Donald MacLean's Blog 9
month's blog (Copyright) was very general ... this month's is so
personal that I have repeatedly avoided writing it.
the best time of day. I have fed the dog, made our porridge, eaten mine,
we have walked in the woods, I have shaved, showered, swallowed 6 pills, drunk
1 pint of water (hate the stuff) and now I sink into an armchair with a large cup of
Darjeeling, a (wheat-free) choc-chip cookie, and the Financial Times.
Best time of the day.
I am walking along the High Street in wartime
Reading, Berkshire, on a Sunday morning. In my late teens.
My khaki uniform is new and scratchy (it replaced my Air Force one).
I'm hoping that people will notice that the badges are of the new technical
Suddenly I feel ill. And very frightened.
I'm going unconscious. Dying. My breathing is rapid ... heart
racing ... muscles over which I have no control are contracting in fearful
waves up my spine. I seek refuge in a public loo and eventually, in a
nightmare, get myself back to barracks. Alive. Very
Fifty years later I get the dogs out of the car and set off for our regular
walk. In a wide circle. Keeping the car in sight ... in case I
need to get to safety. The mysterious illness strikes less often now
that I'm retired. But after half a century of it these defence measures
Panic attacks are themselves a habit ... a bad habit acquired,
unwittingly, by rather a lot of people - now that it's OK to
talk about it. (The NHS quotes "at least 1 person in 10 experiences
them occasionally, 1 in 100 suffer them repeatedly".) Back in 1944 it was not OK
to talk about it. For a start it had no name. When I
described the symptoms to the Medical Officer he told me to pull myself together. I tried
... very hard. Which made it worse.
years later I venture deep into the woods every morning - and
again every evening. I walk with a stick, sometimes hobble - but
am relaxed and happy. What made the difference? I'll tell
you in a moment. It may
If we think about it, many of our actions
during the course of a day - indeed most of our actions - do not involve conscious
thought? We've done these things before - often enough for them to have become
Learning to drive a car requires our full
attention ... but after doing it for years we drive with our minds mostly
engaged on other matters. Vehicles, traffic signals, weather
conditions all receive adequate attention - but few of the car-driving actions
involve much of our minds - they're habitual.
Habit tends to get a bad press. But it's
an important - a beneficial - part of
our life. Without our habits we'd get little done.
I have mentioned elsewhere that when I was
demobbed from the army and we had the option to go to university for free I
studied psychology. (I didn't graduate that time ... a BBC job offer was too
tempting.) What interested me was 'behavioural' psychology - then new,
revolutionary - the
practical business of what motivates us to do things, to become 'the sort of
person' we each are.
Ann and I have a friend whose spiritual healing
of sick animals, including ours, has been effective (proving that 'placebo effect'
is not involved?). Lisa is a psychology graduate. When I told her my
hero had been B.F. Skinner she politely but firmly placed him among the
During a Panic Attack my body behaves as if I
was being attacked by a tiger - it has received the message "Run like hell!"
But there's nowhere to run to ... there's no tiger ... it's irrational - which
makes it worse.
Over the years I asked a succession of psychiatrists where this message was
coming from and how I could switch it off. None could tell me. They
all prescribed the latest tranquilizer.
A phial of Librium was my constant companion for almost 20 years.
(Incidentally I took them daily - and stopped taking them suddenly, no gradual phase-out, without
the slightest ill-effect - I was lucky.)
The tiger was most likely to pounce when I was under no
pressure. Sitting in a train with my young son Colin (to go
somewhere we wanted to explore) I grew more and more fearful - the train had
no corridor - no escape route. As the Guard's whistle blew I had to grab his
hand and disembark.
I hated failing him.
I told him about my boyhood hours spent in boats on the lochs of
Scotland - then, walking down the shore to embark, the tiger's whiskers brushed
my neck and I had to turn round.
I hated failing him.
Crouching in a doorway in busy Hampstead High
Street praying for a taxi to come by to take me the few hundred yards back
I hated failing myself.
Those are the sort of experiences
that etch themselves into the memory of those of us who have caught the habit of panic.
