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What Douglas Adams said

On October 17, 2006, I awoke thinking about a clay-colored Ralph Lauren raincoat. The memory of it filtered into my awareness: I remember a coat...didn't I have a coat like that? Yes! I did! What happened to that coat?

The slight startlement of realizing that I had lost that coat and completely forgotten about it till that moment brought me fully awake and got me out of bed.

The next day, October 18, after oversleeping, I half-sleepwalked to the bathroom and got into the shower on autopilot.

I had put shampoo in my hair and was washing the rest of me when three things happened in rapid succession.

First, I remembered the clay-colored raincoat again, and had the same startled, rather troubled feeling about having lost it.

Second, I began to recall a troubling dream. It seemed to be from a long time ago. I couldn't remember much, just "something about a face," a scary-funny, Jack-Skellington-meets-Howl's Moving Castle, Halloween-y face.

As the dream came to mind, I was simultaneously and strangely aware that I had never really dreamed it. I had a strong sense of remembering something that I'd never experienced, and I thought that my brain chemistry was acting up.

Third, a series of inchoate and unrecognized images flashed across my mind and I was suddenly hit with terror. It was purely physical. There was no mental or emotional content, and no trigger that I could identify. My whole system went on the highest alert, instantly. I was flooded with a surge of adrenaline so powerful that it bent me over and made me nauseous, as if I'd just confronted an extreme threat to my survival. I described it to a friend later the same day as the feeling you might have if you've just narrowly avoided being hit by a speeding train. From pelvic floor to solar plexus, I felt completely liquefied. I leaned against the shower wall and groaned.

I had to turn off the water and sit down in the bathtub. Waves of heat rose up my back, followed by waves of cold. I panted there for some amount of time--maybe a minute, certainly no more than two; I was really in an altered state--until I got kind of cold. Then I turned the water back on and let it run over me for a bit longer.

Finally I was able to stand again. I rinsed my hair and got on with my day. The feeling of adrenaline overload stayed with me all day in the form of a sort of hangover. I felt nervous. I craved carbs. My mood was otherwise pretty stable.

The second event, about three weeks later, was identical to the first in every respect, except that the face was a sort of exaggerated Jimmy "Dyn-o-mite" Walker from that 70s sitcom. One friend suggested that my unconscious mind was trying to recover a traumatic memory. I wondered if I had a brain tumor.

After the fourth one--which involved a Southeast Asian face--I sought some professional help, without result.

After the sixth or seventh, I started a spreadsheet that tracked the date, the time, the severity, the memory content, and several other parameters, of each event. It calculated the intervals between events. The shortest has been a day, the longest, 74 days. The average is about 27 days).

After a dozen or so, I was getting pretty good at predicting them. I added a column to the spreadsheet to track how much of a warning I had before each event. The memory content shifted from faces to advertisements about face products (mascara was one), and then to slogans, and then admonishing voices; but always there's a feeling that I'm being confronted, importuned, or warned, and the triggering thought or image always feels like a memory that I can't identify.

Most have taken place in my bathroom, a few in the living room, one in the bedroom, and one at the bus stop, but without exception they've all happened within 45 minutes of my getting out of bed in the morning. I've never found a common precursor in terms of food, drink, activity or experience the day before.

Oddly, certain intonations in my Mandarin lessons can make me feel like I'm on the verge of one, as can certain eye movements. Nowadays, whenever I try to remember something tenuous--as I did the with the clay colored raincoat that first time--I feel I'm in dangerous triggering territory. I've given up trying to recall my dreams.

I've never found any meaning or pattern in the events. No repressed memory from the past has surfaced--though I did grow up in a strongly Asian community in the 1970s and for a while I thought I might have suffered some trauma in Honolulu's Chinatown. But I don't really believe that. I think I'd know, deep down.

Until a few weeks ago, I had no idea what these events were--I just called them "my seizure-things," and had no way even to begin searching for more information.

But at last, I figured it out. They're panic attacks. And they're getting worse. I've had three of them in the past four days. Each one leaves me with an adrenaline hangover and an irrestible craving for carbs. Sometimes I feel too lethargic afterward to get to work on time.

In common with depression and other neurochemical imbalances that I've experienced, when the panic chemistry is switched off, the attacks seem distant, unreal, and part of another life. When it's on, it's as if I am living constantly on the brink.

