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My panic attacks, when they hit, feel like I am surrounded by a dark, suffocating fog. I desperately try to fight it off, to land a punch or stab or kick, but I just keep flailing in thin air while the desolation envelopes me. The best I can do is try to find the teeniest of air pockets and hold on.
For me, my panic centers on an irrational fear that I will never be able to fall asleep again. I catastrophize mild sleeplessness and no longer trust my ability to power down. Once I start thinking this it becomes self-fulfilling; anxiety causes me to stay awake, which gives me more anxiety. Around and around it goes until I am a walking zombie, fearing that my sleeplessness is making me an unfit parent, an unfit human, and I will never again find happiness.
It eventually lifts, of course. Usually after a day or two, although sometimes it takes over a week to get back to myself. I count myself lucky in this, and that these episodes seem to only happen once every few years. They tend to arrive after a big life change (moving, pregnancies, health change, etc). Strangely, they do not happen during the change, but once everything has settled down and life seems stable and good...WHAM! I am hit with an onslaught of unfounded fear and despair. At least now I anticipate it and can try to take preventative measures.
But in the midst of a panic attack, how to overcome? My mind feverishly wants to run and run and run, my body with it. My sympathetic nervous system takes over, I am sweating and shaking and tingling and ready to fly or to fight, but there is nowhere to fly, nothing to fight. I finally had to override my body’s impulses. I force myself to lie still while the panic comes and find something stable on which to focus. For me, this is my bones. Ruminating on bones has actually allowed me to find an inner stillness, something to hold on to while the waves of irrational fear wash over me.
Bones support and protect the body. These capabilities echo a similar force I have felt time and again; an intangible system that works to support and protect the mind, as well. The bones, therefore, represent an extraordinary internal strength that is innate to every human, one that can be tapped into, given opportunity and practice. The solidity and durability of bone also seems to be the very opposite of that panicky chaos that threatens to overwhelm; it is the antithesis of that suffocating fog. In the darkest times, the thought and the literal feel of my bones help me to remember my own fortitude. I remember that this is not who I am, that I have overcome panic in the past and can and will do so again.
In this way, bones provide that absolutely crucial feeling of hope. Hope is one of the strongest weapons out there to combat depression and anxiety, but also one of the hardest to come by. It is too easy to feel as though the way you currently feel is the way that you will feel forever, that you are in a freefall into despair. But hope provides that branch that can break your fall, something to cling to before you painstakingly climb your way back to yourself. I am amazed at how quickly I am able to jumpstart hope, simply by mentally cataloging anatomy. I calm myself by reviewing each sleek shaft, every gliding joint and craggy surface; I remember the stories behind each facet, groove and crevice. As I concentrate on this, I start to remember the strength and stability in my bones, my body, my mind, and I rise above.
These experiences have launched me into a new project. Over the next three years I am going to paint the bones. All of them. This will total 65 oil on canvas paintings (since I’m grouping a few and only painting one of each paired, it is less than the total number in the body). While painting, I will explore the vitality and tenacity we hide deep within our bones, the natural strongholds of the body. I know many, many people struggle with anxiety and depression. It is my intention to provide hope to others, that by highlighting the strength in the bones I can communicate to others the strength within themselves.
Here's my list of paintings. It's a lot.
Also, in case you're curious, the above painting is a 4'x3' oil on canvas painting of the temporal bone (bone on the side of the skull).