When I was a child a favorite TV show was Dads Army, a British sit-com based around a War time troop of amateur soldiers known as the Home Guard. It was quintessentially English in so far that it dealt with self-parody, class resentments and had the music hall tradition of comically exaggerated characters. The humor came from the comfortable realization that you could predict each roles reaction to almost every situation and as a result we could speak the lines before the actors could. The most famous of these perhaps was owned by the most elderly and vulnerable, Lance Corporal Jones, who upon any frightening turn of events would spin, run and shout “Don’t Panic!” the joke being that he was the only one suffering that fate and the irony was that he was played by one of the youngest cast members. Panic came to me in my late teens, long after I had lost interest in that show, and entered my world without warning or explanation. Over the years I sat on many a doctor’s chair or even in a couple of psychiatrists couches and was patiently told about the physical symptoms of a panic attacks as they are commonly called. I knew all about the bodily reactions and their scripts about fight or flight were so well known that they were wasted on me, as was the proposed solution, the absurd, impractical and unsophistication of breathing into a bag. I would sulk from their offices, grateful for some fresh air on my face and the night sky above me, free of these tiresome and, if I am honest, weary and indifferent medical professionals.
My earliest fears, and the ones that were at the nucleus of the first attacks was the perception that I had no safe place to go, I was stuck on a small planet floating in a vast universe, a sensation of vertigo and meaninglessness which led to terrifying feelings. Even the ground felt impermanent, so I would lay face down on my bed trying to control my breathing for hours while I could hear the concerned scuffling of my mother’s heavy step around the house, she understood what was going on to some degree, but had no clue to a remedy. These attacks revisited me from time to time when I was in college, and on one occasion a doctor was summoned very early through an icy Welsh morning, I was angrily ordered to see a councilor but they were happy to briskly see the back of of me, “oh it’s nothing, just a panic attack” they would be clearly relieved to say.
Several years ago I was on a transatlantic flight that was interrupted by an announcement that we were turning back after a few hours in the air. I had noticed across the aisle a woman being attended to by solicitous crew members almost from the moment we took off, but now events had worsened and I leant forward to see her, something immediately regretted as I saw that others were doing the same. There is a paradox when you look carefully at a face that is in this state, on one side it is uninhibited, unedited, rarely shown to the outside world as an adult except in moments of great shock or tragedy, on the other the weariness and stress that prematurely makes it ancient and other worldly, almost literally talking itself into early death. Like the rest of the passengers I was angry with the added time we would have to endure, but unlike most I knew what she was going through as I had seen that same look many times before in the mirrors of claustrophobic aircraft bathrooms, furiously splashing cold water to try to slow down my own racing heartbeat.
That is my most common solution but it sometimes doesn’t work, I return to my seat still with a sense of terror and in these cases an extreme reaction is required which is to create pain within your body that somehow counterbalances the other chemicals running wild. I hate the term “self-harm” used by the medical world which is so unemotional and plaintive but it is just that; finger nails, sometimes until I might just recognize the familiar metallic scent, raw pain becomes a calming agent, my pulse slows and the frantic energy mysteriously leaves, the flesh rages and burns and this becomes now the new focus of my bodies attention.
I don’t need anyone to tell me that this is a problem, but it’s also a solution and talking or writing about this is neither as cathartic nor reassuring as one might think; it’s embarrassing, others might wonder why more practical steps have not been taken, and once people know this about me, it shifts their opinion. This mental disability, let’s call it what it is, has been a near constant companion. A hundred years of therapy might exorcize it or find the key to unlock a vault where unresolved childhood issues and fractionally remembered events were buried long ago, but it’s easier to keep them under control. It’s difficult to say what is at the core, a single incident that was so damaging or intrusive that it becomes impossible to recall, or just the slow and constant drip of subtle, psychological, micro-bullying from a father who passed his own discontent and unrealized dreams downwards. But that is far too easy, to blame others is never the right answer, we control our own destiny just as long as we are strong enough, the consolation prize is empathy towards those who share the fear confinement and crave the liberation of wide open spaces.
It seems a fact that they will always be around as a ghost at my side, a pernicious presence walking down the jet way as I board and which on some long plane rides will materialize unpredictably perhaps because of these listless flights, indeterminate – in-between spaces are the source of self doubts and fear unleashed is a much more powerful force than rationality and logic, the result is a kind of bizarre inner negotiation. It will easily outperform the diversionary tactics of a great book, long anticipated new music or a compelling movie. I have been told to give this nemesis a name, to ridicule its voice and have even tried to visualize it as a hapless Second World War amateur soldier resembling a heavily made up Clive Dunn cruelly parodying the elderly and vulnerable; without any success, it’s much darker than that. Few people will understand the sense of relief when the plane touches down and survival becomes something close to euphoria even if for a brief moment. I exit to tight airport corridors lit by a stark unnatural light from naked bulbs overhead, the sharp hospital chemical scent of disinfectant as I approach immigration, “this is insanity” I mutter to myself, but it’s necessary to keep hold of everything that matters.