Without a doubt, the most difficult part of the Water Signs writing process was incorporating my real-life bout with panic and anxiety disorder into Madeline’s experiences as my fictional counterpart. While overall, this book literally flew out of my imagination and memory and onto my computer screen — seemingly with a life of its own — choosing to include the darkest period of my life into the story presented its own unique set of challenges.
No, I never faced the dreaded “writer’s block” at any point along the way, but I did have to overcome some serious resistance to pulling out and perusing some very old journals chronicling that entire, frightening phase. As strange as it may seem, while I was at my lowest point in the battle, I’d journal every day without fail — but I would never go back and read the previous day’s submission. I’d just turn to a fresh page and start writing. And when I’d fill up a book, I’d put it away with all of the others, never to be opened again. Or so I believed.
It’s kind of hard to create a compelling narrative without the use of proper description, which mandated pulling out all of those handwritten journals and figuring out which elements to include in the book. But even though by that point I’d been free and clear of panic and anxiety disorder for well over a decade, I encountered tremendous internal resistance. For anyone who’s already read the book and remembers this portion of the story, it’s probably easy to understand why.
Eventually I worked up the courage to do it, but not before playing an emotional game with myself whereby I actually skipped ahead and literally wrote the happy ending — which was a bit tricky from an editing standpoint when I then had to go back and fill in several earlier chapters. I suppose my unorthodox method worked because every time I’d read a particularly heart-wrenching entry in my journal, I’d remind myself of two things 1.) No matter how horrific it got, it was in the past and it could no longer hurt me; and 2.) I was working my way up to a magnificent conclusion, which in order to retain an air of unbridled triumph and victory, had to be preceded by a tough, seemingly hopeless struggle, a “dark night of the soul” kind of thing.
Still, reading those journals and being hit with the stark reality of just how bad things were at one point in my life was jarring, to say the least.
One thing I’ve learned from the countless readers who’ve come forward to thank me for writing about panic disorder in the book, and to share their own battles with this emotional menace is that it seems to be an intensely personal experience. That while there are common symptoms — racing heart, pounding head, feeling of wanting to jump out of your skin — others are not shared by all afflicted.
In my case, one of the strangest and scariest was described in Water Signs like this:
But most distressing was a new and chilling sensation she could only describe to her father as a ‘tightening of my spine’. During these frequent and unpredictable moments, her legs and arms would suddenly feel limp and lifeless, though still fully functional. This was preceded by a palpable sensation at the base of her neck, whereby she’d swear some invisible ‘puppet master’ was literally pulling her strings and forcing her into submission. All of these symptoms were now accompanied by vivid nightmares that typically featured disturbing images — from snake-pits and fire-breathing dragons to evil men in masks wielding AK-47s.
It might be of passing interest to note that at the time (1996), I was not really up to speed on radical Islamic terror, though I certainly knew about the unrest in the Middle East and remembered significant events like the Iranian Hostage Crisis. And although I didn’t include this in the book, somewhere around that time I had an awful nightmare in which my oldest brother Mark and I were captured by terrorists, who forced me to watch while they murdered him. Like I said, chilling stuff.
Another point of interest in my experience with panic and anxiety disorder is that although most people associate it with acute, intense attacks, they were typically rare for me. Did I have full-blown anxiety attacks? Absolutely. But unlike many others, mine occurred maybe about once a year throughout the entire five-year duration. But when they did happen, they came on with a vengeance as described in Chapter 18:
But soon after they’d arrived, the pulsating rhythms and flashing strobe lights suddenly changed from energizing dance accoutrements to instruments of torture. In reaction to these typical club stimuli, Maddy’s heart began to race out of control, vying for first place with her head, which pounded ferociously. These sensations were accompanied by that frightening fight-or-flight response, compelling her to run as far and as fast as she could to some unknown destination. On this particular evening, Maddy followed her impulses back to the parking lot, oblivious to the freezing temperatures.
Her dance partner had trailed right behind and insisted on taking her to Shore Memorial, where a nurse attached a clip to her finger and proclaimed that Maddy was getting plenty of oxygen, despite her protests to the contrary. And though she saw the blinking green indicators that confirmed this sound medical opinion, she remained unconvinced. That belief only intensified with the nurse’s subsequent announcement that the patient was suffering from the flu — perfectly understandable given the recent outbreak.
There’s nothing quite so frustratingly embarrassing as trying to convince a medical professional that –while it might not be of physical origin — something is seriously wrong with you. In this particular instance, as with most others, I usually nodded right along with them, temporarily accepting the fact that no one ever would understand exactly what it was I was grappling with. For a while, it just seemed simpler and easier to concede.
But as I said, hyperventilating attacks were not a common occurrence for me, thank God. However, the symptoms I dealt with on a daily basis were not exactly fun either:
But even though the acute onset of symptoms seemed to have subsided, a persistent general feeling of uneasiness had taken over, accompanied by relentless headaches, stomach pains and occasional bouts with alternating sweats and chills. All of this continued apace without regard for the fact that she’d dutifully gone back on the Pill at her doctor’s insistence, thus experiencing regular, if false, periods.
While hormones no doubt did play a part in this unwanted drama — exacerbated by the Pill, which at the time was the apparent cure-all for everything — ultimately panic and anxiety disorder is an emotional problem, not a mental or physical one (although the emotions adversely affect the physical body). Years later, Arbonne’s natural progesterone cream solved every problem I ever had of the female variety; if only I’d discovered it sooner. Better late than never, though, and I am thankful for happening upon such a simple solution by the time I hit my early 30s.
As for the panic phase of my life, encountering the “remote viewer” I discussed in a previous post was an absolute Godsend. But just as the problem affects everyone differently, its solution may also be unique to each sufferer. That’s why my advice is to never give up, to keep seeking out potential solutions and trying everything that has the potential to help you without actually hurting you. Far be it from me to encourage anyone to see a psychic if that conflicts with their religious beliefs; I can only honestly report how my real-life story went down. I long ago made peace with the fact that my cure came from an unlikely source, one I will never believe came from a place of evil.
Perhaps when I get to the end of my life, I’ll find out differently (I pray this is not the case). For now, all I can say is that thanks to a psychic, I said good riddance to panic and anxiety disorder forever.