My friend Peter in his plane.
(This is his ham radio card -
A private pilot has to have an annual 'medical'
to renew his licence. Our doctor had become a friend ... he was, after
all, finding me a new shrink every couple of years ... and on one of my
licence-renewal visits he asked the very sensible question "What if you were
to panic one day when you're coming in to land?" I had no hesitation in
saying "No chance ... when my mind is fully engaged the
tiger doesn't get a look-in."
A TV Director on "Outside Broadcasts"
in my day did the
vision-mixing himself (switching between cameras) - when broadcasting unpredictable
events there could be no detailed pre-planning of shots. You watched a
row of screens, fingers pressing buttons, moving faders, in your left
earpiece the voice of an assistant (warning that the subject of the next
sequence had not appeared), in your right ear the senior engineer (warning that
an upcoming shot was technically unacceptable). What the viewer was
hearing came out of a loudspeaker somewhere and got what was left of your
attention. A panic attack now would have created a million or two blank
TV sets - and the next morning's headlines. It never happened ... I knew
Hopefully very few of my colleagues and friends knew
about my tiger. But he certainly qualifies as one of the threads that
run through most of my life.
What finally freed me from him? My mobile phone.
And Ann's. The knowledge that if he pounced I had an instant lifeline to
someone who understood.
(Someone special who happens to be not just a Cordon Bleu-trained cook but
an experienced Samaritan.)
Having a lifeline I never need it.
I had long ago promised a New York publisher
first option on my memoirs if I ever wrote them. I've always been
absent-minded - my memory is notoriously unreliable - so I did not expect to have
to fulfil this promise.
Then, when I retired, 23 years ago, I
dumped some memories into my computer and was surprised to find that recollecting
an event, and recording it, triggered others. And so on.
I should have known: Long-term and
short-term memory are two distinct faculties. In my case the former
turns out to be formidable (whether accurate may be another matter) ... and
the latter poor, and worsening.
This process of recollection produced a
surprising twist to the story of my bad habit of panicking:
We spent the summer of 1939 in a croft in the remote
Highlands of Scotland. I was now a teenager. On the morning of
Sunday 3rd September I sat beside my father in his car. Under the dash a
large American radio hummed importantly. The cobwebby voice of Prime
Minister Chamberlain said "... and so this country is at war with
Everyone expected German bombers to attack our cities in short
order - "blitzkrieg" had succeeded in country after country. So it
was arranged that we children would stay on and attend the village school.
The old schoolhouse
(It's now a B&B)
West Highland communities were strictly polarised - Catholics
had a large modern school - there was, of course, no Quaker one and the
Protestant school was a single room with a single teacher. My sister
Deirdre (5) sat in the front row, brother Nigel (11) much further back - Chrissie
Macdonald (13) and I sat in the back row. She and I were given Walter
Scott's "Lady of the Lake" to read, while Miss Duncan's attention was given in
an ascending scale to the younger pupils.
Chrissie passed me a note - "Today I've got the curse ... do
you know about that?"
I was learning much more from her than from
The daily journey to school was 2 miles each way. Deirdre
travelled on a pillion seat fitted to the back of my bicycle by the village
blacksmith. The first part of the journey was twisty and uphill - a
drudge in the morning but an exciting helter-skelter in the afternoon!
Our parents decided to return to Glasgow to put the house on a
war footing (netting on windows, and in the basement heavy wooden
ceiling-supports and bunks). My father gripped
my shoulders and said "Now for a wee while you are head of this household",
and the Humber and Wolseley set off Southward.
With puberty recently behind me, I took his remark seriously.
Younger sister Fiona's second birthday was imminent. I doubted that her
upmarket Nanny would consider herself or her charge as being in my care, but I was devoted to this little
girl. An important part of the exciting new adult responsibility would
be to protect her.
That was a typically kind gesture from my father - he knew how
much his words would mean to me. (Had he known what lay only days ahead,
his words ... our parents' actions ... would have been very different!)
The following week we arrived home from school one day to find
the croft empty ... on the kitchen table a note from Nanny: "Fiona isn't
well - I'm taking her to hospital."
