Blanket Sea

Arts & Literary Magazine

Category: Creative Nonfiction (page 2 of 2)

“The Unexpected Way I Killed My Panic Attacks” by Nicole Rollender

The first time I had a panic attack, I thought I was dying.

My heart pounded out of my chest. I was light-headed, as if I had run too far, too fast. When everything started looking a little strange, as if what was real was becoming surreal, that was the scariest part.

I was convinced I was about to leave my body.

That feeling became the corner stones of my attacks, and I would grab onto the heaviest piece of furniture I could find, leaning my forehead to it, willing myself to stay planted.

My panic attacks were the strong, silent type, so no one around me even knew they were happening, but inside I was a raging storm, screaming, “Help me! I don’t know how much longer I can hold myself down.”

Months earlier, I had been in a car accident, and began experiencing debilitating daily panic attacks that impacted my confidence and sense of self.

I finally decided to get help from a therapist.

“What’s your inner rebel telling you to have for dinner?” my therapist, Dr. D., asked.

“Are you serious?” I said.

“Yes,” Dr. D. deadpanned. And there’s no way she wasn’t, with her humorless eyes and two proud inches of gray at her roots, inching down to rusty waves.

I closed my eyes. A black-haired, vermillion-lipped, tattooed chick, my alter-ego suddenly cocked her head at me and winked.

“OK, girl,” she said breathily, exhaling clove cigarette smoke. “Eat 16 Oreos and drink a Corona. Or two. Or three. How about six?”

“What happens next?” Dr. D. prompted.

I almost quipped, “Fireworks exploded out of her ears!”

Instead, I focused my thoughts.

“Nope, you’ll measure out your protein, carbs, and vegetables mixed with one tablespoon of olive oil,” a stentorian voice suddenly piped. “You’ll drink water with fresh-squeezed lemon juice.”

“That voice’s persona is your taskmaster,” explained Dr. D. as I imagined her as yet another facet of me, with hair in a bun and severe black glasses hanging from a gold chain.

Being in Dr. D.’s office was no laughing matter, though: Even sitting there, I’d feel my insides starting to lift up and away, and I’d instinctively grip the arms of my chair.

I’d been in car accidents before, but never one where I had been hurt.

This time, a young driver ran a stop sign, T-boning my car on my driver’s side, as I was returning home from a playdate with my two young kids in the backseat.

I remember the moment of impact, my body jolted and hurled to the side, the windshield shattering glass all over me, and the car forcibly turned around.

When the car hit into the curb, it was totally silent. When I looked into the rearview mirror to see if my kids were OK, they just stared, wide-eyed.

Finally, my two-year-old son raised up his chocolate-covered fingers and started to cry: He had dropped his cookie on the floor into the glass and dust.

Even though I walked away feeling fine, later that night I started seeing stars out of my right eye and I couldn’t talk straight.

At the emergency room, I was diagnosed with a concussion and was assured I’d feel better in two weeks.

Wrong: It took me nine months to recover from the extreme light sensitivity, frightening daily migraines with aura, and gut-wrenching pain in my neck and occipital muscles.

The panic attacks lingered, though: I was bruised. I flinched every time I got in the car to drive.

I realized I could be hurt. I realized I could be taken from my kids.

I realized they could be taken from me.

Dr. D. advocated daily mindfulness techniques – grounding exercises, three-minute meditations, belly breathing, reciting mantras – that I scoffed at during our sessions.

I refused to try these New Age exercises, thinking there had to be better ways to stop my panic attacks, out-of-body experiences where I struggled to keep my spirit rooted in my gut.

Despite feeling that I knew I couldn’t kick the panic attacks on my own, I was still resistant to Dr. D.’s bag of tricks. I even felt silly imagining my negative self-talk as personas.

She explained that negative self-talk stressed me out to the max, further inflaming the panic attacks. Even further, the negative self-talks were at odds with each other: the Taskmaster (who told me what I needed to do to be successful, no exceptions) and the Rebel (she wanted me to party hard, subverting the Taskmaster at every turn).

Dr. D. wanted me to picture the Taskmaster and Rebel sitting at a table, a business meeting of sorts, with a mediator. “What would the mediator say to calm these two down?”

