By Lindsey White • November 28, 2018•Writers in Residence
Last Saturday morning I woke up with an elephant sitting on my chest. That seems to be the phrase a lot of people use, and by now I can confirm its accuracy and appropriateness in describing a panic attack. I haven’t had one in weeks, dare I say months? And I immediately railed against my lack of control over the entire situation. A part of me was convinced that I should be better than this. Stronger than it. I should be able to breathe my way out. Make a list in my head of all the good things going on in my life that I’m grateful for. The things that prove this fear isn’t based in reality. If I could do that, it would shorten the duration of the panic attack itself. But that trick didn’t work. I couldn’t do it. And it really pissed me off. I knew I had no choice but to ride this one out. Accept it, forgive myself for it, and surrender to it. I knew I could cry it out on someone else’s shoulder. And thank God for that shoulder owner, he knew right away what was wrong. He’s seen it before. He keeps gently reminding me that it will pass.
And it did.
There’s a sadness and exhaustion that comes after a shot of so much undiluted fear. I’m worried that it’s going to come back for another visit sometime soon. That I’m actually not doing as well as I think I am, and that it’ll drop in whenever it pleases. Anxiety can be the world’s most obnoxious houseguest. Because the truth is, I know that particular embodiment of my anxiety is likely to keep showing up every now and then. In all honesty though, that’s okay. No one can completely run from any specific emotion. I know now that emotions don’t work that way. I fought so hard to force my fear down in an attempt to make it disappear all together, and called it strength. Eventually, it rose back up and dragged the rest of me down into the very hole I put it in.
I stayed in the hole for quite awhile. Part of me wanted to climb out, part of me couldn’t, and other parts of me even wanted to stay. Fear could be comfortable at times. I know I've referred to it before like slipping into a warm bath. That's the feeling, as best as I can call it. Fear became more and more familiar, feeding off my ambition and eventually taking its place. I had just started to make the hole look and feel more homey. The hole had a solid internet connection. From there I could continue to research papers and order all the greasy takeout my sad-girl heart desired. I was considering a long term lease in the hole when given the advice to write about gratitude. Don’t practice gratitude, don’t meditate with it, and don’t say your rosary with that intent. Just write about it. I doubt the advice giver really had any idea how useful this would be for me. Deconstructing concepts analytically serves as any good law student’s bread and butter. Opening arguments for and against gratitude began the very next day. Proceedings are complex, but moving quickly. There’s just so much evidence to sift through.
Thus far, the record reflects that gratitude is good medicine. Slow-acting, yes, but worth the time it takes building up to being therapeutic. The cracks might be where the light comes in, but it’s gratitude that helps nudge them open a little wider. One other significant finding - the way gratitude reinforces itself. How it can gently quiet and crowd out other competing voices, replacing them slowly but surely over time. My study of gratitude has an unwavering ability to push me back in the direction of self-trust.
Another question of fact settled? Gratitude is a gift-giver. With gratitude, I no longer cling to wishing my panic attacks away, but accept them as quirks of my brain and body. I can recognize them now. The spiral will stop, though being in it is still horrible. There’s a genuine feeling of thankfulness for every single one of my little mind tricks that help bring me back down to earth. Even if they don’t completely plant my feet on the ground every time. I didn’t have any of them a year ago. Mostly, I hoped for the best and tried to get to my preferred bathroom in the library before the ugly cry really set in.
Gratitude floods my memories of law school. None of them take shape in my head without a thankful thought for a classmate, a client, a professor, or an experience. Along with the friends, family, and therapist who have kept me afloat in both good times and bad. Gratitude was not the filter through which those three years played out, but it's the one I have looking back on them. There’s been something to learn from every happiness and every discomfort. Every acheivement came about through hard work, and a different kind of hard work carried me over, around, and through every challenge. It feels good to say that I am wholeheartedly grateful for the failures, more so than the successes of these past three years. That's what makes me feel free. And that is a hell of a change in perspective.