I had my first panic attack over Thanksgiving holiday 2009. This is the first experience that I can recall which I would identify as a panic attack. The problem is, most of the preceding decade is full of blank spots, gaps of memory burned and washed away by drugs and booze. When this initial anxiety experience happened, I assumed that my lifestyle and bad habits had finally caught up with me and that the chemicals were to blame for any neurological issues. I am realizing now that the things I have been putting into my body have been a pursuit of oblivion, a meager attempt at self medication for much deeper problems.
I was driving through the Salt River Wilderness area of Arizona, on my way to Tucson from Farmington, NM. Having not visited family in Tucson nor seen Southern Arizona in years, I was excited for the quick holiday trip. A few miles back, a sign advised of a 6% gradient for the next several miles, and also indicated the narrow, twisting pass through Salt River Canyon was approaching. Just as I rounded a turn in the road and saw the vast, suffocating expanse of the canyon open up before me, a sudden tide of doom and foreboding overtook me. I knew I was going to die.
I’ve never had an issue with heights, driving mountain ranges, flying, any of that shit. For as long and deep into my childhood as I can remember, any time I’ve found myself staring over the edge of some daunting precipice, the only thoughts in my head are of leaping – not necessarily dying, just relinquishing control. There has never been fear accompanying those thoughts. In this moment, though, I don’t know if it will be because I pass out, lose control of my limbs, make a mistake in navigating, intentionally cut the wheel or what but I know I will die and it will be horrible and that is in this moment the only Fear and it is upon me and within me and crawling up my spine, infesting nerve coils, consuming me, it Is my brain it is my entire being and-
I am fortunate to have made a quick cut into a pull-off and shifted into park before I lost consciousness. When I come to seconds or centuries later, I am sitting in my Jeep still clutching the wheel in numb white-knuckle fists, drenched in sweat, the blood and cries of all things pulsing through my skull. My face is numb and bone-white. I can’t feel my hands or legs, or anything really, save for the seismic pounding of my battered heart in my chest. Nearly two hours later I am finally calm enough to continue driving, having to chant mantras and breath in patterns to get myself through the canyon and the rest of the several hundred miles to Tucson.
The next six months were a dizzyingly fast downward spiral of pills, booze, erratic behavior, and increasing isolation, until a group of friends and family intervened and got my ass into a psych hospital and drug rehab program. May 20, 2010 was my first day “clean” or “sober” in as long as I could remember. I went through the program and following eight months of rigorous addict step work with vigor and promise, a soul reborn and swelling with hope. Then, suddenly, New Years weekend, I bought two bottles of whiskey and a handful of Oxy and relapsed in glorious fashion, including breaking my fibia and tibula on an icy driveway whilst attempting to fetch my cigarettes.
The downward spiral anew. Nursing a freshly fractured leg and a glorious supply of pain killers, I was soon without a job, losing my home, and eluding the authorities all over again. More booze. More drugs. No sex. A suicide attempt. A 24 psych hold. Rinse, repeat.
Relocating from Farmington to Tucson permanently in August 2011, building new bridges even as I torch the old ones, I eventually managed to start getting my shit together. A job. Then another one, because the first one sucked balls. A meager social life. I started doing things other than chemical suicide.
I met an angel. I fell in love.
I put together a few days free of drugs and booze. Then weeks, months. A year. More days.
But the Crazy kept bleeding through. The things I was addressing and resolving in my life still weren’t getting at the root of the problem. Even without the chemicals, I soon began to unravel, a downward spiral anew that would prove to be the most destructive yet.
My head exploded on Sunday, March 1st. Hardly believable thay date is only a week ago. I had been lashing out at those closest to me for weeks, months, testing their boundaries and their affection for me. I can always see in hindsight that what I am doing in those moments is passive aggressive and destructively co-dependent and insane, but as it is happening it is as though I am operating outside of my own conscious control. A tasmanian demon of emotion and resentment and weakness and loathing. A black hole.
I pushed Jenn away so that she would cling closer to me. Her and I had discussed this behavior at length, she knew that it was something I did in moments of weakness and self-pity, and I knew it was not a game she was keen to play. In a realm of logic and reason, I am always aware of these things. But when the noise in my head is so loud, I do not operate in a world of logic or reason.
I pushed her away hoping she would pull back closer. When she didn’t do the thing the way it happened in my head, I got angry. I got desperate. I put too much pressure in and my head exploded. Insanity and fear and loathing and psychosis and scorn and violence and absolute unrestrained wrath was unleashed and rained down upon my world.
I screamed at her. Called her a fucking bitch. Pleaded with her. Grasped, desperate and clinging. Assaulted her with my words. Destroyed her.
And then, with more pills, and more booze, and more suffering, I tried to destroy myself.
I still don’t know what is at the core of what is wrong with me. It makes me fearful and hateful and vengeful and paranoid. Sometimes I can see it. Lately, always I can feel it. It is a shadow that lives in my spine, a slithering grub nested in the base of my skull. When it takes form and spreads its wings the silken sound it makes is so loud and it is all I can hear. It is the only thing. The pain is consuming.
Just keep digging?
© Ryan Scott Sanders and Dharma and Belligerence: Mad Rants from a Free-Range Buddhist Hooligan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ryan Scott Sanders and Dharma and Belligerence: Mad Rants from a Free-Range Buddhist Hooligan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.