Chris Dierkes recounts the way he met and came to terms with Panic and Terror during the difficult birth of his daughter.
“Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.”
In order to tell the story I want to tell you — the story of how Panic and Terror saved my life — I need to share with you some context of our daughter Sage’s birth.
Sage’s birth became the source of a healing journey for me — the gift of embracing the saving emotions of Terror and Panic. It was similarly a healing process for my wife Chloe though in a different way. For Chloe the birth brought forth in her an utterly amazing amount of courage. It afforded her the chance to come in direct contact with some of her greatest challenges and nevertheless able to work through them.
I also believe the birth was a healing process for Sage herself. She was welcomed into this world with incredible love, care, sensitivity in the midst of a situation that was emotionally intense, at least it was for me. I believe the first few moments of life (like the last few) are very potent. They can set a kind of mood or general atmosphere for life. I believe the message Sage received is that life has it’s challenges but they can be met with love, gentleness, and wisdom.
I want to emphasize that Sage was ultimately always fine. Like many babies, she was born and didn’t begin breathing right away. Her umbilical cord however was still attached so she was always receiving oxygenated blood. I had been prepped going into the birth that this is something that occasionally happens. So initially when Sage was not breathing, I was a little nervous of course but was simply repeating to myself internally ‘this is all completely normal, nothing to worry about.‘ It was fine. I was fine.
But when Sage went beyond that few minutes and it was clear we were past what I had understood to be a normal range of taking a little while to ‘arrive’, a different reaction set in. I became stunned. So while Sage was ultimately always safe I experienced a feeling I was quite unfamiliar with — one I would come to know over the course of the next few days. It is coming to befriend that feeling (Panic and Terror) that I want to share with you.
Sage’s birth took place in a birth pool in our apartment. I was there in the water with Chloe and Sage. After she began breathing we stayed in the pool for a short period welcoming this incredible being. Mom and baby were carefully helped out of the pool and onto our couch so Sage could maintain skin to skin contact with her mom.
I went to get up from the pool and almost passed out. I was very shaky —emotionally, physically, mentally. Our doula very wisely had me eat some scrambled eggs she quickly cooked.
By this point it was clear that baby and mom were safe. I felt a little better after eating, but still felt quite disoriented. I let everyone know I needed some time to myself. I got into our shower and turned the water on. I had a sense I needed to do some emergency healing work on myself so that I didn’t set in some traumatic patterns. Overall I was completely happy but the experience of seeing her not breathe for a somewhat extended period of time had obviously really shaken me.
I remembered a section from Peter Levine’s book In An Unspoken Voice: How The Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. In it Levine describes how he was hit by a car while crossing the street on foot. In the ambulance his arm wanted to finish the movement of coming up above his head to shield himself from the oncoming collision. He let this movement complete itself and when it did he began to shake and cry and felt a major release.
I could feel a similar movement wanting to complete itself in me. I had an impulse that both of my hands wanted to come down from my shoulders as if there were making a pushing motion. It was a down and then forward movement of the hands and arms with my elbows to the side.
I started slowing the movement down and repeating it very gently. By the fifth or sixth time of gently making this movement something snapped. I began shaking intensely, dropped to my knees, curled up in a ball, and began weeping uncontrollably. This lasted for about 30 minutes or so. The hot water of the shower was really helpful to keeping me aware throughout the process.
After it was over, I felt remarkably better — clear, grounded, and light. I joined my wife and daughter in bed. I was able to lay in bed with my daughter resting on my chest for a few hours.
I felt like the shake off helped me with the most immediate and raw forms of potential trauma. That first night with our new baby however I awoke in a cold sweat twice. The next day I felt a similar type feeling once or twice. I could feel it almost hovering above me but it wasn’t a foreboding sense. It wasn’t doom. It was more a sense of something enormous and quite likely intense but somehow not ominous.
I initially thought the feeling was anxiety. I had experienced a good deal of anxiety in my life. For most of my childhood I woke up every morning with a low-level sense of dread, with knots in my stomach, and sharp tingling feelings in my head and neck.
Given that history it’s not surprising I thought it was anxiety. It made sense given what I had just gone through that I would have some residual anxiety. The more I felt it, the more I realized it wasn’t anxiety. It didn’t have those characteristic anxious signs — there was no nervous, jittery energy. There were no butterflies in my stomach, no sense of having to do something immediately, no shortness of breath.
I kept searching — what is this feeling and what is it trying to tell me? I sat off and on with this line of inquiry for a good three days after the birth. As I said I was in a very peaceful, happy state most of the time, feeling so immensely grateful for all the love that was apparent in our family.
Still this feeling was around and I knew it was important for me to figure out what exactly it was and what it was trying to communicate to me.
