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  • Karl Thunemann

Panic Attacks: Must You Go Home Again?

A panic attack took me by surprise a few weeks ago. It was different—not overpowering like so many other attacks that have beset me over the decades—but still mean and persistent. This attack invaded my life. I could neither think nor write in my blog nor carry out important tasks. I had more than usual trouble with sleep. What was it, and where did it come from?

Actually, it carried forewarning signs. I had told my counselor I thought we should be going deeper, and I turned my mind toward the Unholy Trinity. That’s my term for the principal psychological issues I suppose to be rooted in my childhood. I have actual memories of one of these issues. I can trace its effect throughout my life.

I doubt that my dream is calling on me to assassinate these once-malevolent fathers. More likely, this is a call to loving-kindness. Perhaps that is the only route to disarming these phantoms.

The other two are more elusive. They are not borne on actual memories. One I pieced together from working with illustrated dreams and from attempting to analyze a profound agony that appeared to be triggered from time to time by architecture, of all things. I worked this one out with the help of a Seattle psychologist and later through studying James Hillman’s great book, Healing Fiction. Hillman argued that because we can never know exactly what happened in the long ago, therapists and their clients should work out a “healing fiction” they both can live with. The last of the Unholy Trinity was triggered when I was in my mid-fifties and found myself caught up in a profound fear of abandonment. I recognized that this arose from transference—but believe me, being able to name something is a far cry from being cured of it. I worked through this without a counselor, just the support of some loving friends (and reading Hillman, of course, and let us not omit William James!). I think the resulting fiction involving these two legs of the Unholy Trinity is sound, but so far I have chosen not to write about these two specters. In the realm of memory, they are not proven, but merely supposed.

I assumed that this latest panic attack must be related to one of those beyond-memory traumas. It feels as if I have paced through the other a million times. But how could I deal with the others, considering my inability to “remember” them? I consulted the I Ching, or Chinese book of changes, and the main part of the reading warned of “corruption.” Not that I was acting in a corrupt fashion, I supposed, but somehow I was experiencing what had been corrupted early in my life. And I was puzzled. How could I guide my counselor to the work we could do together in these unremembered realms?

And then I had a dream: short, simple, and unequivocal. This is the first time I have written it out. I wake up in the middle of the night. I’m in a small residential space, perhaps the four-room cottage we lived in when I was a boy. Four or five iterations of my father—dark, sinister, and asleep—lie scattered about on the floor. I am aware there are weapons as well, perhaps single-shot pistols. I believe the weapons are loaded. Are there enough bullets to kill each of these fathers without awakening one who will retaliate? I lie in the dark pondering this question and wondering what I can do.

At first the dream seems so apparent. Not about any mysterious traumas, but the familiar alienation from my father, who returned from the Pacific theater to discover his first-born son a toddling cripple. The estrangement was greatest when he was seen in public with me, and his intense shame was palpable. My father has been dead more than twelve years. Must I go through all this again, as if we had not spent the last thirty years of his life making amends and learning to love each other?

I think of Jeremy Taylor, the late circuit-riding Unitarian preacher, and the principles he applied to every dream. That all dreams come in the interest of health and wholeness. That no dream comes to tell you what you already know. That every dream can support multiple interpretations.

I doubt that my dream is calling on me to assassinate these once-malevolent fathers. More likely, this is a call to loving-kindness. Perhaps that is the only route to disarming these phantoms. And what is it that I do not know? These little corruptions still exist, despite the efforts my father and I made to effect a loving conciliation. They’re like viruses lurking in the shadows of an outdated computer. You know they are present, but you cannot see the damn things.

Is it time to make redoubled efforts to understand my father’s past? More than twenty years ago I arrived at the belief that he probably had an undiagnosed dissociative disorder. Even though I cannot be certain of its origin, regarding this condition as an actuality spared me—and him—from remaining locked in bitter struggles that neither of us quite understood. In retrospect, the transition seems so simple.

I scarcely knew my father’s parents. But I had the impression that his mother suffered from a prolonged depression.. I have an older cousin who arrived at a similar conclusion. But this is still mere conjecture. I do suppose that she lived for the reunions of her large family. She had eight siblings. Perhaps there she felt whole. Nobody remains to test this hypothesis. Someone who could say, Yes, she was given to depression. Or perhaps: Ruth depressed? Not at all. My grandfather seemed community-minded and fun-loving. But I did not know him. Perhaps I have made too much of a recollection one of my father’s first cousins, long since departed, shared with my brother. That Uncle Karl (I was named after him) had nurtured an intense interest in Eastern meditation. Probably Hinduism, I suppose. It seems a remarkable occasion of karma that both my brother and I, oblivious to this part of our grandfather’s legacy, independently found similar paths.

This epistle has not turned down the dark path I supposed it would. Working with my dream, I will attempt to reach out again to the dream and its images of my father. Were there four or five? For once, I reproach my dreaming consciousness for its lack of specificity. In any case, I will approach them with love. When it comes to loving-kindness, I have mostly lavished it on the living, with just a couple of exceptions. I reached out to the memory of one of my wife’s nieces, killed in a violent parking lot accident. It felt useful. And I tried to reach out to my mother’s younger sister. We were close. I had been in the room when she died. She did not have pronounced ideas about life after death, but during her final days reported she could see family members who had already crossed over. I did not often have a sense of her presence in the weeks after she died.

Now a new chapter begins: May I have a new experience of loving-kindness in approaching my father as he might have been in his twenties. Reaching across the unseen great divide.


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