I've stopped hoping that each panic attack is the last one. Do I know what triggered this whole cascade? I have some idea--there was an extremely difficult event a few months before the first attack. Do I think healing might be possible? Yeah. I do. That's why I'm writing this. Maybe other people have clues.

By the way, the raincoat was on a rack of clothes that no longer fit but are too high quality for me to have let go of. The rack is in my basement. I'm sure Jung would have a field day.


( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 22nd, 2008 08:26 am (UTC)
...I thought that my brain chemistry was acting up.

I know for me, there are two specific triggers that cause me to freeze up and hyperventilate--thinking about finances and hormonal changes. The SRI/NRI I'm on has at least let me pinpoint that.

I don't have any suggestions, just sympathy and empathy. Panic sucks.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 03:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks. It does suck. SRI/NRI=serotonin and nor-epi reuptake inhibitors?

Hormonal changes may be triggering mechanism of this disorder--both time-of-day in each specific instance, and time-of-life for the overall syndrome. I'm mostly curious about what put this particular bullet in the gun.

Probably a futile quest.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 10:52 am (UTC)
I am so so sorry you are having to endure those. I've had one full-fledged (and one smaller one) panic attack and it scared the shit out of me. I can't imagine having many of them.

I know exactly what triggered mine. I went to see The Butterfly Effect in the theater with my mom and sister-in-law. Have you seen it? It's a pretty good movie, but pretty sad. Basically this one kid (Ashton Kutcher) has an ability to change things that happened in the past. He keeps going back to make things right and it never turns out well. The main plot is centered around sexual abuse.

The movie was a little trippy and like I said, sad. But again, pretty good. I didn't really think about it afterwards, just went to the grocery store to pick up a few things. It was around 10 at night.

I was walking down the cracker aisle and boom, it was like I was having an acid flashback, heart attack and stroke all out once. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't move. Everything around me was melted and sounds were muffled. God, it freaks me out even recalling it. I thought I was going to die.

I somehow kept it together enough to make it home. And then I totally fell apart. This was a couple years ago and I would give anything to never have to go through that again.

Anyways, ergh. *big hugs*
Feb. 22nd, 2008 03:57 pm (UTC)
Wow, thank you for sharing your experience in such detail. Believe it or not, you're the first person I've talked to about this who's had an attack that they describe the way I describe mine. It seems very picky and selfish to say it, but the few people I've compared notes with seem to experience something more like worry and anxiety building to an irrational point, and as awful as that is, it's not really the horrific bolt out of the blue that I've been having. It's helping me a lot just knowing that someone I know has had a near-identical experience.

If I may ask, how long did it take you to figure out that your experience had a name, and that you weren't dying of a brain tumor or epilepsy or something? And how did you find it out?

I'm especially interested in the triggering mechanism of the movie--you seem to indicate specifically the movie's thematic content and its "trippy" quality. My attacks, too, seem to have TV-movie-advertising connections, and I've been wondering if these brain-flash images really might be connected to repressed memories.

Anyway, a big grateful hug to you for telling me your experience, and for the awfulness of it, and for the joy that it was a one-time thing. You've given me a lot of hope.

Edited at 2008-02-22 03:58 pm (UTC)
Feb. 22nd, 2008 09:15 pm (UTC)
Oh, I think I knew almost right away what had happened. Not during the panic attack, no, because at that point I was just struggling to stay upright. I think as I was leaving the store I realized what had happened and what had triggered it. It didn't make it easier, the whole thing was so terrifying. I don't actually know how I knew. I guess it's just one of the things I'd read about or heard about in the past.

I can't really tell you anything more about the movie, unfortunately. I haven't seen it again, and I never will. I'm too afraid of what might happen. That said, I did accept immediately that it was the movie that triggered it. When I was watching the movie I separated myself from the events being played out, knowing it was just a movie. I've seen other movies and read books that dealt with abuse, and never ever had a reaction even remotely like this.

There's always hope, sweetie. *big squeezes*
Feb. 22nd, 2008 10:01 pm (UTC)
There is always hope!

The more I'm digging into this, the more it seems that a combination of elements--maybe the content AND the delivery method--is the trigger.

I'm learning so much! Thanks again.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 11:32 am (UTC)
I'm not sure whether I'm being silly but have you looked into the possibility that it might be a mild form of temporal lobe epilepsy. I know very little about it, but what you describe reminds me a little of other people who have described mild temporal lobe events.