I decided to thumb through one of my favorite books The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying To Tell You by Karla McLaren. Looking through the Table of Contents I saw the words Panic and Terror.
And that’s when it hit me. I instinctively knew the moment I read those words, the feeling was Panic and Terror. I quickly opened to the chapter on panic and terror.
In that chapter McLaren writes,
“We’re all aware of our ‘fight or flight’ responses to danger; these two panic and terror-based responses can protect us from harm, but there is another response that isn’t as well known–it’s called ‘freezing.’ In many dangerous or traumatizing situations, fighting and fleeing aren’t our best survival options because we may not be strong enough or fast enough to avoid danger. If our healthy panic and terror can help us freeze and dissociate (or go into shock or numbness) in response to extreme danger, we can often survive the unsurvivable.” (pp. 281-282)
I definitely had gone numb during the experience of watching my daughter not breathe. My wife watched the video of the birth (something I have adamantly refused to do—I know my limits). What we thought was maybe a couple of minutes of not breathing was probably closer to ten. (Again, please recall Sage was receiving oxygenated blood through the umbilical cord).
During those minutes, I had definitely gone into a freeze state.
The convulsions in the shower were the activation of my energy to return to a more conventional/normal state of being. I was like a bear coming out of hibernation, strongly shaking its body to awaken all its senses. While I had come through the most potentially destructive phase of Terror and Panic, I still needed to welcome those feelings as part of my being and to be gifted with their wisdom.
Hence, Brothers Panic and Terror were messaging me through cold sweats at night and this vague strange feeling periodically during the day.
McLaren writes that the practice for befriending and working with (Healthy) Panic and Terror is “Remember: You’ve already survived. Panic and Terror exist to help you renegotiate your trauma and move forward into wholeness. (p.281).”
What McLaren is saying there is crucially important. Terror and Panic have wisdom. There is a way to relate to Terror and Panic that is conscious, healthy, and constructive. Terror and Panic are (or at least can be) friends and allies. Panic and Terror have their own medicine.
In order to access the medicine of Terror and Panic we must learn to deal wisely with these emotions. If we have experienced traumas that rightly bring forth Panic and Terror we have no other choice. Either we will work with Panic and Terror consciously, compassionately, and judiciously or we won’t.
There’s no way to get rid of Panic and Terror. When we suppress or repress Panic and Terror we don’t obliterate them or exile them from our being, we simply drive them underground. They then make appearances in very covert and unhealthy ways.
Unacknowledged Terror can lie in the weeds of our being ready to spring at a moment’s notice, striking us down with panic attacks. People afflicted by unconscious, negative Panic and Terror can isolate themselves from others out of a sense of deep shame and fear of being labeled weird, mentally ill, or cowardly. Terror, when merged with violence or the threat of violence is used as a weapon the world over precisely because it can be so freezing, overwhelming, and stupefying.
All of these however are problems of unconscious and unhealthy Panic and Terror not Panic and Terror per se. As a society we typically view Panic and Terror as inherently negative. We’ve trained ourselves to try to avoid, deny, or suppress feelings of Panic and Terror rather than learning how to embrace them and work with them in a healthy manner.
Calling to mind McLaren’s sage counsel, I sat down to meditate and welcome Brothers Panic and Terror. I let them know they were welcome to come and visit and I was willing to listen to them. I invited them to share their wisdom with me.
At that moment, I saw in my mind’s eye visions of gargoyles and wrathful deities. Snarling, frightening, even loathsome faces started flashing before my inner sight. I knew that gargoyles and wrathful deities are beings who exist as protector figures — they assume forms of fright and horror in order to scare away the truly evil. Knowing this I wasn’t afraid of their appearance. On the contrary, I was immensely grateful for their protection and felt incredibly safe. If I had not understood that these forms were a sign of protection I may well have tried to push them out of consciousness and only driven these feelings further underground.
Then one of the faces spoke and said to me, “We took the hit for you.” This phrase was repeated three of four times. Each time it was said, it sunk deeper into my being.
I began for the second time in a few days to have a major episode of crying (not a particularly normal experience for me). There was no shaking this time just a sense of deep revelatory grace. I just kept repeating over and over and over again, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Panic and Terror had taken the hit of the trauma for me. They numbed me out so I wouldn’t have to experience the trauma directly. They blessed with me survival. As McLaren said, Panic and Terror taught me how to be whole after experiencing a major psychic laceration (even perhaps amputation). They’re my friends, beings whom I love deeply, to whom I am forever indebted and eternally grateful.
Panic and Terror offered me their wisdom, their medicine. There was a light hidden amidst the seeming darkness of Panic and Terror. This process, consciously and compassionately undertaken, helped release the light.
Photo credit: Derek Bruff/flickr