I’ve Had Middle-of-the-Night Panic Attacks for Years. I Wrote a Song About Them
April 23, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Buick Audra
I had my first panic attack in rural England, in the middle of the night. I was there making an album of duets with Joss Stone, a doomed set of recordings that would never see the light of day, but cost plenty in effort, labor, and emotional energy. I was supposed to be sleeping on a makeshift bed at the home of Joss’ mom. But I wasn’t asleep. I was experiencing every fear, loss, and moment of shame I’d ever known all at once. I was very much awake.
I’d just gotten back to England that day after a brief trip home to Nashville, and I’d forgotten to bring my pajamas back with me. I was sleeping in a t-shirt and jeans. This is not a huge deal most of the time. I have played in several bands, slept on many floors and back seats of cars while fully clothed. This time it was a big deal. Perhaps it was the time zone change. Perhaps it was that I didn’t feel welcome in that house. Perhaps it was that the record was going badly and it was too much to admit to myself. I’ll never know. What I do know, is that I lay there for hours in a state in which I had never been before.
But I’ve been many times since.
I’ve been a trauma survivor all of my life; I have no memories that pre-date the experiences I survived in childhood. As much as I have learned about my mind and body and how they’ve processed the trauma, the panic attacks were a surprise. I was well into my adulthood when they began, and they were nothing like I would have expected.
Panic seems like something that should occur when one is upright and on the move. Alas, my panic lives in the dead of the night, the so-called “witching hour,” between 3 and 5 AM. That’s when I’m most vulnerable to an attack on what I know of myself. If I am awakened in the middle of the night, I am almost certain to have a panic attack, and it will usually tell me three things: I am not enough, I have never been enough, and I will never be enough. Then it will get detailed. Sometimes the details are current, like mistakes I’ve made in a recent live performance, or something I’ve said in a conversation that I suddenly regret on a cellular level. Other times, the details are historic, mining lapsed friendships and partnerships, old wounds from professional losses or disappointments, and amends I owe my former selves. Worse, sometimes they outline the certain wreckage of my future.
Making the record with Joss was the last in a long line of situations in which I was trying to make myself fit where I didn’t belong. The experience was transformative in many ways, the most positive of which is that I’ve never done anything like it again. Sometimes you have to cram yourself into a space that’s not your shape to figure out what kind of shape you’re in. The lesson was invaluable but has left its marks—the panic attacks among them.
In the Summer of 2020, I woke with the usual symptoms around 3:30AM. And I heard music. I heard, “All my failures keep knocking at my door, remind me who I should have been.” The song came to me in pieces that night and over the coming weeks. Eventually, it was time to sit down and sing it. There was something bittersweet about its existence. Its feel was akin to Bluegrass. I’d written like that before but had abandoned that part of myself years prior after a few flattening experiences with my solo career. I’d put that part of myself away along with the dresses I’d designed and worn on stage. Now, more than ten years later, hearing “All My Failures” as I composed it was both beautifully familiar and painful. It was like going back to the points of damage and planting new flowers.
I have been working on a memoir about leaving my solo voice behind and circling back for it. When the song appeared, it made me realize there were parts missing from the manuscript. I’d left out the crushing defeat of trying my best for months and flying home with nothing to show for it. I’d favored stories about my poor decision-making over the ones where I had simply not known better, where I deserved compassion from myself, not contempt. I’d told about the insults, but protected my injuries.
Most of the time, I know I am enough. Most of the time, I have peace with who I’ve been and what I’ve done. Most of the time, I know everything is as it should be. But sometimes in the dark, I’m gripped by something else, and I’ve chosen to talk about it now. My past experience with bringing difficult truth into the light is that it has less power over me, if only slightly.
Daylight, I’m grateful to report, is a certainty.
Buick Audra is a Grammy-award-winning musician, writer, and activist living in Nashville, TN. She is the guitarist and primary songwriter and vocalist in the melodic heavy duo, Friendship Commanders. Buick has released three solo albums to date and is returning to her solo work with her first single in ten years, “All My Failures.” She has a forthcoming full-length album called Conversations with My Other Voice, as well as an accompanying memoir. Sign up for her newsletter to be the first to know when they release.