By Kathleen Hoy Foley
Anxiety has strange written all over it. If you understand this, welcome to the club. Though not really. This is not a club anyone would want to belong to. Not if they had a choice. I don’t have a choice. Anxiety is here. It is real. It comes from somewhere. And then it attacks. Anxiety is strange. If it is strange, then I am strange. There is no evading this. Although I would like to. Evade it, that is. Evade all of it. Only, there is no evading. Only acknowledgement. Then understanding. Accepting its roots. Accepting the effects of the trauma that produced the anxiety. And the hardest part, accepting its real-time triggers.
The triggers…now that’s tough. Because to outsiders—those who aren’t strange—the triggers are invisible, ghosts only the afflicted can see. Outsiders only witness the behavior instigated by the ghosts. Yes, ghosts. If you don’t understand this, get down on your knees and offer gratitude for every single thing in your life. If you do, I extend my sympathies. You are in strange company living in a strange land.
Apparently, the ghost of my stepfather is alive and well, living a quiet life somewhere inside my brain. This is strange, considering he’s been dead for over forty years and it’s been sixty years since he laid down his own form of marshal law and declared war on his kids. Corporal punishment for my brothers. Assassination by way of embittered ridicule for me. I’ll spare you—and myself—the morbid details of his cruelty. Suffice it to say that he was an effective assassin who utilized mockery and shaming to attack the most personal, intimate parts of me. It was ugly then. It’s ugly now. His finger is always on the trigger. Always. Sometimes he pulls it. That’s when things get very strange.
Escalating stress and anxiety come as no surprise to me. I prepare myself. I have practical strategies and trusted dependable support. I also have limits, which I can push to a certain degree and still walk away intact, if not a bit rattled. But when my limits begin to disappear in the rearview mirror, trouble starts brewing and piece by panicked piece I start drowning in real time. That’s when I become isolated, as confusion and amnesia rise up and take over. Don’t misunderstand, I am aware that I am drowning, I just can’t stop it. If I am fortunate enough and can escape before crazy starts creating a spectacle and I begin babbling nonsense, I am at least relieved of that humiliation. If not, it all becomes part of the aftermath, that private emotional crash where reclaiming myself—my equilibrium—seems impossible because now I don’t even remember who that other self is, or if she ever actually existed. There you have it: a schematic of an anxiety attack. When I say strange, I mean it.
I am very well-versed in trauma and its savage, living legacy. I understand it. I work daily to deepen my understanding of the complex intricacies of its influence and to continue to expand my knowledge of its resolution. It used to cripple me. It is no longer a dominate force. But I am not cured. Trauma is not curable. Trauma is manageable. And sometimes despite my--your—best efforts, events conspire; the trigger gets pulled; a fuse is lit; and it burns its way back to the waiting dynamite. Explosion!
Nothing can erase the root cause of trauma or halt the unavoidable consequences once its energy gains momentum and speeds past the point of no return. But comprehension and acceptance of how trauma affects each of us personally are the great assists in recovery in the aftermath of an anxiety/panic attack.
The crash is a mentor. It takes us back to the event—not to torment--but to teach. It shows the first warning sign, then the second, then the third…all the missed and ignored opportunities for averting the crisis. It reveals triggers. Including those that were immediately and deliberately rejected because of cultural and emotional attachments. Truth comes to rest in the aftermath of a trauma crisis: choice and resistance.
There is a beauty in how much sense trauma makes. Those of us affected by it, dance with a strange ghost. But that ghost always dances to the same tune. Once we learn to listen and hear its rhythms, we begin to understand its moves. With understanding comes power and empathy. With power and empathy we can create new rhythms and design tomorrow now.
When we truly accept, truly deeply see that past trauma exists today—in real time—we are acknowledging the invisible. We acknowledge the energetic connections that move and sway, backward and forward in this strange dance of time and space and experience that we are engaged in. We see the ghosts. Through seeing we gain power to muster our courage to make healthy, and oftentimes painful, choices. To outsiders we are strange because we see what they cannot fathom. We become mystics, not of the occult, but of truth.