“She’d tell me to eat a lean hamburger patty with an over-easy egg, and broccoli,” I said. “That way, I get protein and satiating fat, but I don’t blow my diet and get drunk.”

It clicked. While the car accident triggered two to three daily panic attacks, my prior inner struggles with feeling like I had to be perfect and sacrifice fun for achievements also wreaked havoc on my quest to get balanced.

I was finally ready to try Dr. D.’s mindfulness techniques.

To start, she recommended downloading Insight Timer, which has more than 1.1 million users and many timed, guided meditations as short as three minutes.

One evening after a long day at the office, instead of relaxing, I was listening to the Taskmaster: “The house is a mess! Vacuum. Put away the dishes. The carpeted stairs are covered in cat hair!” My heart pounded. It got worse as the Rebel taunted, “Come on! Just go to bed. Who cares if it’s 6 p.m.?”

I grabbed my phone and selected a three-minute “peace” meditation. The soft voice laser focused me on my breaths and heartbeat. Amazingly, the meditation kicked the panic attack’s butt. What worked best for me were meditations where I scanned my body, not the ones asking me to float among stars.

Then, when I was in a bar a couple nights later on Friday with lots of noise and stimulation, the Taskmaster’s blare – “Dishes! Laundry! 90-minute workout! Draft three poems! Your editor’s letter! Don’t eat the fries!” – set off an attack with a wave of dizziness. Of course, the Rebel jumped in: “No! No! Start drinking now! Party hard.”

So I tried a grounding exercise, which is different than a guided meditation: They use our senses, what we see, hear and smell, to connect our body and mind to the moment. “You can recall and employ these techniques easily to distract yourself from anxiety,” Dr. D. said. When I searched the web, I found many grounding exercises: Notice five things you can see, five things you can hear, five things you can feel, taste or smell. Or sip a cold drink of water.

Without leaving my stool, I closed my eyes, asking myself questions: What’s your name? (Nicole) How old are you? (40) What can you hear right now? (Someone laughing, glasses clinking) What two things can you feel right now? (Wooden stool, cool glass of iced tea in my hand) What can you smell right now? (Hot wings, air conditioning pumping over my head)

When my heart slowed, I imagined myself sitting between the Taskmaster and Rebel. “Look,” I thought, “I’m out with my husband for a couple of hours. I’ll get to some of the work tomorrow, and I’m not going to party all night.”

The Taskmaster and Rebel both looked annoyed, but the tense moment deflated.

“I listened to each of them,” I told Dr. D. at my next appointment. “And I told them what I wanted, which fell in the middle.”

“Right,” Dr. D. said. “The Rebel keeps you creative and fun, and the Taskmaster keeps you responsible and alive. But you need to converse with both of them and then decide what you want.”

I couldn’t believe how giving my thought patterns personas helped in relieving my stress. The car accident’s suddenness had made me feel like I wasn’t in control of my life anymore.

Now, I had put myself in the driver’s seat to decide what course of action was healthiest for me while getting in tune with my inner self.

Of course, the mindfulness techniques also helped, and I use one technique daily. Amazingly, my panic attacks have stopped for the most part.

Sometimes, still, the old panic attack feelings come on staggeringly quick – sudden racing heart and dizziness – so one fast down-and-dirty technique Dr. D. suggested was belly or diaphragmatic breathing, which stimulates the vagus nerve. This technique works almost instantly for me.

Quick explanation: Part of the parasympathetic nervous system, the vagus nerve winds from the brainstem down the spine to the tongue, heart, lungs and other organs. When you stimulate by it filling your abdomen with breath, you calm your body down since you counteract your sympathetic nervous system that activates flight-or-flight responses.

“The Rebel and Taskmaster will vie for your attention,” Dr. D.  said, “but you know how to put them in their places.”

“Yep,” I said. “The three of us are going to have a lot of fun.”


Nicole Rollender is a South New Jersey-based poet, editor and writer. Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Dr. Oz The Good Life, Woman’s Day and Cosmopolitan. She’s the author of the poetry collection Louder Than Everything You Love. Recently, she was named a Rising Star in FOLIO’s Top Women in Media awards and a 2017 recipient of a New Jersey Council on the Arts poetry fellowship. Visit her online at; on Facebook or Twitter.








