Your first panic attack commences a lifelong commitment — one you never signed up for.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who experience just one in a lifetime, but the terror that follows will forever linger. You never want to feel that way again: trapped inside yourself and desperate to escape. Every time your mind jumps from thought to thought, you fear the next attack is impending. Worse yet, you fear that you’ve become perennially weak.
My unpopular opinion? I don’t see it that way.
After my first — and only — panic attack, I Googled “panic attack.” One website told me not to search those words if experiencing one. Impeccable timing.
Snubbing the advice, I went on to read information that actually consoled me. It normalized the trauma: shaky hands, shallow breaths, buzzing head and racing thoughts. Yep, my symptoms were the stuff of textbooks. I still felt like a rickety cluster of bones, but at least I felt human.
It took a few weeks and a doctor’s appointment to get back to the grind, back to Andrea. I made the switch from caffeinated coffee to herbal tea, discontentedly stirring the residual leaves around and around as I stared at my fractured reflection. I wasn’t sure if I liked whom I saw in there anymore — the girl trapped beneath the bell jar. But the reality was that I was strong: I had my family, my friends and my physical health. Most importantly, I had my mind.
I don’t think it’s selfish to say that my mind is my most valued entity. A person can lose all of her possessions, even her people, and still cling to existence. Twelve years of Catholic education later, I still find that the soul takes a backseat. Not that I don’t believe in the soul — I catch fleeting glimpses of its resilience. It’s there. But as a secular being, I’m just more in tune with my intellectual capabilities. At the end of the day, you have to live with yourself, so you might as well live this life in a state of arrant reverie.
Most people, especially the extroverted, would agree it’s not painless to grasp, let alone practice, the concept of being one with your thoughts. Many attempt to distract themselves from rambling notions, turning to mindless sitcoms or substances. But I don’t want an external stimulant to dictate when I laugh or how I perceive.
For some living with anxiety, the idea of constant contemplation is agitating. Despite my own anxiety, however, I’ve always been content in silent, sober isolation. I’m not the person who can make new friends in classes or strike up conversations with strangers. I’ll never be the one who, upon our first encounter, makes you feel like we’ve been friends for years. I do have vibrant, wickedly brilliant companions whom I love, but my capacity to find contentment is not placed solely in their hands.
I’m the person who savors secluded walks through campus. Who needs to read a sentence three or four times because my mind is permanently preoccupied. Who would probably compose a poetic folk album if I could sing a little better. Who is often more satisfied with observation than participation. Who stays up until 3 a.m. just to lie in solitude with 3 a.m. thoughts. It’s not that I don’t exist — it’s that I’m hyperaware of my existence, and that keen awareness makes me distant and reflective. Stephen Hawking got it right: Quiet people do have the loudest minds. To me, there are a lot of things worth thinking. There aren’t as many worth saying.
My thoughts can be fascinating, frightening. I’m never bored. Sometimes I revel in moments that compel me to laugh to myself — in public, embarrassingly enough — and sometimes I relive moments that make me recoil or even cry. Maybe it sounds strange, but I delight in the fact that my mind has the power to affect me so intensely. The perpetual musings, often irrational, are these incessant reminders that I’m vital, that I’ve had flawed yet tantalizing mortal experiences.
I’ve grown to find myself again, to relish in the whir of quirky ideas and assessments my overworked brain churns out, the un-finely tuned machine it is. When these thoughts start to pulsate too rapidly and I start to feel trepidation, I take measured, deep breaths and remind myself that I possess ultimate control. A restless mind doesn’t automatically equate to “craziness” — it can mean you’re a little more sane than the doctors suggest.
I wish more people living with anxious, active minds understood that this “problem” doesn’t have to be a problem. We’re hard-working students on a competitive, fast-paced campus. Stress and worry naturally manifest in our environment. Many people would feel grateful to have as many electrifying ideas in a day as we do in an hour. Perhaps these perceptions circulate in a labyrinthine manner, but at least we’re never idle or defunct. If we regarded our thoughts as utilities instead of inhibitors, we’d become liberated.
Wait, no, that’s too passive a concept for the tireless mind to contemplate. We’d liberate ourselves.
“Off the beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the summer’s regular opinion writers are selected.