Retreat and (Panic) Attack: A Cautionary Tale

September 14, 2020

Early last month, I was fortunate enough to escape my home for a local three-night mini-retreat at an inn overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. I had researched all their pandemic protocols, and felt like I could safely sequester there- they even had a highly-rated restaurant onsite so I didn’t have to drive to pickup my takeout.

I checked in and was so excited to see my spacious suite, barren of all the lived-in clutter that clogs up our home and cries out for my attention. Cameron had sweetly arranged to have a bottle of champagne and a plate of chocolate truffles waiting for me, and I toasted and tasted my good fortune. Later, I indulged in one of my favorite meals- a cheeseburger and fries- and enjoyed an escapist, superhero/Good vs. Evil movie. Look at me- look how successfully I was savoring every moment- with Gratitude! Self-care! Fun!

And then night fell. The sheets were cool and crisp, the pillows were ample and squishy, and I settled in for a good night’s sleep. Except it wasn’t sleep, and it wasn’t good. Something was off, but hey, I was away from it all, so I tried to take it in stride. . . I tossed and turned, reassuring myself it was “no big deal,” just the usual insomnia, until I gave up and sat up and started reading. It was still vacation, and it was still a treat to lie in bed and read. When the sun rose, I rose too, threw on clothes and went for a walk down to the water. How freeing it was to feel and smell the sea air blowing. On the outside, it still looked like a retreat, but on the inside things were starting to come a little unglued. I kept pretending, through an al fresco breakfast and even through a morning spent poolside engrossed in my book. Maybe I was just over-caffeinated and jittery, I thought, or just a little off due to my lack of sleep combined with the strangeness of being “out in public” and away from home during a pandemic.

With sandwich in hand and mask on face, I made my way back to my room, where I ran smack into a panic attack (so thoughtful of it to let me have the morning mostly to myself). I’ve experienced panic attacks before- usually well after some stressful event or, more frequently for me, seemingly out of the blue. The severity isn’t generally that bad, and I’m able to ride out their brief duration with a little attention (and a little Ativan if needed). This one hit like the tropical storm that was on its way to the Bay later that evening- pounding heart, gasping breath, squeezing chest. My thoughts were racing so wildly that I couldn’t get a moment to catch a break and try to right my ship. The most unsettling little gem out of all of it was an ear worm- some random song (I am so relieved I can no longer recall it) ceaselessly boring a hole right through my brain. This panic attack lasted for hours. It was relentless. I was undone.

I did the best I could to surf the waves of emotions and body sensations, to allow it all in and not panic about the panic. I let go of trying to control it, and focused instead on one breath at a time, noticing the way the air felt in my nostrils- cool on the inhale, warmer on the exhale. I closed my eyes, then opened them again when the dizziness started, focusing on naming the colors I saw (not the best time to have a room filled with sandy taupes and driftwood grays). Now the atmosphere outside started matching my insides as the sky darkened, the wind whipped up, and the first bands of rain from the tropical storm reached the inn. It felt like I was in the midst of my own private summertime “Shining” horror-movie moment.

My inner storm finally (finally!) subsided, not with a bang but definitely with a whimper of gratitude. I slept soundly as the wind howled and the windows rattled, lightning and thunder crashing and booming.

But, really- a panic attack in the middle of a vacation retreat?! What the absolute fuck?! Here’s where the “cautionary tale” part of this blog’s title comes in. . . .

*Although I knew enough about myself to know I needed a break, I clearly hadn’t been giving myself enough little breaks- from work, from the news, from my social media feeds, from all the things I thought I HAD TO DO. What sort of breaks have you been giving yourself lately?

*As a life coach, I know the importance of feeling your feelings, instead of trying to push them away and/or judge yourself for having them in the first place. Even so, this world, our country, this moment in time- it’s so far too much that it was easier for me to shut down instead of really tuning in to my emotions. How are you feeling today? Are you afraid, or anxious, or angry, or scared? Or just so sad? Can you sit with those feelings and notice where they show up in your body? You can do it. You are strong enough.

*I’m an introvert, and I recharge by taking time to myself. However, that means it’s also pretty easy for me to downplay my feelings or gloss over them when I’m talking with others. I’d much rather listen than share most of the time. Fortunately, I have an amazing therapist, and I regularly get coached by fellow life coaches (I highly recommend it!), and they all (gently but firmly) force me to take an honest look at my insides and talk about what’s going on. Is there someone who can hold space for you to be authentically you, messy feelings and all? Have you found a community through any online support groups?

*I’m not at all blaming myself for having a panic attack, but with the gift of hindsight I can see there were places where I could have practiced “letting go” before I got to the point of needing to escape. Where are the places in your life that you could practice a little “letting go”- of a sense of control? Of perfection? Of having it all together on the outside? You are strong enough to surf the waves of panic that rise up to try and fill up those spots where you “let go”- trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

I keep thinking of the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley- perhaps a tad overdramatic to link it to my panic attack (even with a tropical storm brewing in the background)- but the themes of inner strength and perseverance are relevant. Just please add a healthy dose of grace and self-compassion when applying these themes to your own life.

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

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