“The Second Arrow” by Caroline Johnson

“What has no shadow, has no strength to live.”
— Czeslaw Milosz, “Faith.”


“Choose any spot you like,” my oncologist says. I pick an overstuffed Lazy-Boy next to an IV, park my bag full of books, then she leaves. Soon a nurse greets me, says she will be taking care of me for the next four hours. I touch the scar where my left breast used to be and try not to think of any upcoming cocktail treatments—chemotherapy, radiation, tamoxifen, with a splash of more surgery. I wish instead I could get drunk on real Russian vodka, wake up when it is all over to find it had only been a fraternity party.

I stare at the nurse’s straw blonde hair damaged from years of dyeing and can’t help but think of all the money I’ve put into my own hair—expensive cuts, keratin treatments, highlights. I am still getting used to the smooth dark synthetic locks and bangs of my “cranial prosthesis,” trying not to laugh at how one of my favorite students said three times, in all seriousness and naivety, “I’m likin’ the new hair, Ms. J.”

The nurse dabs alcohol on my port, then sticks the needle into my skin. The first step is flushing the port, then I am given an hour’s worth of anti-nausea medication, followed by the big Red Devil, Adriamycin. The nurse brings the bright cherry liquid in a syringe and injects it into my skin. Soon I will be peeing pink.

I first met my oncologist five years ago at a party at her house, a multi-million dollar estate with swimming pool and tennis courts. The party was for her sister, a friend of mine; I remember a conversation in the kitchen about T.S. Eliot. The oncologist was clutching a wine glass, explaining how a group of doctors, including herself, had started a poetry club. I wondered how scientific people like doctors and engineers think, if they needed more poetry in their lives than most people.

After she discovers I like poetry, the chemo nurse tells me of her favorite poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” an epic Christian ballad about running away from a loving God. I look it up on my phone and read it. I want to discuss it, have a conversation about why the protagonist doesn’t recognize God, but she just bends down and flushes my port again.

Weeks earlier my oncologist told me about her trip to Africa, about the lions she saw on her safari. That was after I learned my treatment would last not months, but years. I was assigned a navigating nurse to answer any questions I might have, but I sensed burnout as I caught her several times sitting by a large window of light. Other nurses, like Pam from the Philippines and Sue whose husband lives three states away, work to brighten my mood as they inject my body with drugs. A young nutritionist visits periodically to talk about what I should and should not eat. But it is the chaplain whom I love. He is from Georgia and wears a suit. We talk about Flannery O’Connor and Mary Oliver. He likes British History while I prefer American. As we talk I feel myself transforming, as if someone is trying to help me carry some unbearably heavy stone. Then one day he tells me of the second arrow as I try not to think about what a woman said in a support group, how her port-a-cath leaked and all the veins on her right side lit up like a Christmas tree.

The first arrow is the suffering, the true suffering, he said. It comes from without and we have no control over it. The second arrow is how we hurt ourselves. It comes from within: criticism, worry, brooding, and depression. The chaplain told me not to listen to the second arrow, not to hurt myself. Yet I can’t help but feel I have crossed a border, unwillingly been deported to another country. It is strange and foreign and I don’t speak the language. I am always trying to get back to the Land of Before. The doctor is my coyote as I trespass the rocky desert under open sky, past barbed wire diagnoses and the Rio Grande, past nausea and fatigue and clumps of hair, past biopsies and bone scans, as I try to return home. In the end, I am alone.



Caroline Johnson has two poetry chapbooks and more than 70 poems in print. A nominee for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, she has won numerous state and national poetry awards. Past president of Poets & Patrons of Chicago, her full-length poetry manuscript, The Caregiver, is forthcoming from Holy Cow! Press in 2018.





“Ohio” by Laura Dorwart

I am alone with my two-month-old baby all day long, trapped in a flat patio home in a flat little town in northeast Ohio without a car. I am not a good driver and not a patient line-waiter at the DMV, so I haven’t bothered yet to untrap myself. My husband, Jason, teaches at Oberlin during the day, lecturing on disability representation in horror films. He teaches theatre history, too. His students lie to get out of midterms.

