George Eliot wrote these lines in Middlemarch about 135 years ago:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
In the midst of severe anxiety or panic I have heard something like that roar and found there is a price to pay for such a heightened sense of ordinary life. I suppose the only way we can navigate a world of massive sensations is by screening out everything that distracts us from the single goal we have in mind at any moment. There are times when I am stopped completely by a roar that shakes me deeply, but I can’t be sure where it’s coming from. Is it only inside my mind or is it, as Eliot suggests, sounds of ordinary life we can’t bear to hear for long? I’ve written about one terrifying incident when a shrieking chorus of everyday sounds overwhelmed me. It was clear then that my mind had been consumed by a level of anxiety and panic more intense than any I had known to that time. It was all inside me, and I could even imagine ending my life just to stop that inner roar.
There was another incident, though, when I felt the impact of sound and even emotion that seemed to come from people and actions around me. I say “seemed” because it is so hard to understand what was happening. Something sharpened my nerves and perceptions, but I didn’t just hear the detail of the sounds. I sensed keenly what other people were feeling but not talking about. I’m not claiming any special powers here. It happened when I was recovering from a cancer operation. Everything was electric.
The impact of cancer changed everything and was decisive for me in many ways. I’ve written before about a breakthrough I achieved at that time. But there was, of course, a terrifying side to it. Knowing that I had this mess growing inside me and threatening my life threw me initially into a panic. Suddenly there was nothing normal left. My nerves boiled day and night, and all I could think about was the progress of cancer in my body. I studied everything I could find, as if that intense concentration could dissolve away the tumor. Gradually, though, I managed to blunt the worst anxiety and fear after some force in me rebelled at the thought of dying. I refused to think about that and became determined to survive. From then on, I had a surging energy to do the operation and have done with disease.
In the midst of all that, it isn’t surprising that strange things happened to my perception and feelings, but at the time I focused only on the drugs administered during the 5-hour surgery. That, I thought, was the cause.
It started when I was in the recovery room, slowly coming out of the effect of the anesthesia. The surgeon was telling me about the success of the operation. I know he was standing right next to me, but I couldn’t see him or anything but gray, indistinct shapes. Every noise was magnified, however, almost like a bus station or a factory. Despite that background clatter, his words and the tone of his voice were completely clear – “It went just about as well as it could possibly go.” I felt his voice coming out of a depth of sincerity and belief in the accuracy of what he was saying. “The margins were clean.” There was the magic phrase, clean margins. The edges of the tumor showed no sign of cancer cells. It hadn’t yet spread elsewhere. That was great news – but I was most aware of a kind of flow of that doctor’s feeling into me. The words were an accompaniment but not the main theme. I was in the most vulnerable and open state imaginable, and it seemed natural to be taking everything in with such intensity.
One night after coming home from the hospital, I suddenly had a total sensory recall of the operation. That seems so unlikely since I had been under anesthesia the whole time. But the recall hit me all at once – I was suddenly back there under benign knives cutting into me for my own good. The noise and the onrush of strange sensations almost starting me shaking. I was surrounded by a din of metallic sounds and flashes of feeling from the surgical team on all sides. There was a constant noise around us, things clattering, my mind confused by drugs and not able to focus well. It was almost like feeling hands reaching inside me, not the physical sensation of touching but the sharp impact of a suppressed tension, rivalry or some kind of conflict. The operation might have been cleanly, brilliantly done, but I felt immersed in an air of clashing wills. I would never know what that was about. Perhaps I was just tying into all the feelings this precise and dispassionate team had to keep in check, at least outwardly. In carrying out their carefully designed surgical strategy, they were, after all, doing something quietly violent, the way a pilot controls the forces that would ordinarily crash a plane into the ground. They could not let feelings interrupt them. I can’t be sure if all this was real or a dream, but the memory of those sounds and feelings have stayed with me ever since and become as real as anything else I know.
It didn’t end there. For a couple of weeks, I couldn’t walk into a room of people without this sense of being turned inside out – getting hit hard by the tension or anxiety of whoever was there, or by the excitement and good feeling that flowed out of them. It’s certainly not unusual to pick up the feelings of those around you in a room. It was the intensity of the experience that set this apart – like a fierce wave rushing through me. I was filled with these sensations to a point of losing track of who I was. It was too strange, soaking up all that feeling that did not seem to be my own. What usually happens in the midst of my own anxiety is that I project harsh judgments into others and feel them coming back at me. But this was so different. Those feelings I picked up weren’t aimed at me necessarily – they belonged to someone else and just filled the air. The experience had the effect of confusing me deeply, and I gradually realized that the energy and determination that had helped me through the operation were spent. My own focus was gone. The wild anxiety and fear I had managed to put aside for a time was coming back and with them the bouts of depression I thought I had gotten past.
Anxiety, with its shapeless energy flying in all directions without aim, and depression, with its dimming of all feeling and thought, seem like such opposites. Yet they sweep toward me together – two phases of a single storm. Whatever I was going through in that strange state after the operation, it ended with a hard fall. Having gotten through a physical recovery, I now had to get back to the long term problem of recovering from depression.
I have never figured out for sure if the fire of those perceptions were burning in me or if I was just standing too close to someone else’s flame. Does this experience of intensified perception resemble anything you’ve been through?
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