'Simple Partial Seizures (SPS) involve small areas of the temporal lobe ... they primarily cause sensations. These sensations may be mnestic such as déjà vu (a feeling of familiarity), jamais vu (a feeling of unfamiliarity), a specific single or set of memories, or amnesia.... Sensations can also be visual or involve feelings on the skin ... Dysphoric or euphoric feelings, fear, anger, and other sensations can also occur during SPS. Often, it is hard for persons with SPS of TLE to describe the feeling.'

I'm not a doctor, I'm not trained, and this might be utterly wrong.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 04:28 pm (UTC)
Epilepsy was the first thing that crossed my mind. I called the events "my seizure-things" because that described them as well as anything.

I've avoided a medical diagnosis for a variety of reasons, not least of which is fear, but it may be time for brain scans.

In the Wikipedia article you linked, I'm struck by the connection between epilepsy and religious experience. My own attacks, though not spiritual in nature and extremely unpleasant, do have a kind of ecstatic quality to them. Saint Theresa of Avila may indeed have been neurologically disordered, but to reduce her to that disorder and nothing more would be a great loss. I like that the article acknowledges, at least a little, the merging boundaries between science and mysticism out there on the far edge.

Anyway, thank you for the additiaonl information. It provides a valuable clue.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 04:43 pm (UTC)
Huh. Look at this. I googled "panic v epilepsy" and voilà.

Not that I'm going to have any kind of lobotomy, no matter what, but it's somehow comforting to know that smart researchers are looking at the whole constellation.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 06:43 pm (UTC)
Yes. Obviously they are hard to distinguish. I admire the way you are coping with this difficult experience. I expect that there will be ways to treat it, whatever the cause. Wishing you the best with this.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 10:48 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Your good wishes mean a great deal to me.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 05:34 pm (UTC)
it sounds really scary, and thank you for sharing. i hope that something is found to help treat what is happening - and extremely smart to start documenting 'cause that didn't even occur to me when i was having my heart palpitations (which were probably mild panic attacks)

it can definitely help to have more people working on a possible solution as we all have such diverse lives and can share our experiences and knowledge.


Edited at 2008-02-22 05:37 pm (UTC)
Feb. 22nd, 2008 10:53 pm (UTC)
Isn't it amazing, this world community on the internet? The power of it is represented right on this page, with people from several countries and all kinds of backgrounds sharing their inights and experiences.

I'm so glad I posted this entry. I hesitated for a long time, but finally last night it just seemed like time to do it. And look at the gold that has come pouring in!

I realize now that suffering stoically in isolation was really dumb. The worry! The silent, unspeakable fears (brain tumor! heart disease! epilepsy! endocrine breakdown! Hell, I started inventing diseases in my mind) were taking way more of a toll than I realized.

Now, hearing about so many similar occurrences in others, I feel like I'm part of an army. It's very powerful.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 22nd, 2008 10:42 pm (UTC)
Your insight is incredibly valuable. Thank you! Yes, this is all about change--about something erupting upward (so it feels to me) and demanding a place at the table of my life.

How interesting that we have the shower situation in common. And when you say there was never any emotional element of panic, I go "Yes! That's it!" because mine are the same way. I have no thoughts or feelings remotely like fear or anxiety or panic when these things hit. It's purely sympathetic nervous system activation, with concomitant adrenaline.

I have thought that my Project Empty efforts to declutter my house and my mind might have given rise to the spate of attacks in recent days. I'm very encouraged by your positive take on this. Thank you so much!
Feb. 24th, 2008 01:06 am (UTC)
I've been meaning to come back to your comment and mention that I'd never heard of the link between panic and magnesium deficiency, and I found it really interesting. Mag deficiency is implicated in restless leg, too. Magnesium is one of those "nothing" minerals that seems to be vanishing from our food supply because of soil depletion.

Because I'm troubled by RLS, I've found ten ways of getting megadoses of magnesium into my system quickly. If and when I get warning signs of a panic attack again, I'm going to try them all. Thank you for this important tidbit!
Feb. 22nd, 2008 07:18 pm (UTC)
It would be unsettling to say the least that you were/are able to somewhat predict when the next will happen. And then having to think about it between occurrences.
I can't offer any clues but I've had something similar happen with an episode of Oprah as a trigger, years ago. And it wasn't immediate. As I recall, it was within 8 hours of viewing that I had the adrenaline surge followed by other images that provoked me to seek counseling.
That's about as much as I can remember, and hasn't happened since. I never had a handle on what happened until I read your post. Thank you for that and I wish you answers and normalcy.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 08:23 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry you had anything like a similar experience, but I am absolutely fascinated by the mention of a TV show as a trigger. You may have noted llaras's comment above, in which she mentions her only attack being triggered by a movie.

