Panic Attacks and Demonic Possession or Why Field Of Dreams Broke My Brain
The first time it happened, I was too young to know what a ‘panic attack’ was – I thought the devil was yelling at me, or I was going crazy, or the world was ending.
That’s a lot of existential shit for a six year old to handle. But my first attack wasn’t my FIRST attack. I asked my mom the first time she remembered me experiencing what we called my night terrors. She talked about me as an infant, going white, tense, and rigid before letting loose with a panicked shriek, past accepting all succor.
Although I come from a religious house, my night-time terrors of the devil were something different. The God of my childhood was a loving, merciful figure, who, while readily willing and able to dole out justice as needed, was also in possession of a wicked sense of humor. While awake, I knew full well that he had bigger fish to fry than a six year old girl whose biggest crime was having claimed that her sister didn’t give her the Oreos she was instructed to dole out, thus ensuring I got four instead of the requisite two.
When I was awake, I didn’t think about my night terrors much. One notable exception was when I was attempting to move a dead blue jay from our front yard to our backyard for a funeral. I didn’t want to touch the thing and so attempted transport aided by two twigs. The bird’s head popped off, I swear, like it was spring-loaded and beaned me in the face. I dropped the corpse and bolted away screaming, thinking as I cowered by our strawberry patch how it had been just as scary as my night time terrors.
I didn’t think that much about the devil in my waking life either. Other than vaguely knowing he ran hell, where all evil people went, I didn’t ponder the dude much or particularly fear the way I feared things like basic arithmetic or having my hair brushed. If I wanted to avoid hell, the rules were simple: say my prayers, go to church, and don’t break any of the ten commandants.
I didn’t install a giant statue of myself in the backyard and instruct all passing to bow and pay it homage, but I lied a fair amount. My parents tried to shy me away from this using logic, (“Lying takes work, the truth is easier, you will never be punished for telling the truth.”) but the grandchildren of the old lady who lived next door to me were Sicilian, and they shunned all reason in favor of rhetorical flair. “Every time you lie,” said the oldest boy, as we each balanced on opposite sides of the fence that divided my backyard from his grandmother’s, “A little piece of your heart turns black.” I took this in, nervously biting at my lips.
Even in August my lips were chapped and raw. They would often get dry enough that the redness would extend in either direction; to my nose, to my chin. In part I’m sure that’s because I’m naturally fair and sensitive of skin as many a bearded make-out companion can attest. The chapped lips were so common my mom called it my ‘red-lip’, like it was a favorite accessory I donned even out season. “Look at your red-lip here,” she might say, pointing fondly at a photo.
But it wasn’t just the season, it was my nature. Anxious, nervous, and fearful – all the time. I lived my life in a state of perpetual dread. School, friends, home – everything was approached like the stakes were as high as Russian Roulette. The chewing of my lip was a physical manifestation of this anxiety. It hasn’t gone away, but rather, adapted as I’ve grown up, migrated to a chewing of the inside of my mouth that causes every dentist and doctor who asks me to open wide to take a quick harsh and hissing inhalation of breath, before sympathetically murmuring, “This looks like it hurts.”
With their inspecting hands out of my mouth, I close my mouth quickly and carefully in the way I’ve perfected, avoiding the scar tissue that wants to live between the occlusal grooves of my furthermost molars. If the eyes are the window to the soul, my mouth is the window to my private life of secret neuroses and I’m embarrassed any time the veil is parted and someone has to witness to it. It’s easier when it’s a doctor, a professional whose hand has taken your money with the promise to care for you and to withhold judgement. When someone kissing you pulls back, the dreamy look vanishing as their eyes come back into focus to ask, “Did you have an accident or surgery or something?” having come into contact with the proof that you aren’t normal is not pleasant. Especially when not being normal is what has become normal for you.
And it all is normal: Biting the insides of cheeks so hard until they bleed, sucking the blood out in a repetitive pattern, screaming at nothing, slapping myself in the face – all things I’ve done when the devil had me by the throat.
The first time I remember it happening, my family was spending the night at my grandparents house in Maryland. My sister and I were sharing a bed on the pull out sofa. One of the perks of weekends at Grammy and Framps’s house was 24-7 access to my grandmother’s VHS collection of musicals, and a little TV in the room where we slept. We’d glut ourselves, often falling asleep with the T.V. on.
The night in question, we’d all watched Field of Dreams on TV. I’d been enraptured. Not just because Kevin Costner is a babe, but because all of this interacting with ghosts had gotten me thinking: someday I am going to die.
The notion set my stomach into knots, it had me licking my lips and chewing off my skin at a frantic pace. As I tried to slow my racing heart I worked even harder at making my face into a mask of normal – there’s nothing to see here.
