Caught in Panic

sculptured face in stone

I think of creativity as an opposite of depression. As the driver in my life that connects and communicates, it represents everything I cannot do in the midst of the illness. Yet there was a time when it led to panic.

Creativity is usually discussed in connection with the arts, and the idea gets overblown into talk of visions, genius, divine inspiration and all that bluster – but it goes far beyond that setting. It takes creativity to have responsive relationships with the people I love and to have the insight and imagination I need at work to solve problems. It takes a kind of creative energy to live a fulfilling life.

Usually, it’s obvious when I have the vital spark to do life or I have nothing but ashes.There are strange times, though, when I feel a confusing inner struggle, as if a creative drive and depressed emptiness were trying to fill one space at the same time.

The friction between them can spark a terrible panic.

The first time that happened set a pattern that became all too common in later years. A severe depression was coming on, but back then I had no idea what the illness was. All I knew was that I’d either hit a blackout or come apart in panic just when I was deeply involved and excited about something I loved to do.

I was in college when the panic first set in. Creativity then meant acting and writing, and I had been overjoyed to be cast as Caliban in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”.

I was playing a role, but that’s not so different from what any job requires. There is a professional face you put on, a style you need to achieve a certain impact. When you’re well, you’re really into it.

Everything’s clicking. The role fits, and you can do it well. That’s the way I was when rehearsing this play.

It all started wonderfully.

I immersed myself completely in the character. And he’s a pretty strange one to feel comfortable with. In this fantasy play, Caliban is the monstrous offspring of a witch and the devil.

All primal drive and instinct, he can be effusive about natural wonders one minute, and the next he’ll be bellowing in pain or chasing his lust. He’s an intense character, just the sort an actor loves to get hold of. And I sure did.

In the rehearsal room, I slipped into his skin completely, getting the physicality down instinctively, the roaring guttural voice, the crouching walk, the sullen cringing – it all seemed to fit.

But then I’d go home, and intense anxiety began to build. Before long, that feeling exploded into full panic. I couldn’t focus on anything. My life was like a prolonged scream.

All I could do was pound the city streets to wear myself out. That helped, but I could not keep my life together outside the rehearsal sessions. While in that room, I could lose myself in the part and feel nothing but the sheer joy of projecting into this strange creature’s being.

But there was something about crossing the line from daily life into this role that I couldn’t handle.

I had to know what it was, and fast.

For the first time in my life, I rushed to a psychiatrist. He let me pour my mind and heart out for three hours one Saturday morning. With canny quickness, he helped me link what I was going through with my family history and experiences as a kid.

I knew at once how right he was, and I was filled with relief to have an explanation for the craziness I had been experiencing. I felt exhilarated and free of panic, but I paid a big price for that return to what I considered normalcy.

I immediately got out of the play, and I shut out the psychiatrist as well. One revelation was plenty, thank you. I wasn’t going back there again!

What was happening, although I couldn’t see it then, was that depression was taking over even as I felt the panic subside. The acting had triggered deep fears from my past, but the realization of that connection did nothing to undo depression itself.

Under its influence, I cut myself off from most creative outlets, pulled back from relationships and hunkered down in a shell.

Expressing my deepest energy in any context became harder and harder. I had a ready explanation for the creative block, the stoniness of feeling, the loss of concentration, and all the rest. Since I didn’t know much about depression at the time, I assumed the dullness was just the way I was. I had to hide my failures in quiet shame.

There is a line at the end of The Tempest, when all are reunited and the mysteries solved.

In one voyage – all of us found ourselves, when no man was his own.

I wasn’t equipped at that time to “find myself” and continued in the state of not being “my own.” Being shut down in depression came to feel like normal life, though it was punctuated by occasional surges of an altogether different energy.

Fortunately, I never gave up completely – how could I? I kept trying to break through the close walls of depression. It would be many years before I had a different set of tools to work with to change this imbalance of energy.

Do you ever feel extreme anxiety or panic when you’re deeply engaged in something you really want to do? Is there a special setting or event that triggers it? What do you do to find relief?

