panic blindsides Eva. Her bones turn watery and loose. Gold and silver jagged shapes boil in from the edges of her field of vision and block out the instructors, the targets, the bows. Maybe she will faint.

She tries to feel her feet on the floor, bend her knees, breath slowly and regularly. For a while that works. Eva is an old hand at this. But it’s too strong. She excuses herself to the bathroom and sits on the toilet with her head between her knees.

And Now Rage

She is aware of wanting to have a good time. Wanting to learn something new. Wanting the family to have fun. She wonders if it is a step out of bounds for her. Can she allow herself a good time? Those are the first thoughts. And then comes the underlying rage, wanting to just go home and say “fuck it.” The rage dissolves into need. Eva wants comfort. Now I am with her in the loo. It took a long time to get me into the loo. And the work we’ve done on needing comfort and hating needing comfort and denying that she needs comfort and wanting me to provide comfort, hating me because I won’t provide comfort and figuring out that she can comfort herself, all of this bears fruit. She gives herself a tearful cuddle and heads back into the lesson. She doesn’t want to ruin the family outing.

“You sure?” I say. We cackle together. Well, sure she does, but that would make her like her mother so she’ll soldier on. We laugh. We know about her asthmatic mother who ruined outings. And having found a way to give herself a break, she understands her mother’s predicament in a finer grain. Cause hating her asthmatic mother takes a lot of energy and makes her guilty.

The panic hovers throughout the 90-minute lesson, but it doesn’t flare. She fakes a shoulder spasm and sits down. She makes a couple of bull’s eyes and receives a round of applause. Story of her effin life. Hitting bull’s eyes during panic attacks. Finally it’s over. And this is why high-functioning panic breeds rage. What seems to be going on and what’s going on emotionally are very far apart. Two pinot grigios later, she tells her family what happened. They listen and murmur sweet things.

Blazing a Trail Back Through Trauma

The trail back through her traumas is well marked. We’ve been this way so many times. And both of us are again stunned at the power of it to reach into an ordinary day and muck everything up, sorry, I mean express itself again. (There’s my rage.) She keeps coming back to the seriousness of the safety lesson overlaid with sarcasm and silliness.

And where does that take her? Where she goes is: “It’s dangerous and they don’t seem to know.”

She follows a chain of associations. Back through to a cancer diagnosis in her early thirties. She remembers joking with the doctor. Not being able to take it in until the next day. Her life depending on her understanding and she cannot understand. Her humor a good defense, but not that day.

We keep on. The power of the experience seems to point to something even older. We turn to the pretending-to-be-fine piece. The rage it engenders. The bitter familiarity of it. Something is wrong and she cannot say. She must keep on. This piece unlocks it. We are back in children’s ward in a hospital in Pennsylvania. Night nurse by her side. Tonsils out, but the wound not completely sewn. Five-year-old Eva swallowed blood all night in a half-sleep. She didn’t want to bother the nurse and she didn’t understand what was happening. At dawn, she vomited it all up. Emergency surgery followed and she was saved.

Danger and nobody seems to know.

Elizabeth Singer is a therapist and anger management specialist in New York City

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