i am not a violent person. or at least, i never thought i was. my family is about as pacifist as one can be–i didn’t even hold a gun until i was 29, and the most violent thing we ever did as a family was paintball and the occasional all-out warfare game of trivial pursuit. but the night of my psychotic break, i was forced to face the violence within me, and it wasn’t pretty. i wasn’t sure how to reconcile the nonconfrontational, loving person i see myself as with the monster i became on the night i literally faced my husband in a battle that his face lost to my right hook.
as i’ve evaluated that night, though, i have come to a few conclusions. first, there is violence within us all. we all lose our tempers: we yell at our children, we shout angrily at (or give the middle finger to) people who cut us off on the freeway, we sometimes hit walls or throw cell phones when things don’t go our way. true story–i once threw a cell phone through a wall. but for most people, containing the rage is a natural part of life. some people count to ten, some people do deep breathing, some people take their pent-up aggression out on a basketball court. i, on the other hand, let the rage fester.
anyone who has had or seen a full-blown panic attack might be able to understand what true violence feels or looks like–the shortness of breath may lead to hyperventilation and chest pains, which, for me, leads to rocking back and forth and screaming. some people, like me, feel like they are being suffocated by a wet plastic bag, which is why i thrash my head back and forth and claw at my face, leaving trails of angry red marks from forehead to chin. i pull at my hair, attempting to control the attack, to push it back, to master something that there is no chance of gaining mastery over. it is terribly frightening, both to experience firsthand, and to watch helplessly as one suffers through this. i have had multiple panic attacks, and each one left me drained, both physically and mentally.
i once had a therapist, who i saw when i started having these panic attacks, who told me not to fight them. she said, “you need to just let it happen. tell your body, ‘i am going to have a panic attack now, and it will be over soon.’ then just ride it out until it’s done.” i have yet to be able to accomplish this seemingly impossible task, and i have suffered greatly as a result. my psychotic episode started with a moment of panic, which, as usual, i desperately attempted to fight off. then came the throwing, the screaming, the punching, the thrashing. because i was unable to just “let go,” as my therapist cautioned me to do, i ended up shattering every view i’ve ever held of myself, leading to a total reassessment of my identity as i have known it for the last twenty-nine years.
how do i “let go,” though? how do i resist every inclination i have to fight this violence within me, which i have been trained since birth to repress, to push down because it’s not acceptable, not “ladylike,” not “normal”? how do i accomplish a superhuman feat, allow myself to surrender to the impulses that make me so abnormal (abnormal being the psycho i turn into when i attempt to contend the forces of nature that surge within me during panic attacks)? i don’t really know, but through observing others and listening to the advice of a handful of therapists, i am coming to see that it might be possible.
i go to the gym almost every day. i don’t really like exercising, and i hate the atmosphere of the gym that is most conveniently located to my home. it’s full of meatheads, garden-variety desperate housewives with rock-hard breasts and the immobile faces typical of Botox addicts, conventionally cute coeds with extensions curled to perfection and makeup poured on by the gallon, and the occasional normal person who just wants to work out and be left alone. but spending an hour to an hour and a half at the gym seems to 1) help me work out the aggression that lies dormant inside me, just waiting for the next moment of sheer panic to unleash itself, and 2) hold at bay the mania and depression that come part and parcel of the bipolar illness i live with every day. this seems to be a thing normal people do to control their violent impulses, and it has worked, at least in part, for me.
every night before i go to sleep, i take three pills over the space of an hour or so: two doses of mood stabilizer, and one dose of antianxiety medication. these help me to fall asleep, as they act as a sedative, but they are not enough to quell the panic i feel during the hour or so they take to kick in. every single night, i lie in bed for about half an hour, waiting for sleep to take me away to the next morning. during that half an hour, i feel as though my face is covered in plastic wrap, and i must work through the feeling of slow suffocation, which is one of my worst fears, being a lifetime claustrophobic (the symptoms of which have multiplied exponentially since i started having panic attacks). i must force myself to relax, to breathe deeply, to calm my thoughts. i usually end up counting down from one hundred, back up again, and then back down again, in cycles, until i finally sleep. but sometimes, the panic takes over, which is usually how i end up folding laundry in my underwear at three in the morning. if i can’t breathe, i can’t sleep. and if i can’t sleep, i don’t sleep. at all. and when i don’t sleep, my panic attacks and other symptoms of mania or depression get worse.
so you see, i must ritualize my attempts to hide the violence within. but sometimes, i just have to let it go. i have to deal with the fact that i am not normal, and never will be. and speaking of normal, what the hell is that, anyway? does anyone feel normal? i doubt it. so we each find our own ways to deal with the abnormal people we are, and some of us are better than others at hiding the freak of nature that lives in every one of us. but sometimes, even you just have to let it go. so let it go.