15 Responses to “Caught in Panic”

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  1. Donna-1 says:

    Such a wonderful post and comments. I definitely understand when you speak of depression and creativity trying to occupy the same space…and it’s not a confined space. It is a huge space capable of holding everything that is me. But somehow, all the parts of me can’t co-exist. My problem is I have occasional “bright” days when I feel fabulous and have all these creative plans running through my mind. I organize and get together all the supplies I need and get right to the point of actually starting (whether it is painting or writing or other), and then I am suddenly flat and without motivation. I love to plan and organize everything in my life, but what use is it when it comes down to achieving exacty nothing? Common sense tells me I need to find a job planning and organizing, because I enjoy it and I’m very good at it. But I would like to be able to follow through on personal creative projects. I just haven’t figured out what’s going on in my head yet that holds me back. It’s not fear of failure. It seems more a fear that it will all mean nothing in the end, which I guess is when the depression steps in. It is hard to be happy doing something in the moment.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      The frustration you describe about trying to get beyond planning creative work reminds me of my own writing block. It lasted for years. I’d start writing but soon shut down – losing motivation, sometimes even falling asleep. There was something I just couldn’t face in trying to tap into the deepest feelings to express all that I wanted to. Depression has this way of leading you round and round the same circuit, and there never seems to be a way out. Hitting the problem that hurts the most is the moment of blackout or loss of drive. Instead of pushing through it, I’d feel completely defeated and use that failure as a reason for not trying harder – or avoiding the situation altogether. Then I’d repeat the same process again and again, always with the same result. It was a form of EMDR with guided imagery that got me beyond intellectual understanding to really making any change. I came up with an image of crossing to safety – to a special place of healing. Somehow that started to break the usual pattern. I have no idea what might work for you, but I hope you can find that special place.

      John

  2. i sometimes want to write so much i panic because it hink i wont have enough time to write it all down
    i have to remove myself. take deep breaths and just allow myself to calm down
    or take my dog out for a walk
    sometimes i forget and scribble furiously though 🙁
    Noch Noch

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Noch Noch –

      I sympathize since the experience of panic is so terrible no matter what triggers it. I used to panic about writing too, but for a very different reason. Trying to write from real depth of feeling brought up all the fears of letting loose a dangerous force – i.e. me. Locking myself up was the only way I felt safe.

      John

  3. ann says:

    I suffer from depression. Your writing is beautiful. I was moved to comment by your observation that creativity and depression are opposites – this is certainly my experience. I wrote about it on my blog recently. Thank you for your thoughts.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, ann –

      Thanks for your kind word about the writing. I’d be interested to read your post on creativity. Can you send a link?

      John

  4. Lisa says:

    I frequently find I’m in that place where the two sides of myself try to fill the same void. I’ve had a lot of life changes over the last year, so it’s understandable that I’d feel a lack of direction, though I love where I’m at right now. I still experience anxiety and panic at times when I feel like I should be actively pursuing my dreams. Fear of failure? Maybe… I’ve also read it could be a fear of success that causes some of these periods of intense anxiety and panic.

    Unfortunately, I’d planned to work all day today, but I found it very difficult to focus after finishing one major task this morning. I was so worked up I finally took a small extra dose of medication (rarely do I take the extra), so I was able to go out and get my groceries, stopped for some take-out lunch, baked cookies, did yoga, meditated. I got centered enough to be able to comment on this post of yours, but I can’t seem to move forward on much else and feel a bit like I’m turning circles in an empty room. Maybe I just need some sleep!

    I know my creative energy is there, I just need to get rid of the depression again so I can find it. It’s very frustrating! I’ve been applying some of the mind-over-mind methods of redirecting my thoughts, often they work, but some days I just can’t get over all the negative thoughts that pressure me. So I choose to sleep instead. If I follow the same pattern I usually do, tomorrow will be a better day and I should be good to go then or Tuesday. Until then, I’ll just increase my yoga and meditation practice to keep from taking any more medication, and work when I can. That’s the best I can do right now.

    Thanks, John…

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Lisa –

      I’m glad to hear you like where you’re at after living through a lot of changes in your life. You seem to have worked out some excellent methods to help yourself with depression and anxiety, especially meditation and yoga. “Turning in circles in an empty room” is a beautiful way to express a maddening state of mind. Being easily distracted is still a problem for me, and I often need to grab something to read or do a chore with my hands in order to get my mind to focus again. I used to blank out completely when attempting to write – I was blocked for years – and often fell asleep. These days when I start to feel drowsy in the middle of the day, I go outside to do something physical – walking, digging, anything. That always gets my brain reactivated. I know what you mean about the frustration of constantly having to work at centering and focusing, but hopefully you’ll be able to shorten the periods of distraction as you keep doing all these supportive activities.