I can't help wondering--knowing what I know about Oprah's show--if someone's story, or emotional reaction to a story, in the edition you caught that day, had a triggering effect at a very unconscious level.

It's quite a phenomenon. I'm so glad I decided to post this, if it's given you any clues at all. It's certainly returning me a lot of food for thought.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 08:04 pm (UTC)
I can't even imagine how frightening these attacks must be. They sound scary enough just from your description!

Has anyone in your family been able to shed some light on a possible cause for a repressed memory? I realize that's extremely personal and possibly not something you'd want to approach them about...I'm just thinking that they'd be the only ones who might help you figure it out if that were the case, presuming figuring it out would lead to ending the episodes. Although it sounds like it's more medically-related as some of the discussion above seems to indicate.

Hugs to you as you try to figure out what's going on.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 08:15 pm (UTC)
I've had conversations with my sisters on the subject, and some surprising stories have come out that may shed some light. For reasons that I'm sure you can relate to, discussions with my mother are pretty well out of the question.

The more I read about the issue, the blurrier the line becomes between the medical and the
"psychological". Even medical experts with sophisticated diagnostic tools seem to have trouble distinguishing between "panic attack" and "seizure" in cases that sound like mine.

What does seem to be true is that nobody knows a cause, and nobody (mainstream) knows a cure. So I have a lot of power to define the situation for myself. I do know that drugs or any procedure involving anaesthesia and the suffix "-otomy" would be extremely unlikely choices.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 08:17 pm (UTC)
And I meant to add:

presuming figuring it out would lead to ending the episodes

Yes, exactly. I have never, in all my researches, been able to validate for myself the idea (underlying a lot of psychoanalysis) that understanding the "story" behind the affliction has any real impact on the affliction. The risk is that we get involved in glamorous stories of how we got this way, to the exclusion of accepting that we now are this way, and must develop coping mechanisms for it.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 10:39 pm (UTC)
I know you and I have talked about this at great length over the couple of years it's been happening but I wanted to point out something that popped into my brain as I was reading your post and all of the heart-felt responses. Noticing, as you did, at least one other event happening for someone after a movie and one after a tv show, I flashed on the "rumor" that went around in the 60's or 70's (my brain is rather old and I can't recall exactly what decade it was) about subliminal messaging in commercials and movies. It happens even if they claim it doesn't. It is flashing too fast for the conscious mind to recognize and can cause weird things to happen in the brain, a lot like strobe lights can bring on a seizure. Just a thought, you never know about these things. I hate to sound all paranoid but it seems to be part of my nature... Of course, the fact that you continue to have them might negate this idea.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 10:47 pm (UTC)
I must tell you, the exact same thing crossed my mind! For the very first time this afternoon, reading all the insightful responses from people, I thought, wow, what if it's subliminal messaging? Isn't that weird?

I don't rule it out--at least broadly. I mean, strobe lights can trigger seizures in people with certain kinds of epilepsy. Who knows what effects TV commercials and movies have, even if there's no deliberate or sinister inclusion of coercive material? Maybe we reach a certain speed of flash-cut editing and some of our brain wiring just gets jiggled loose.

One thing I never tracked in my spreadsheet was what I watched the night before. As you know, I don't watch broadcast TV and rarely go to a movie, but I see DVDs all the time.

Very, very interesting!
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 23rd, 2008 10:11 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the 27 days would ring a bell for me as well, if it weren't just an average. But I do think there's a hormonal connection all the same. Just being a woman is enough to bring on panic, I think!

Yes, it's interesting that I used the term "clay-colored" for a coat that many would describe as "off white". I'm sure the coat itself represented one of my many "If I dress nicely enough someone will love me" phases, in which I almost invariably chose clothes that would make me seem terrifyingly sophisticated. And you know that therein lies the trauma.

All the wonderful feedback I've gotten from this post has given me a new lease on life where these panic attacks are concerned, and I'm feeling pretty damn good.
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )



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