It’s National Poetry Month and I’m excited to share a lot of poems (new and old) throughout the upcoming weeks. Today I begin with Ode to the Public Panic Attack, published in my book “Lord of the Butterflies.” A few lines from the piece:
I think every good artist
makes their audience uncomfortable.
I’d hoped to do that with my politics
and not my body flailing
like the about-to-be-dead-girl
in a teenage horror flick,
my own spine curling into the claw
that strips me down to my day-of-the-week panties––
and it’s always Doomsday.
One of the miracles of writing is how much it supports my mental health, particularly when I write with humor. Humor frees me from seeing my experiences only through a lens of pain. It widens my perspective and helps me understand I am not my emotions. I am (the very funny) spirit witnessing my emotions.
I spent a lot of my life battling debilitating anxiety. This morning, as I re-read the poem I started thinking about how difficult it is to be friendly while very anxious. That’s something I have rarely heard discussed. Having a panic attack feels like falling off the edge of a cliff, and even uttering the word hello can feel impossible while you’re mid-flight. I’d see friends I adored in the grocery store and would bolt in the opposite direction because it broke my heart to watch people perceive my inability to speak as a lack of interest in who they were or how their life was going.
If you’re close to someone with anxiety or panic attacks, you may find they rarely want to make plans, or they make them and continuously break them. It’s a true kindness to both yourself and the other person to work to not take such cancellations personally. Something that always helped me was when a friend would say, “You can feel whatever you need to feel when we’re together. You can be as anxious as you need to be, and if we go out somewhere we can leave at any time. I enjoy your company wherever we are.”
But what I ultimately found soothed my social anxiety more than anything was telling the truth about my experience whenever I was able to. Nothing worsened my panic more than trying to hide it. Whenever I could share that I was anxious, the transparency almost always slowed my breath.
I know not everyone who reads this newsletter experiences panic attacks, but my guess is almost everyone knows someone who does, so I’ll share two tips that helped me whenever I felt like I was falling from the sky. 1) Let yourself burst into tears. Very commonly when I was feeling fear there was a truer emotion underneath—grief. If I allowed myself to cry, the panic would often vanish. 2) Try to panic more. I know this is counter-intuitive and goes against every human instinct we have, especially when we’re afraid, but the more I welcomed a fear, the less it visited. When I’d feel the terror bubbling up inside me I’d say, “Come get me, Terror!” and it would suddenly have less interest in getting me.
All of that said, a kind reminder—I’m not a therapist. (I don’t even own a couch I like.) I’m just a poet with a whole lot of feelings. Take what helps and leave the rest. And please share in the comments what tips have helped you tame your jitterbugs. In this world I very much doubt there aren’t a whole lot of people who could use the reminder that they’re not alone.
Thank you for being here. I hope you enjoy the poem.
Love, Andrea 🖤
△ On the topic of love—I am thrilled to announce that I will be speaking and reading poems at the Engendering Love Summit this year. This is a FREE online event happening May 5-7.
The mission behind the summit is to have healing conversations about femininity, masculinity, and fluidity–themes I’ve been writing on for decades. I’d love it if you’d join me and the amazing group of people who will also be speaking at the event. (Including Alanis Morissette, the inspiration for every karaoke song I’ve ever sung, much to the dismay of every karaoke audience who's ever heard me.)
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Ode To The Public Panic Attack