      John

  5. Amy Karon says:

    I really like your post, John. I’m a writer, love writing, yet have had to deal with a lot of anxiety at times while doing it. I suspect this is a common experience, though one many writers don’t like to discuss. Joan Didion talks about the “low dread” she feels when looking at the door to the study where she writes. Deeply engaging in something we really want to do requires us to face our insecurities and fears of failure. It requires tremendous tenacity, but also gentleness. What helps me is to keep at my writing even when I feel anxious — not to let my fears lead me into procrastination. But also to take breaks, to get up and clean or do something else that helps me re-engage in the physical present.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Amy –

      I like your way of working through fear and insecurity to keep writing. Tenacity and gentleness – that gets it very nicely. I spent so many years unable to get around the fears stirred by writing and other creative work that requires the expression of real feeling. Years ago, I wrote a post about that – Is Writing Safe? – and came back to the fear of letting out my feelings in writing in a couple of later posts. Thank God I’ve gotten past all that now and can keep working steadily.

      Thanks for your kind words – and for taking the time to comment.

      John

  6. Karen says:

    Interesting that Shakespeare set off a crisis. When I was in high school, our English teacher required us to learn some soliloquies. One was

    And I hesitate to share this one with readers who are vulnerable to depressive episodes:

    Macbeth:
    Toz-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    Immediately I fell into that abyss that so many of us know too well. That night struggled with the urge to commit suicide. I remember having to sit down to dinner with my parents a d four siblings and pretend that nothing was wrong– play my required role. That dent really describe my anxiety or panic experiences but testifies to Shakespeare’s lasting power. Since then I have seen about three Shakespeare plays year without such consequences.

    My strategy for suicidal urges has served me well, and is an advantage of having a rapid cycling bipolar illness. I would make an agreement that if felt the same way in six months I would act, and I either forgot or was in a hypomanic phase when the time rolled around.

    Do you think your panic and anxiety could have been a manifestation if hypomania?

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Karen –

      Thank you for the quote and reminding me how powerful the poetry is. I guess I’ve inured myself to taking some of the great soliloquies in the way you did as a child. I always hear them as a character’s speech in the context of the play. But by itself, it cuts so deeply into the depressive mind – I hadn’t before thought of it in that way.

      I’m damn glad you have a good strategy for suicidal thoughts. It was always imagining an impulsive act that worried me. As to hypomania, I don’t know. I’ve often thought that bipolar could be a more accurate diagnosis. No psychiatrist ever suggested that, but I have to say I never talked much to any of them (except that first one I mentioned in the post) about the periods of intense anger, anxiety or excitement and exuberance that have been part of the cycling of moods.

      John

      • Karen says:

        Hypomania is just one of the manifestations of bipolar, according to my reading and experience. Poor impulse control is an aspect of that. Happens to me all the time, more like promising to do something I don’t want to do or really don’t have the skills for. Wait a minute — that sounds like your original post here. In bipolar, there are also mixed states like agitated depression that can include anger, and your basic nasty depression. I think someday the DSM will get beyond “bi” polar. There are probably many varieties, some with lots more than two “poles.” I’m not a doctor, but I’d say that bipolar could be a diagnosis that fits the current DSM for what you are describing.

        By the way, I’m sitting here right now reading blogs when I really need to work on two projects due today and tomorrow, both of which I took on even though they seem beyond what I am capable of doing. There’s some anxiety, but I keep telling myself I’m going to get through them. Or if not, the world isn’t going to come to an end.

        • John Folk-Williams says:

          Hi, Karen –

          I’m going to discuss the diagnosis with my psychiatrist in a couple of months (I don’t see him very often now). Mostly to satisfy my curiosity. About those projects you were delaying, I doubt they were beyond your capabilities, once the up-front anxiety subsides.

          I am grateful, though, that you put commenting here ahead of work!

          John

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    Caught in Panic I think of creativity as an opposite of depression. As the driver in my life that connects…



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