The term 'panic fear' comes from stories of the Greek god Pan. According to myth, he howled in the darkness to scare the sheep and goats, and their human shepards. Panic is the mindless, instinctive, all-encompassing need to bolt. It's hard-wired in prey animals, including horses, as a survival mechanism. It's also found in humans who've been pushed too far by fear and stress and powerlessness.
Horses have taught me there's no finite definition of abuse, no measurable amount of stress that causes this permanent damage and reactivity. Individuals react differently, whether they're horse or human. One trauma isn't worse than another; mine wasn't greater or lesser than anyone else's. Trauma happens when you're pushed past the limit of what you can bear. It's that point of no return. It's too much.
I spent twenty years pretty sure I was crazy. Not the high-as-a-kite mood swings and craving for risk from riding a fractious horse away from my crutches (bareback, no less) at fifteen when I couldn't yet walk, to climbing fifty-foot-high trees when I was twenty, to galloping racehorses, fused knee and all, including when I was pregnant with my first child.
The behavior that worried me was much worse. It was my months of uncontrollable bingeing and fasting in high school as I tried to force my body into a shape I recognized. It was my compulsive treks walking laps through my house as I tried to force my knee to bend or straighten even as the joint fused itself solid. It was the rages, the black despair that knocked me off my feet into a fetal position in bed for hours or days at a time. I loathed myself and my inability to be HEALED by Christian Science. Which I knew was my own inability to understand some element I lacked, some instant of spiritual harmony and enlightenment that I'd been waiting for since I lay in bed for ten months with osteomyelitis at fourteen. The key to the moment when I would feel my motionless joint and tendons stretch and flex, maybe just a little at first. Or maybe all at once. And my knee would let me walk and run again. It had to happen. Or everything I'd already been through was for nothing. That was not a concept I could look at.
I couldn't always get myself to school, and then I couldn't always stay there. I sleep-walked through high school for weeks at a time. Idle remarks from friends or strangers triggered avalanches of shame that buried me alive. I felt isolated from my handful of close friends. I thought about killing myself.
But I had to do my chores. My horses were waiting for me at the pasture gate. So I hung on and kept putting one foot in front of the other even on unbearable days.
Married at twenty-two to my first boyfriend, I'd be triggered during an argument. I'd jump into my battered old Dodge Dart and slam the pedal to the floor around a miles-long country block, straddling yellow lines, squealing bare tires on curves as the fear acted as a tranquilizer and soothed my raw nerves. Maybe that was part of the appeal of exercising racehorses. It was a form of anesthetic. Like the way I sometimes punched myself in the head, above the hairline. At times pain felt better than despair and panic.
Teachers said I had a bad attitude. School acquaintances wondered aloud if I was manic depressive. My first husband told me I was nuts. I was afraid he was right.
I first saw a psychotherapist when I was thirty-three. I was divorced with a five-year-old. I'd finally rejected the religion I'd bet my life on and my mind was coming off the rails. I shook and cried when I told the therapist my story. She told me I had severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
She saw me two (and sometimes three) times a week that year. I stayed in therapy more or less fifteen years including group and individual sessions. And gradually I learned how to manage that wild-eyed, dangerous animal hysterically kicking in the darkened stall in my head, the creature who was also a girl in bed praying to be healed while she wished she could die.
I've found a truce with the resonance of that panicked girl. It's taken all these years of talk therapy and meds and paying attention to what I feel. I'm here to tell you: self-awareness is a bitch. It's taken a long time for me to learn to recognize when my anxiety is starting to hum, and regard it as the herald of a rough patch I can treat, and not accept that the walls are truly crowding in. Now I can (usually) separate myself and view it as a symptom of my chronic condition, something to be managed like a migraine. Not lose myself in it so that I believe everything is wrong and it's up to me. Flashbacks don't have wavy dissolves and echoey narrators saying, "Let's go back in time," like a B-movie. My flashbacks open a trap door under me or drench me in icy emotional water if someone says certain words that set me off like a plastic bag blowing under a horse's feet. I get plunged into that old crazy emotion. I'm not my panic. But it still sits close to me.
Novembers are hard. My childhood ended one Saturday in November when my leg swelled and the bone disease began. And a lot of sundowns are tough, especially when the days are short and night comes too soon. I like to be outside at dusk when I feel that hand clamp onto my heart. I like to walk in the woods in the dry leaves listening to sticks breaking under my feet. I like to stay out as the darkness falls. I'm OK with the night; it's just the sunset transition when I need to know I'm free to move.
The last few nights I've heard coyotes howling in the woods around midnight, yipping and screaming like girls at a pool party. I like hearing them. They're the voice of the night in my pocket of New York state wilderness. They're not old Pan. He sounds (and feels) completely different when he starts calling.