Don’t Panic

A novelist friend I’ll call Jon ran away from home at seventeen, joined the army, and participated in gnarly episodes in Southeast Asia. Afterward, among other risky pastimes, he scaled mountains and dove in deep oceans. He is certainly not a timid fellow. But one day, he panicked for no apparent reason. By panic, I don’t mean fright. I mean abject terror. Though the panic eventually passed, it left behind a pervasive anxiety.

After a few such episodes, Jon consulted a doctor. One of the doctor’s first questions was, “”What kind of work do you do?”

Jon said, “I write novels.”

The doctor gave him a nod and smile. “I see. You have the writer’s disease.”

Yesterday, a former student of mine, I’ll call her Mindy, phoned and told me about her recent admission to a program for eating disorders, depression, and panic.

Adrenaline causes panic. A panic attack is a fight or flight response for no apparent reason. It is generally triggered by stress, and is common in highly intelligent people who accept and take responsibility seriously, who tend toward perfectionism, and who possess lively imaginations. Like many writers.

A symptom that may accompany panic disorders is what I’ll call weird thoughts. Long ago, I was hitchhiking through Montana. After some days with little sleep and several wild rides, as I attempted to doze in the comfortable seat of a large sedan driven by a sane and careful man, I imagined a concrete wall appearing out of nowhere and us crashing and going up in flames.

Mindy, a teacher, has been lecturing in class and suddenly felt certain she was about to do something so outrageous, she didn’t tell me but I could hear her blush over the phone.

The other day, I read an article about a writer attempting to rid herself of psychoactive meds because they appear to squash her creativity. And here’s a comment from Tennessee Williams: “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.” Rilke the poet made a similar comment.

Okay, none of the above proves anything. But all of it leads me to believe the imaginative among us ought to: view our weird thoughts as comic relief; guard against heavy stress; quit being so darned responsible; and consider giving up the meds. Except of course coffee, moderate doses of red wine, and Scotch on special occasions.




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