A few years ago, I sat in a photo booth and, just for fun, turned my back to the camera. I wore pigtails and pulled each one hard, to emphasize the part down the middle of my skull. The resulting photograph showed a head divided. When I looked at the photos, I realized that I’d felt this extreme strain for most of my life.
When I created a collage of these images, they seemed too negative. I needed to add a happy drawing: two abstract figures dancing, while holding hands. I felt the contrast of the difficult and the joyous together represented my life more accurately. Fortunately, I had a dance teacher in my neighborhood who taught me ballet, jazz and acrobatic dance (like today’s gymnastics) during my childhood, a source of great delight.
I had needed this dance teacher’s positive infusion into my life because, in my earliest memories, I suffered panic attacks. All of a sudden, for no reason, I would feel like my insides had filled up with squirming worms. I would twist and turn, trying to get rid of them. I felt horrified and miserable until “the worms,” as I called them, mysteriously disappeared an hour or two later. When I described them to Mom, she seemed bored and cut me off. As an adult, the attacks got worse and expanded to include bolts of lightning that seemed to shimmer from the top of my head to the depths of my gut. At times, I felt like my head might explode or my stomach fry with electricity.
In my fifties, I told a friend about this affliction. Being a Ph.D. psychologist, she identified these sensations as panic attacks and instructed me to get to a doctor right away. She told me the condition had escalated over the years and it could land me in the hospital. Although I rejected the Prozac a concerned Internist offered, I discovered my health plan offered a class on panic attacks. I wanted to gain more knowledge before I started a medication and I eagerly signed up. I found that the disorder originated from anxiety. I hadn’t known. I took the class three times, determined to reduce the symptoms.
By the end of the third class, I had formulated a self-created program I called MEEATS: Meditation, Eat Well (no sugar or caffeine and, ironically, less and less meat over the years), Exercise, Acupuncture, Therapy and Supplements (such as melatonin, valerian root and kava for relaxation and sleep). The doctor agreed, because I wasn’t suicidal, to give my ideas a chance before he’d insist on Prozac.
Slowly, the plan worked. The inner delusion of the worms reduced in size and number until, about eight years later, they disappeared, never to return. My internal lightning did the same. At times, I despaired that I’d never be free of the torment caused by panic attacks, but, I took comfort in their slow fading.
Dance became my favorite exercise: mainly modern and jazz. I loved creative body movement in groups with a teacher leading us, like my old childhood experiences. While we rarely held hands in the classes, our Martha Graham types of interpretive movement reminded me of a beloved Matisse painting, Dance, in which five nude figures moved in a circle.
To me, the dancers in a ring represented unity, a sacred circle of healing. This was what I wanted in my MEEATS life-changing program. Matisse’s image inspired my small circle of two merry dancers.
In my art piece, I reduced the intensity of the image of the back of my head, from left to right, incrementally decreasing the solidity of the photo by repeated photocopying. With each further reproduction, the image slowly faded. I did generations of copies to obtain the right-hand background ghost-like head. In this way, I illustrated my panic attack anxieties disappearing.
Today, this image, Dancing Meditation, gives me great pleasure and gratitude. It reminds me of a fortunate ability to mend life-long anxiety symptoms with a lot of patience and help from others: health professionals, dance and meditation teachers, health food store employees who educated me about supplements, naturopaths, acupuncturists, therapists and Matisse. I’m thankful to them all and to myself for persevering through interior worms and lightning.
2023 July 27-30
Seattle Art Fair
Kaethe Kauffman’s 2022 piece, The Rain Tree will be on exhibit at the Seattle Art Fair,
July 27-30 in the Walter Wickiser Gallery, New York section. More Info