Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights (Part IV – Picking Up the Pieces)

I wish I could say I conquered midnight panic attacks.  Or that I learned how to manage them.

The truth is, they persisted the entire semester, and I just tolerated them.  It wasn’t healthy. I have a high tolerance for pain, which isn’t always a good thing.  In many situations, including this one, most people would have thrown in the towel within a couple of weeks.  I truly don’t know which is better.

The four sleepless months took a toll on me mentally, physically and emotionally.  It was sort of a microcosm for my experience with law school and law generally.

Do I get some sense of satisfaction as I drudge my way through some of these things?  Sure.  There is some masochistic part of me that says “hey, the challenge was real and you stood up to it.”

But then the subtle rhythm and the raspy vocals of Bob Dylan fade in, pressing me with that ever-present question – “How many roads must a man walk down….Before you can call him a man???”

I wish it weren’t rhetorical.  I wish I could answer: “Like three, maybe four.”  Wouldn’t that be nice!?!  And I wish that the end of that semester ended that road filled with panic attacks.

Part of the solace I took throughout that period was my knowledge that it was finite.  That road actually had an end.  The external pressures causing this mental anguish that, in turn, caused the midnight madness, weren’t permanent.  If they were, I believe at some point I would have had to tap out.  But because I knew that it would all be over…that the pain would stop – so to speak – come the Summer, I was able to get through it.

But my road, as a person, goes on.  Now Green Day chimes in…”I walk a lonely road…the only one that I have ever known…”  After that, I never loaded up my schedule in the same way.  A man must know his limitations.  Or learn them. I imagine I learned some law that semester, but I also realized a new depth of anxiety I hadn’t known existed.

My sleep schedule returned to normal.  For people who suffer with midnight panic attacks on a regular basis, I empathize.  It was one of the hardest things I ever went through. It was like a car with a ruptured fuel tank, constantly draining, and always running on fumes.  It’s no way to live.

For me, sleep issues haven’t simply disappeared. I view that semester as a sort of trauma.  I worry that the problem could return,  Once in a while, it does.  If I have an important assignment at work – something new or especially critical to a case – I sometimes awake with a startle.  My heart begins its fluttering and an episode begins.  But I tell myself: “Look, you only have to do things like this once in a while.  You’re life isn’t threatened.  If you fail…If you suck…If you embarrass yourself…Who cares?!?  Let yourself sleep.  You deserve it.”

It works for now.  Maybe it’s because I only have things that make me insanely anxious once in a while in this period of my life. I can’t tell you that I wouldn’t go right back into that miserable cycle if I were back in the same circumstances of that semester.  So I don’t have an answer really.

Maybe the takeaway is that sometimes you will go through extremely difficult challenges.  If they are just temporary, it may be worth suffering through the misery.  Maybe that should be a signal that perhaps something internal needs tending to.

If they are permanent, perhaps you need a more fundamental change.


Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights – (Part III – the day after the first panic attack)

So enough with the beautiful art of poetry…Back to the painful experience with nightly panic attacks.

The first night it happened, I was surprised.  The next day was dreadful.  A person with anxiety has enough issues managing the day.  But when tired, it is infinitely more difficult.  I wasn’t just tired, I was outright exhausted.  I tried to catch up on sleep in the middle of day in the student lounge or my car.  This wasn’t ideal, but that was the only recourse I had as I drudged about campus, zombie-like and energy-less.

My functioning in class – a source of anxiety in the first place – fell precipitously with the lack of sleep.  This, in turn, only heightened the anxiety I already felt.  At that time, however, I had no idea what was going on.  I hoped that the previous night’s panic attack was a one-off, a rogue wave in a sea that would hopefully right itself to relative tranquility.  I fought my way through my classes, under-performing and drained.  Upon my return home, there was really nothing left in the tank.

I thought surely my body would lay comatose for two days, if I had that time, let alone for the seven modest hours I hoped to sleep.  I passed out.  When I awoke with a startle, I cringed at what the clock may read.  To my dismay, it was 2:15.  I had slept a solid three-and-a-half hours.  Now my mind ruminated over this new development.  For f#$k’s sake! Would this be my new reality?  Would I now have a sleep/panic disorder on top of every day anxiety?  This only added to the rumblings in my mind, making the possibility of a return to slumber even more remote.

My mind raced wildly, as did my heart.  I sweated profusely.  My body radiated heat.  I twisted and turned, trying different positions in the hope that induce some Z’s.  No dice.  Maybe I’ll have a snack.  That sometimes grounds me and makes me sleepy.  Walking around just made me more awake.  Let’s try the couch.  At least that’s not drenched in sweat yet.  Equally unavailing.
As I sat in the darkness, it occurred to me that the tranquility of my room, which had always been so welcoming and warm, had been abruptly transformed.  Instead of a warm darkness, it was cold and harsh.  The bed that had been so comforting now felt like an improvised straight-jacket.  The refuge I always had in my back pocket to look forward to at the conclusion of a long, hard day – sleep, that close cousin to death – now seemed perilous.  Each night had the potential to be a nightmare. A nightmare, wide awake.

