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Neil Gaiman, Panic Attacks and Project Natalie

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

neil gaiman, jason poole, accidental hawaiian crooner, molokai, panic attacks, halawa valley, writer's block

Last Friday, I read some of Neil Gaiman’s novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, while I was on the subway. I love his writing.  I love being able to “hear” his voice on the page.  (I’m familiar with his voice from interviews I’ve watched.  And on those rare occasions when I can’t “hear” it in my mind, I substitute the voice of British actor, Alan Rickman.)

Gaiman’s writing style is something I’ve been studying.  It’s slow, not rushed.  It’s like settling it with a good friend who wants to share a story with you, a friend who happens to be one of the world’s best storytellers.  You know you’re in good hands when you read one of his books.

For about thirty minutes, I was immersed in the world he created on the page. When I arrived at my stop on the train, I got up from my seat and realized that I was having a full-blown panic attack.  My muscles were tense, fight or flight mode; my breathing shallow and fast.  At first I couldn’t figure out what had triggered it and then it dawned on me–Gaiman’s narrator in the novel is a young boy who faces fantastic-and-yet-very-real monsters.  Something in the novel had touched a place deep inside me.  Something terrified me.

I recognized the panic attack and I reminded myself it would eventually pass. It did. Eventually.  I made it back to the apartment, sat on the couch and SHUT DOWN.  When I experience a panic attack, that’s all I can do, shut down.

The following day I sat in front of my notebook, poised to work on the BIG PROJECT but frozen.  It was an all-too-familiar scenario. For months I’ve found myself sitting at my desk, excited to write, and then after a few minutes of scratching at the page, I freeze.

Part of Project Natalie includes a massive writing component.  When this project began, I was excited to be working on this piece, something I’m passionate about!  But while the passion has remained intact, I’ve been extremely frustrated with my own lack of progress.  I started out strong and then hit a wall.

In therapy this week (“What? A New Yorker in therapy?”), I had one of those a-ha! moments that I’ve come to love: I was able to see that in my writing life, I’ve been experiencing panic attacks, complete with racing pulse and short, quick breaths.  And just like I saw it happen on Friday, when I’m faced with one of ‘em, I shut down.

So the pen has been frozen with Project Natalie.  For months.

I’ve still managed to squeeze out some writing, but not with Project Natalie.  Actually, I’ve been writing a lot lately.  Or maybe I should say that I’ve started a lot of new pieces lately, new songs, new poems, new essays.  More output than ever in all sorts of directions. And each of them show great promise. I’m the proud owner of a notebook full of strong starts, but no finished pieces except for the song I wrote as a Christmas gift for my parents.  (And that song was cobbled together at the last minute.  Thank goodness for unforgiving deadlines.)

I’m extremely grateful for my notebook full of starts.  It shows me that I’m not completely frozen.  It shows me that I’m able to continue a writing practice–especially when it comes to letting go of any outcome.  I write those mini-pieces. those hopeful beginnings, as a way to keep moving.  A practice of showing up to the page.  A practice that guides my day.  I’d feel lost without it, this anchor made of paper.

When it comes to Project Natalie, I am trying to be gentle with myself.  I recognize that something inside me panics.  There is a part of me that digs in his heels and doesn’t want to budge. A part of me senses danger ahead and freezes.  And I’m trying to be ok with that, trying to be compassionate. (Self-compassion is not one of my strongest suits.)  I

There’s also a part of me that recognizes there’s work to be done.  A story that needs to be written.  So I allow myself to stop for a moment.  And instead of pushing or pulling, I nudge.  Shorter writing assignments.  ”Just a few words.”  ”Just write for 15 minutes.” And I’m seeing that by turning on the heat gradually, the iceberg is beginning to melt.  V-e-r-y slowly.  (Slow and steady… Right, Neil?)

Panic attacks are not fun.  Being frozen is not fun.

But everything changes.

Sometimes, just being able to see what you’re dealing with helps.  The lights are on.  I can see the monsters. And yes, seeing them makes them a little less terrifying.

I mua.  Onward.

Right on.

How’s YOUR week going? 


4 Responses to “Neil Gaiman, Panic Attacks and Project Natalie”

  1. Millicent says:

    Aloha Jason,
    You are so sweet. It’s curious about your panic attacks.
    I wonder, do you ever get them on the island? I would think taro fends them off.


  2. Leslie Schipa says:

    Jason, I hear you! I’ve been getting random panic attacks post 9/11. I didn’t know what they were for years. I finally have a clue how to deal with them. For me, the best thing is to first identify what triggered it. Once i know that, I can talk to my rational brain and explain that I’m not actually in danger (so far, that’s been absolutely true every time). Second, I get to a place where I’m either completely alone (like a bathroom stall at the airport, this one time), or alone with someone I trust. Having such a person to sit next to helps me find my way back to okay. Their entire job is to sit there and breathe while holding my hand, or my head in their lap. No talking or anything. Just breathing. When I can do either of those things, I can get out of it fairly quickly.

    Of course if the trigger was a food allergy (yup, if I eat peppers-BAM panic attack!), then all bets are off. I lose at least a day to biochemical reaction. Maybe Millie’s right and there’s something to this taro idea…

    They always pass though, whatever started it. And it takes a lot for me to just say to myself, “Breathe, this will end soon.” All we can do is breathe and tell ourselves it’s okay. Because it is okay. It’s okay to be in that moment on the couch, taking care of ourselves. It’s okay to lose a day to this because we are still alive and we are safe and right now, this is what we need to be doing. And it’s okay after a time to say, “Okay, let’s get going.”

    Much love, friend.

  3. Nicole Thibadeaux says:

    Dear Jason,
    I read that book!
    I volunteer at the library, collecting their book drop in the morning once a week, and sometimes a book comes in that I randomly HAVE TO READ. That was one that just grabbed me.
    I don’t know Neil Gaiman’s voice, but I remember reading and thinking, “oh no, please don’t make it be a scary story…not THAT kind of scary story…”and yet I couldn’t stop reading. (Luckily I was NOT on a subway, so I didn’t miss my stop.)
    Don’t forget to breathe.

  4. Nicole Thibadeaux says:


    Something I thought “Natalie” might like to see. After all, Shirley & Jenny aren’t human either.