Run in circles, scream and shout."
--Marine Corps Officer Basic School Ditty
Los Angeles, 1980. The art director, who worked for one of the largest ad agencies in the world, was, along with the agency creative team, supervising a casting session for a television commercial they were preparing to shoot. Shooting TV commercials was the part of his job he liked the most. Travel, being away from the agency, staying in classy hotels, eating in great restaurants on an unlimited expense account, Southern California in December away from cold and rainy Seattle. If asked, he would have said there was nothing (well, almost nothing) he'd rather be doing at that moment.
Suddenly and without warning, he felt light-headed, his face was hot and flushed,his heart began to race, his breathing speeded up, and, most terrifying, he felt like his surroundings were unreal (derealization) and he was disconnected from his body (depersonalization), like he was standing outside of it. The words coming out of his mouth seemed to be gibberish and beyond his control. It was like being on a bad LSD trip and he was sure everyone in the room was looking at him wondering what's going on with this gibbering idiot. The one rational thought he did have was "I'm freaking out and have got to get out of here!"
Somehow he excused himself to go to the bathroom--at least that's what he thought he was saying--and locked himself in a bathroom stall. In the bathroom he splashed water on his face and tried to pull himself together, wondering "What the hell is happening to me?" Gradually the sensations lessened slightly and he was able to return to the casting session while still feeling disconnected from physical reality, just in time to go to lunch at another upscale LA eatery.
Sitting at a table with seven or eight other people, trying to hold it together and make intelligent conversation discussing the commercial production was agony when all he wanted to do was lock himself in his hotel room and crawl under the covers. But there was still the afternoon casting session to be endured followed by cocktails and another expense account dinner.
Somehow he got through it and the sensations were mostly gone when he got up the next morning. But then the fear set in. What happened to me and what if it happens again? He could feel the terror hovering just out on his periphery, waiting to attack again. So his mental and physical effort was focused on keeping them at bay (which paradoxically, was more likely to bring them back rather than fend them off).
The attack didn't come back during the rest of the trip although it only seemed a temporary lull until the next assault. This state of high alert went on for several days while the sensations gradually dissipated and it was with huge relief when he and his team flew back home and life returned to more or less normal. But still looming ahead was the next trip to LA for the actual filming and editing of the commercial and the fear of another attack.
Because he was an ad guy and not a psychologist, he had no clue of what had brought on such terrifying and unsettling physical and mental sensations. He tried to figure out possible correlations between the attacks and other factors such as location, situation, time of day, food and the other people around him. He never did figure it out and, although he really didn't believe it, the thought occurred to him that he might be losing his mind.
It wasn't until years later and a career change that he learned he had been experiencing panic attacks. Fortunately, over a relatively short period of time, the attacks went away on their own, occasionally popping up briefly but not troublesome enough to be a concern.
And the art director, what happened to him? Well, he went on to change careers and become a therapist. And if you haven't already figured it out, the art director was me.
Next Time: DISSECTING PANIC