Baby and I are happy together. We take warm baths, naked and content, and she leans against me, mimicking her womb-home. I like to think she remembers it. She spends her mornings in a bouncer and a swing, thrilled by her own face in a flower-shaped mirror and by a little stuffed trio of bear-faces, making sounds that I convince myself mean Mama and Hello and When I Grow Up, People Will Believe Me. I throw her little arms over my shoulder and she rests them there, happy, straining her neck muscles to watch the shadows play on the walls. I think of my dreams for her, lofty ones: she who will never be called hysterical; she who will be loved by a bespectacled someone with a frightening ferocity; she who will sleep soundly, think slowly, speak loudly the first time.

When she naps, I write. I write my PhD dissertation in short, fevered clumps. I write boring articles about standardized tests and sets of concerning health symptoms for money. I read blogs about mermaids and kink and doll collections; I read The Godfather again. I read Streetcar for the tenth, the hundredth, time, and think about how I would have married Stanley and stayed with him, no question, absolutely. (This is my Achilles heel, my tragic flaw were I in every other way a hero). I write annotations and revise essays for my MFA manuscript, always embarrassed. I write long, passionate recaps of trashy reality television shows on a forum under an alias I will never share, and argue with strangers about which of the MTV teen moms is the worst. I write elaborate, angry emails to relatives that I don’t send. I write elaborate, angry emails to the midwives at my hospital; I send all of those. I write carefully worded emails to Jason, in short paragraphs like he likes, and I send a few. I make up hypothetical scenarios in which he might discover he doesn’t love me, on a spectrum of definitely-not-my-fault (psychotic break? Disfigurement in a car wreck? Medication regimen that makes me gain 400 pounds?) to definitely-my-fault (felony theft, conversion to Mormonism) and ask him what his response would be. I know this is insufferable; I probably enjoy the absurdity. I write back to strangers in my Facebook inbox (“thanks for your interest, but I’m happily married”) and ignore my friends until they tell me I’m being rude; I probably enjoy the shame.

I drink three cups of coffee every morning, cream and sugar, making up for lost time. Sometimes I drink a fourth one during her second nap, at noon. I don’t eat breakfast. For lunch, I eat hunks of cheddar cheese, a few grapes, a grasp of bread. I leave the crumbs and the mugs until, around four-fifteen, I look around, a bit surprised that no one’s come to clean it all up. I do it myself before he gets home at five, even though he wouldn’t care if it was messy. At night, I have wine, great sticky purple gulps of the cheap stuff, for the first time in nine months. I consider weed, but don’t use it for the sake of progress. I plan to exercise, but I don’t. Sometimes we go out, when family is visiting and they babysit, and stare at each other, dazed, over our Moscow mules, thinking, “Who are you? How do we love each other as parents?” We ask each other how we feel—“How are you?” “How are you feeling?” “You OK?”—again and again, strained voices pressing into each other in the dark (you ok? you ok? you ok?), trying to make it all make sense, take shape. He takes care of her at night while I sleep, slumped against him, until he presses her against my breast to suckle. Is this happiness?

Every day, I wonder when she will learn that her mother is Sad, capital-s Sad.

I realize that I have to tell her the truth about me, eventually. I will start, I think, with an apology: “Mommy is sorry that she is sad.” I won’t be sad right then, but I know I will be, over and over again. She will learn what sadness is through me, no matter how I try to hide it.

I am aware that this is how monsters get made, this is how horror films begin, a woman trapped in a purple bathrobe in a patio home in Ohio, always a little disappointed, waiting for magic that never comes. She wonders if she should create the magic herself, if a spell would do the trick. She is too tired to look up any more spells, and, weary of the yearning, afraid of longing for things that will never come, she [goes crazy/opens the oven door and doesn’t shut it/starts an Etsy account/screws a neighbor] instead. But I have tried every escape, hacked open every latch with a pickax, and still the yearning catches my throat in the night. And if yearning is religion (fervent, unyielding), I will live monastically rather than monstrously. There’s only a fine line between them.


(This piece first appeared on P.S. I Love You.)


Laura Dorwart is a Ph.D. candidate at UCSD with an MFA in creative nonfiction. She has published work at Catapult, The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Bitch, and many others. Follow her work at or






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