I was six years old.
I made it until about eleven-thirty that night. Lying in the dark, my sleeping sister beside me, I was alone with nothing to distract me. I had only my own brain, and it was stuck on repeat: You Are Going To Die.
All of the sudden I could tell that it was true, I was going to die somebody, just like anybody else, and there was nothing I could do to solve the problem, to escape from body and just continue existing. My brain kept yelling, ‘You’re Going To Die!” and I realized it wasn’t my brain, it was the devil, because it was laughing, laughing at the notion that someday I’d be gone, all the fun would be over, and he had me thinking about it, and I would never stop thinking about.
I bolted up in bed and screamed bloody murder.
My parents came running and I, haltingly, tried to explain what had just occurred to me.
My mom rubbed my back and took my poor bleary and scared sister to her room to sleep. My dad, still half asleep himself, tried to make me feel better by explaining that death is bitchin’ and that there would be a party in heaven with all the food I wanted. Clearly, this sounded awesome, but it didn’t help.
I went back to the little sofa bed, sweaty and shivery and I felt pretty lonely. The devil was screaming the truth at me and I couldn’t be consoled by the people in my life who I had always turned to when consoling was in order. I felt like a bad Christian. I felt like a weirdo. I felt like I was crazy.
It didn’t stop happening.
Months could go by, and then, a spat of “bad nights”. Scaring the people I was sleeping near with my shouts was awkward, so when necessary I stifled the screams by hitting myself in the face, forcing myself silent. Even when I was doing it I was watching myself going, “Yeah, so this is probably a sign that something should be done about this, weirdo.” If I tried to out-run an attack, they would always catch up. They were the worst when I was traveling, in a new place, or just generally had too much on my plate. Once, as a teenager at a favorite Aunt’s home, I managed to escape the attacks by furtively drugging myself with Benadryl and falling asleepm before they could catch me. But our last night there, the thought was there in my ear, “You Are Going To Die” and I screamed – and I kept screaming, even as my mom was at my side.
I will never forget my sister wide-eyed and dropping to the ground when I looked at something just past her and screamed, and screamed, and screamed. She thought there was something behind her, an intruder, a ghost, a monster – and there was. It’s just I was the only one who could see it.
The devil takes a lot of forms, and mine is anxiety. It sneaks in and makes me weakest where I would be the strongest – it’s in my brain.
As a smart woman who brandishes her intellect like a weapon, understanding that there is a bubble in your head that you can’t entirely ‘fix’ on your own is a lifelong journey, a process. In college, separated from my family for the first time, I was faced with many sink or swim moments. Taking charge of my mental health was one of them. I started cognitive behavioral therapy, and antidepressants for the first time. The drugs were not a success – but the therapy was. The idea that I could take a proactive role in my mental health, that I didn’t have to be the passive Linda Blair-esque character who let the devil rip through her, but rather a sort of cowboy wrangling my illness with new sets of behaviors and techniques was revolutionary.
There’s also, only some many yoga poses and mantras you can use. While I have steps to keep my anxiety at bay, there comes a time when you just get tired, physical tired, of outsmarting your body’s biochemical malfunction. About a year into therapy, we decided to try me on anti-anxiety drugs. While I was hesitant about getting on pharmaceuticals again, my doctor and I came up with a plan – I wasn’t going to take a drug everyday, instead I’d have a prescription on head that I would take before getting in bed on those nights when I could tell a panic attack was coming.
Because now I can tell when a panic attack is coming. Do I wake up feeling bad-butterflies in my stomach? Am I short-tempered or tearful? Am I sweating more than I usually do? Does exercise not make me feel better? There’s a checklist that let’s me know: the devil’s on the way.
When I was six or seven, after the first few times it happened, I remember being in the backseat of my parents’ mini van solemnly thinking, “I wish I was grown up so I would be better.” It’s kind of a bittersweet memory because I am a grown up and I feel sad for that little girl, but I also know now that there is no such thing as “all better”, there is understanding, there is working on it everyday, and there is talking about it and finding out you aren’t the only one – for me this last one has been breath-takingly important.
Perhaps the other key is realizing that while the devil takes many forms, the one that whispers bad things in your ear isn’t the same one bandied about by religious types – it’s a tougher beast, in a lot of ways, to vanquish: it’s you. You can’t exorcise this demon, you have to hear him out, let him say all those bad crazy things, and then laugh at him, reason with him, poke holes in all his arguments, and talk him off the ledge. Because, yeah, we’re all gonna die someday, but we’re all alive right now, and while being a member of a living world takes a lot more hard work than being a dead body, I think we can all agree that if done well, it’s categorically much more awesome.