UP NEXT: Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights (Part IV)


Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights (Part II)

Falling asleep exhausted at the end of a long day, I’d wake up each night between 1:30 A.M. and 3:30 A.M.  I remained drowsy and fatigued, but my body was running at full tilt, sweating through my pajamas, my sheets, and the comforter.  It almost felt as if, as I went to fall asleep, there was simply no fuel for anxiety to burn…So I passed out.  But then, after a completely inadequate nap, the tank had refilled just enough – not nearly enough to push me through the day, however – to allow my brain to circle back to anxious thoughts.    

That period of time was characterized by exhaustion, concern for my overall physical and mental health, and fear that any given day could be completely shot to shit by a tumultuous pre-dawn panic attack.  Not really clear where to turn or what to do, I wrote this poem in an attempt to convey the feelings I was going through.

Panic Attack

My thoughts squeal racing, banking off the cranium, Nothing I can do to slow them now,

my body’s reacting, the pores slightly cracking, the midnight sweat, kin only to death.

There’s nothing to fear, no threat to existence, unwavering in its ceaseless, determined persistence.

The sea of the mind, can be turbulent at times, I know that well, I’ve seen massive swells.

But oh that’s the irony, represented by the tyranny, of a mind gone rogue, in an otherwise blessed home.

Its walls are now battered, after years of abuse, All from the inside, a calculated ruse.

A Trojan horse, although uninvited, Its developed its strength over the years,

galloping like a thoroughbred overexcited, thumping and violent through mud ponds of tears

and carried along swiftly by a torrent of fears.

UP NEXT: Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights (Part III)

Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights (Part I)

One of the most trying periods of my life occurred during my second year of law school.  For an entire semester, I suffered mid-night panic attacks on a regular basis.  The experience was brutal.

My first year, I was placed in a “section” and attended all the same classes with all the same people.  But in the second year that structure was removed, and we were free to select courses and schedules on our own.  This meant that each course would now be with a more or less random group of other students.

Compounding my unfamiliarity with the people in my classes was the fact that I had spent a year in business school, so I knew none of the people who were now second year law students. The people I began studying with had moved on to their third year.

I was taking more units of courses than ever before, and I had scheduled all of my classes over a three-day period (the purpose of this was efficiency.  I wanted to commute to campus as few times a week as possible. While efficiency was the goal, I suppose that my initial plan backfired on account of the extended period of exhaustion I experienced the entirety of the semester).  Thus, I had more classes, on fewer days, and with complete strangers.

I recall all the other students looking at me quizzically each time I entered a class wondering, surely, “who the eff is this dude?!?” In turn, I was like, “I was here before any of you kids. A little respect is in order.” But they had no clue.

Regardless, I was completely uncomfortable.  The prior year of business school had been a cake-walk.  I smoked weed often (“often” being a euphemism for near-daily), and was carefree and happy.  I was dating a girl I loved, and life hadn’t been better.

The summer before returning to law school, her and I broke up. The timing was off. She was ready to set sail on a marital commitment, and I wasn’t sure I was yet equipped to hold down the fort for myself, individually, let alone the two of us and a future family-to-be.

Come to think of it, it was an inopportune time for the parting of ways for me personally. Inopportune doesn’t do the timing justice. It was somewhat of a perfect storm. I was trying to buckle down for what I knew would be a challenging return to law, the tide of anxiety steadily mounting as I again approached the start of classes. I was weaning myself, unsuccessfully, off of an affinity for weed which had now certainly become an outright addiction. And I was coping even more incompetently with the loss of a relationship that only later would I realize I would never truly get over. One of those.

As is the case when something happens to you, unexpectedly, which has never happened before, I was caught off guard the first time – an unsuspecting victim of a sucker-punch from a lunatic roaming the streets in the middle of the night.

Here’s how I recall it going down:

In my second week of classes, I went to sleep uneasy with the amount of material I would be covering in the next-day’s classes. I had an initial impression of the classes, and classmates, I’d be spending the next several months with. Now my anticipated anxieties had faces, and names, and context in the form of the classrooms and professors where they’d play out. This feeling alone wasn’t unusual and did not give me pause. But this time the severity of the anxiety reached new heights.

It was the shudder of my nerves that first awoke me, followed by the inconsolable escalation of mental processes, from a deep slumber to an immediate fight-or-flight response. Like the gasp of air upon sudden consciousness, arising from the throes of a nightmare. A sudden shift of the San Andreas faultline, except without the earthquake.

The clock said 2:15 A.M. I had been asleep just 3 and-a-half hours. But I was far from that state now. I was drenched in a cold sweat, my sheets soaked through. They were wet to the touch, and although it was not hot out, my body was seemingly on fire.

My thoughts raced through different material I had read earlier in the week, preparing for classes I had the next day, inundating me with anxieties and fears. Would I be called on in Ethics class? How much uncomfortability did the day hold in store? And then, to other subjects: Should I not have given up on my relationship?

It was a full-fledged assault: My own mind attacking itself under the cloak of night when the rest of my being was most vulnerable. With my body and soul seeking the silent refuge of sleep, my brain had arranged an ambush.

3:45 A.M.:      Coming to grips with this twist of events, I lay open-eyed staring at the ceiling, wide-awake and yearning not-to-be. At this point, I realized that for the first time I had experienced a phenomenon a psychologist had alluded to years prior when she prophesized, “one of the dangers of anxiety disorders is their evolution into panic attacks.”

Here I was, far from that point in time the words were first uttered, experiencing my first panic attack. As it came to pass, I would need to learn to get used to them.

Next Up: “Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights (Part II: A Poem)”