Turtles All the Way Down
I was in a taxi cab in New York, headed towards LaGuardia when my face went completely numb.
“Is this how I die?” The thought flashed by before I could even fully process what was happening to me.
The tingling numbness had started in my hands about 15 minutes prior. I tried not to notice its upward climb into my arms…then tightness in my chest…a choking sensation in the neck…and suddenly, I couldn’t move my face. Forming words was like trying to move Everest with my lips. I felt immobilized – drowning. Like I had gone to the dentist and had been injected with novocaine from my waist up.
“Just breathe, in then out, it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok….you’re ok, you’re ok…” I kept mentally repeating, hoping that I actually was.
Forty-five minutes later, the numbness began to fade. My mouth began to move normally, and the panic and fear finally disappeared. But I was exhausted. Like I had run a marathon that I was nowhere near ready to run. I had just experienced my first immobilizing panic attack. I had encountered anxiety and extreme stress before, even in high school, but never anything like this.
That was a few years ago now, and I still have them, unfortunately, fairly regularly. They can even last hours. I had to pull off the road once on my way home because I had lost all feeling from my scalp to my toes – entombed in tingling numbness.
2. “…even though I laughed with them, it felt like I was watching the whole thing from somewhere else, like I was watching a movie about my life instead of living it.” John Green | Turtles All the Way Down
But now that I know in my mind that I’m not dying, that I will survive each choking bout of total body numbness, I face them for what they are and try to find the trigger.
“What set off this one? How am I feeling? What was I thinking about before it happened?”
3. “…an unwanted thought was like a car driving past you when you’re standing on the side of the road, and I told myself I didn’t have to get into that car, that my moment of choice was not whether to have the thought, but whether to be carried away by it.” John Green | Turtles All the Way Down
Thinking through it doesn’t necessarily make the panic attack end any sooner, but I can at least understand the process. Knowledge and understanding give me power, and power can sometimes lead to prevention.
Rather than drowning, I can think of the experience as more like wading through deep water – it’s slow, I’m sometimes unsure of the next step, but I’m never over my head.
4. “If you can make something real, if you can see it and smell it and touch it, then you can kill it. You think, it’s like a brain fire. Like a rodent gnawing at you from the inside. A knife in your gut. A spiral. Whirlpool. Black hole. The words used to describe it—despair, fear, anxiety, obsession—do so little to communicate it. Maybe we invented metaphor as a response to pain. Maybe we needed to give shape to the opaque, deep-down pain that evades both sense and senses.” John Green | Turtles All the Way Down
Since that first sunny afternoon, when I felt myself suffocating in a sea of numbness in a random New York cab on the way to LaGuardia, I’ve been reading, researching, and doing what I can to try and understand.
I wish I could tell you I’m cured and pass along my secret. I realize I may never find a cure, and that’s ok with me now. I have at least learned the following:
I’m not alone.
I’ve discovered that through reading. So many people of all ages struggle with the same issue. Different triggers may cause anxiety attacks, and the symptoms vary greatly depending on the person, but I am not alone, and neither are you. There is comfort in the knowledge that in those terrifying moments, we are not dying.
But even though there is no mortal danger during a panic attack, it doesn’t mean that our symptoms and experiences are no less “real.”
5. “When I was little, I used to tell Mom about my invasives, and she would always say, “Just don’t think about that stuff, Aza.” But Davis got it. You can’t choose. That’s the problem.” John Green | Turtles All the Way Down
Yoga helps me.
I use the “Daily Yoga” app, and when I use it regularly, I live (almost) anxiety and panic attack free. It’s not to say that I don’t get them when I do yoga regularly because I can (and do) at the most inconvenient or unlikely times, but yoga helps me to focus and regulate my breathing.
When a panic attack rolls through my body, I know to continue as normally as I can, breathe as regularly as I can, and wait for the fight or flight adrenaline to run its course. Before bed, a calming yoga session helps me to sleep through the night without anxiety jolting me awake at 2:00 am.
6. “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” John Green | Turtles All the Way Down
Finally, writing out my feelings is key.
Writing out my thoughts is sort of like an exorcism though. It can take a while. Not to mention it can be a painful, challenging, and sometimes downright frightening process, but if you can find the seed of your anxiety and panic and expose it to the light, you can sometimes figure out how to heal.
Maybe not fully and completely and forever. That’s too much to ask.
It’s a process like practically everything else. If you work at getting to the root and discovering the seeds, maybe you can acknowledge and grow past it. However, the primary healing comes from being able to recognize the panic or anxiety trigger when it comes to haunt your subconscious.
7. “But you give your thoughts too much power…Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don’t.” John Green | Turtles All the Way Down
A particularly rough month of anxiety attacks led me to purchase Turtles All the Way Down. Do note; this book isn’t for everyone.
John Green – author of bestsellers like The Fault In Our Stars, Looking for Alaska, and Paper Towns – is known for his young adult, angsty fiction, and Turtles All the Way Down is no exception. It is written for a teenage audience. But I happen to like YA fiction because it transports me back to my younger self.
8. “I remembered digging until my spade hit the plastic of the treasure chest, and allowing myself to feel like it was real treasure, even though I knew it wasn’t. I was so good at being a kid, and so terrible at being whatever I was now.” John Green | Turtles All the Way Down
What I found comforting about the story was the casual familiarity Green handles the sensitive subject of extreme anxiety and panic disorder.
As it turns out, Green has suffered from severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder for as long as he can remember. He has been open about his struggles in several interviews, and I find his honesty inspiring. I can relate to him and this story he has created. Maybe you will too.
And even if you’ve never experienced an episode of overwhelming anxiety or a full-on panic attack, it helps to understand what others go through.
9. “…we were looking at the same sky together, which is maybe more intimate than eye contact anyway. Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.” John Green | Turtles All the Way Down
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