Sam Haft

The trauma of 2020 is all too familiar to me. The relentless geyser of catastrophic information, the creeping sense of doom, the sheer hopelessness of it all… We are trapped in a society-wide panic attack. And many of you are experiencing the mental symptoms of clinical panic for the first time. It comes in waves, it triggers a fight-or-flight response that you can do nothing about, and you rapidly oscillate between “I’m just being nuts” and “this is going to kill me.” But this is not my first rodeo; I’ve been there, and I got through it. I know it takes time.

Panic disorder, one of the handful of neuroses that make up my personal mental cocktail, is something I developed around January 2011 – and then proceeded to take an entire year of my life. It is generally much more common in women than men, and curiously is often brought on by rapid onset weight loss (which I was experiencing at the time). People who have panic disorder chronically become hyper-aware of body sensations – like your pulse, tiny nerve stimuli, breathing, etc – the banal white noise of simply existing in a human body. I’ve learned to understand it, learned to deal with it, and learned how to keep my episodes both rare and mild. But the truly evil thing about panic disorder is that, as a psychosomatic affliction – that is, a mental condition that has physical symptoms – it can take quite a journey to realize that what you’re experiencing is in your head, when what it’s doing to you is very much not in your head.

For me, it started when I felt my heart stop. It didn’t! My heart was, and is, fine. But I felt this sudden sensation that I’d never felt before, in my chest, like my heart stopped beating. And of course, just as suddenly, my adrenaline spiked and my heart began an episode of erratic palpitations. I called 911, EMTs attached diodes to my chest and told me nothing was wrong. This would be the first of about ten times in two months I would call 911 or rush to an ER because it felt like I was dying. It happened more and more rapidly. I saw a cardiologist. I was made to wear a device called a “holter monitor” for months – a device around my neck attached to diodes on my chest. Whenever I had an episode it would transmit my EKG to a data center for examination. And these results confirmed that I was experiencing heart palpitations, which I attributed to some kind of undiagnosed heart condition that was surely going to eventually kill me. After all, it kept getting worse.

What I was experiencing was a feedback loop – I was panicking about the panic attacks, and the attacks became daily and excruciatingly intense. So of course, to me, that meant it was getting worse – closer to taking my life. It was suggested at some point that it might be anxiety, but I rejected this outright, for months. I have depression, I’ve been to therapy, I know what it’s like to experience mental anguish – this was physical! It was in my body! The EKGs confirmed my heart was actually behaving like this! I didn’t understand what panic disorder really was – so when they said “I think this is in your head,” I received it with the subtext that “by extension it’s not real,” when what was happening to me was as real as it gets. Meanwhile I was trying to live my life – dating, seeing friends, going to college – in perpetual terror. It became my new normal; literally carrying my baggage around my neck in the form of a plastic box monitoring my heartbeat.

My major turning point was – of course – therapy. Other options totally exhausted, I figured at least it could help me navigate the fear I was experiencing from my mystery illness. It was a new type of therapy that I’d never tried. I’m from Manhattan with divorced parents, so, naturally, I’d been in therapy since childhood. But it was all traditional “how does that make you feel and why do you think that is?” therapy, or as it’s officially known, psychodynamics. This was Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – or “CBT” as it’s now commonly known. CBT was nothing like the therapy I’d done in the past. It’s designed to take your common trains of thought and rewrite the mental narrative so that you experience those triggering moments differently – in my case, the onset of a panic attack. It felt like one part analysis, one part debate. Instead of simply exploring what I think and feel in those moments, it was a system to counteract my anxious mind’s twisted logic.

And just like that, in a matter of a couple months, I was better. I still have panic disorder, I still occasionally experience the onset of a panic attack (and oh boy, 2020 hasn’t helped), but I can identify and minimize them. They don’t interrupt my life. It goes on. I can manage.

There’s a common conceit that pain ‘becomes’ art. And it’s a conceit that has artists leaning into pain, over and over. I disagree. It is not my pain that becomes art – it’s the lessons I learn having to cope with pain that becomes art. The pain was debilitating. But the growth was incredible – and made me a better artist. And growth doesn’t require pain! It is pain that requires growth.

So I look at this moment in time, our collective panic attack, and I try to maintain hope that, like my lost year, we will all make it through this with some brand new coping skills. Maybe we can all grow together. All we need to do is rewrite the narrative.

-Sam Haft

The Living Tombstone