Sunday, September 15, 2013

From Panic Attack to Story Attack, Capitalizing on Your Imagination

Lately, I've been working on a woman-in-jeopardy story that marks a turning point in my life, specifically, in the management of anxiety and panic attacks. It's a turn for the good. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, affects 6.8 million adults and Panic Disorder (PD) affects 6 million adults. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men.(Learn more).  

Based on my own life, I wonder if GAD and PD affect creative, imaginative people more than the general population. Panic attacks are periods of intense fear or apprehension that occur suddenly and last for a few minutes or hours. When I'm in the grip of a panic attack, I am also in the grip of an intense woman-in-jeopardy fantasy that is horribly real.

I can't tell you the number of panic attacks I've had over the years, but I can say the frequency has significantly increased since 9/11, the sniper attacks in DC that followed so closely, tragic attacks like those at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the simmering anti-American hostility we now find ourselves swimming in.

Five years ago, I was waking up almost nightly in a cold sweat, sure that every noise I heard was an intruder bent on murder. I would bolt wake at an unfamiliar sound and then play the fantasy like a movie in my mind's eye. Each frame brought a new horror that I tried to combat, overcome and outsmart in order to save my family. I felt like a character in a Jason Bourne book, constantly under attack from an unknown threat.  Finally, one morning I said that's it! We're getting a dog. A big dog.

The dog has helped. He's not a scary-looking dog. Most people see Gus and want to hug him. But, Gus is a herding dog and he is serious about his job as chief security officer at our house and nanny/body guard to our son. If the Darling children had had Gus as their nanny, Peter Pan would have been missing more than his shadow when he flew out that window.

Gus makes me feel safe and, thanks to Gus, I've developed a new strategy for preventing and managing panic attacks.  It happened last year on a chilly March Sunday. I took Gus up to Rock Creek Park near Kalmia Road and 16th Street.  It's beautiful there and during the weekend, the trails are usually crawling with joggers, hikers, families, and dogs. We had started a little late and dusk was nearing as we got back to a steep hill I call “killer hill”--I usually try to jog up the hill, backwards. (Vigorous cardio exercise 4 x week is another of my prevention strategies.)

A friend had introduced me to this trail and the day she and I were there, I read a notice tacked on tree warning women to travel in pairs as several women had been attacked when alone.  My brain obviously filled that away until the Sunday in March.  I made it to the top of the hill, backwards, and stood breathing heavily at the top. Gus was off leash and had momentarily disappeared when I realized I was completely alone in the darkening woods. There were no other people and even thebirds were silent.

It hit without warning. In seconds I went from peaceful to a full-on, no holds barred, panic attack. A cold sweat broke out around my neck and shoulders. Hands clenching, my heart thundered. I halted in mid-step almost doubling over with the severity of the attack. On a ragged breath, I jerked my head up, searching for the danger I felt was imminent. What if there is a man? What if he has a knife?

A crashing sound in the underbrush had me gasping for air. What if?  The fantasy over took me. I immediately assessed all my resources – no weapons: no knife, no gun, no mace, no... Wait a minute.  I had a secret weapon. I had Gus. I was so scared I couldn’t shout. I managed to wet my lips and sent a shrill whistle out through my teeth. It split the quiet afternoon air. Gus broke from the underbrush with a great clap of noise, like a pheasant. His doggy face wore a sloppy grin and he carried a tennis ball in his mouth.

I crouched on the trail and hugged him. He sensed my fear and anxiety and stayed close but went on high alert. I knew then that Gus would protect me. IF there was a real threat, but this wasn’t real. Except in my head. I had to stop these nightmarish fantasies from crippling me. I had to take control.

So, I took the “what if” to a new place, a place where I had power of it. I took it to story-making. What if the dog erupted from the underbrush and attacked the attacker? What if predator became prey? What if the heroine was no ordinary couch potato? Hmm, what it?

By the time I arrived home, I had the plot and characters established for “Hunter's Moon,” a thriller
novella with a canine hero, a heroine who can hold her own, and the cop who wants to hold her. Last month, I began putting it all together. That day in March came back to me in sharp definition: the suffocating silence, the clammy sweat gathering at the nape of my neck, the primal fear. It all came back but not as a living nightmare. Now it’s a story. I’ve reframed the panic attack into something positive. I say I’m having a story attack.

What’s something negative in your life that you’ve creatively reframed and now count as strength?  Share your comments with the Rockville 8.


  1. Shellie Williams...what a wonderful post! I totally agree that since 9/11 my anxiety level has risen, and those moments before sleep bring back terrible thoughts about all the suffering. But your strategies sound very positive and while I don't have PAs, I will surely remember your advice. And can't wait to read Hunter's Moon! It sounds great. Bravo to you for living that example of turning negatives into positives!

  2. Thank you! It's been a process of discernment for sure.

    Best to you!


  3. Shellie - what a raw deal panic attacks are. But what an awesome response for dealing with it.

    I agree that creative types seem to suffer more issues - our minds are so busy, they are rarely allowed to rest and recuperate.

    I'm not sure that I can give a cut and dried example of turning a bad thing into something useful, but I do know that I've killed off a few real life jerks in my fiction and in doing so, feel I've restored balance to the universe, lol!

  4. Keely, I'm LOL at that expression "restored balance to the universe." May the Force be with you!

    Yep, if the creative types can just make it to thier 40s and 50s in life, everything gets easier to handle. You hum Bobby McFerrin's song "don't worry, be happy" more frequently. Although, you can never be too sure about songsters!

    Thanks for commenting.

  5. Shellie - What a great post. How terrible that you have panic attacks but how wonderful that you can channel that into something great. Monday's shooting at the Navy Yard is just another thing to worry about. My father worked in that building for a few years. I would have been having a panic attack about that if he were still there. Keep on working on Hunter's Moon - it's a wonderful story!

  6. Great post, Shellie. Sorry I'm late to the discussion. Wonderful use of your panic attack episode. Yes, I think as writers we can use everything in our tool box to bump up our story-telling. And you've clearly done that! Good for you!

    I often find that I'm processing through relationships and internal feelings in my fiction--of course I'm writing a slower-paced story than your woman-in-jeopardy ... I'm writing contemporary romance at the moment. However, I find time and again, that my writing has help me work out some sticking point in a difficult relationship.

    It's all fodder for fiction! Thanks for your post. Excellent insights. ;0)