Just days later a village boy parked his cycle at the door and
handed me a telegram. From Dad. "Dearest D, N and D ... I'm so very sorry to tell you this.
Fiona had meningitis. She has died."
The far Cuillins
It's seventy years since that moment and throughout that time the ensuing
two or three weeks have been a horrible blank. Presumably a standard
trauma. I remember only endless, sleepless, nights, gazing out of the
dormer window of my room, the sky often a shimmering curtain of Aurora
Borealis over the ocean and the isles of the inner Hebrides. I thought I
had become insane - latterly that I was hallucinating. The dearest
little person in the world had been in my care - and somehow - I'd no idea how -
I had failed her. It was utterly
irrational but I was overwhelmed with guilt.
Two years later I spent part of the summer at the holiday home
of my school chum Ian Boyd, whose parents were both doctors. One
evening, out of the blue, Ian's mother said "How is that beautiful baby sister
of yours ... she must be getting quite big now?" I stumbled out of the
room in tears. Poor lady. I suspect this might have been my reaction
had this happened at any point in my long life. Losing my father, my
mother, my wife of 34 years, were trenchantly painful experiences - but maybe I was
strengthened for them by a little girl who was, so briefly, my sister ...
It seemed reasonable to assume that my panic attacks
(particularly the physical aspect: the spasm of involuntary muscles running up
my spine to my head) were a 'sympathetic reaction' to Fiona's dying of
meningitis (inflammation of the spine and brain - incurable then). That
is the belief which I have held throughout the years.
But something odd has happened.
Having found I could recall many aspects of my life, and beginning
to record them, I woke up one morning picturing a large empty room occupied by
two strangers ... I was dressed only in one long garment ... I
was frightened. I assumed this must be the memory of one of
those occasions when I've had to walk into an operating theatre in a
hospital gown. But this was a coarse material - a military greatcoat!
It felt not at all like a dream - just a normal
memory of a significant event. But for the life of me I couldn't put it
in context. It haunted me for much of that day ... then faded.
Months later I had a restless night - I woke about 3am with
another 'non-dream' in my mind - I was looking at a lonely house whose
conservatory had collapsed ... wicker furniture stood like islands in a sea of
shattered glass and broken timbers ... devastation ... which I had caused! I
was overwhelmed with guilt. The dreadful feeling I'd had when Fiona
Once again the context of this 'memory' was out of reach.
I went to my laptop and described the two events. And as I recorded them
I began to wonder - could these possibly be memories from my 'empty' weeks in
Wide awake now I composed a message to an email-friend in
Scotland. Liz is a professional researcher for TV & films. I attached my file
notes, and asked her if she ever went to that part of the Highlands.
It was a while before she answered (she'd been working abroad).
She was intrigued ... would do a little detective work next time she was there.
Again many months passed before her next missive. We exchanged
Liz: I reckon your memories came to you the wrong way
round. You got pissed, trashed someone's conservatory, and received the
standard remedy of the day - six of the best.
Me: Thanks, Liz. You've been working on too many
Almost a year then passed. I'd given up hope of hearing
from my private detective when a terse email arrived ... "Still on the
case. Will be there briefly next week. Stay tooned."
And shortly thereafter: "Pre-war Court building demolished
lang syne, but I had sight of some records. Nothing relevant. In
fact nothing. Suspect admin gap at outbreak of war - clerks gone to
army? Am pursuing a less formal avenue - don't
A week later: "How's this? Nov 1939 - on a Tuesday afternoon the Procurator Fiscal
interviewed a youth who had admitted causing criminal damage to property.
Remanded. And on the Thursday of the following week, at 4.30pm. a
Police Sergeant administered 12 strokes of the cane to an un-named youth."
Wow. A Google on "Corporal Punishment, Scotland"
produced the information that boys up to 17 were routinely "birched" until
1948. It had to be done on the day of sentence and in the presence of a
doctor. There was a picture from the museum of a Highland town showing a
sort of table on which the victims were secured.
I asked Liz if it was possible she would find a name. No
answer. I emailed again ... the message bounced (unknown at
that address). And that's the last I've heard from her.
So. The timing fits. But it's hardly conclusive
I had the bright idea (as it seemed to me) of writing my next
short story on this basis ... that would surely trigger the remaining memories.
I wrote it. It didn't. I'm no forarder.
Here's a synopsis of the story:
One evening shortly after the death of my
sister I cycle Northward on the desolate road. Pedalling
frantically. Not because I want to get anywhere ... in anger and
frustration I cannot think of anything else to do. Eventually I
stop at a lone villa - the driveway lined with white rocks.
To my horror I realise I had thrown one of the
rocks at the conservatory. (This was completely out of character ...
when my friends had thought it fun to transplant a neighbour's large sun-brolly to
the top of an apple tree I had hidden in embarrassment.) The rock had hit the
main beam which must have been rotten ... the whole edifice has collapsed ...
sit like islands in a sea of shattered glass and broken timbers. No-one
The irrational guilt which had overwhelmed me
is now joined by real guilt. I cycle to the Police House and confess.
The next day, after school, our GP collects
me and we drive the 35 miles to the County Court. The Magistrate/Judge
in Scotland is called 'Procurator Fiscal' - he
is sympathetic - but leaves me in no doubt that I am in deep trouble.
"Have you ever had a good hiding? No? I fear you have some new
There follow nine tortuous days of waiting -
long sleepless nights - before the second 45 minute drive to the County town.
I have to wait in a general office ... kindly ladies trying to cope with the
work left by male colleagues gone to join their regiments. The
Procurator is still friendly - he introduces me to a Dr Gilmore and a police
sergeant, and I have to sign a ledger, alongside the words "Cane - 12
strokes." He shakes
my hand, repeats his condolences, hopes we might meet again in happier
In a basement room I am given a Civil Defence
greatcoat - many sizes too big - and told to leave my clothes on a chair in
the corner. Face down over a table my
ankles are buckled, and as my wrists are being fastened I realise I am being
deprived of all control (memories of a childhood op and the terrifying
paralysis of a crude anaesthetic.) My breathing is rapid ... heart
racing ... muscles over which I have no control are contracting in fearful
waves up my spine.
When the sentence has been carried-out the
greatcoat is draped round my shoulders and I am told I'd
taken it well. I don't think so. Back in the office the ladies,
thankfully, have left for the day. The guilt which had overwhelmed me
is gone. I can grieve
normally, like the rest of the family.
I prayed that my family and friends should never know of this ... and I believed that they didn't. Now that I think about it,
however, I realise that my parents must have been consulted - one reason for the 9 days
delay. Poor souls, they didn't need this addition to their anguish.
And it was typically sensitive of them not to confront me with it.
So ... those flashbacks ... were they of hallucinations? Or of
Did I acquire the bad habit of panic attacks in the attic of a
Highland croft or in the basement of a Courthouse?
nights, or at 4.30pm one November Thursday?
I don't know - and that doesn't matter.
What matters is
the fullness of the life that I've enjoyed despite the tigers ... the love that I've
given and received so fully.
that my most satisfying habit today is represented by the large cup of
Darjeeling that's now cool enough to enjoy.
This is the
best time of day.
second half of a man's life is made up of nothing but
the habits he has acquired during the first half."
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Photo of the old schoolhouse kindly taken for me by Neil
Photo of the Cuillins of Skye by kind permission of Carmen Mardiros.
Her evocative images are at the aptly-named www.scotland-flavour.co.uk
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"A sudden overwhelming feeling of terror.
"A state of serenity."
HOW TO TURN PANIC INTO PEACE
If you came face to face with a tiger your
body would instantly change gear - an adrenaline rush, fast breathing, fast
thinking - maximizing your ability to escape. This happens automatically
- you don’t have to turn on this state of mind and body, hundreds of
involuntary muscles do it for you.
But there’s no tiger. Your body has
accidentally created a state that is just as inappropriate as if you’d faced a
real tiger with a laid-back, relaxed response! And because your response is
involuntary you cannot "pull yourself together" - these muscles do not respond
to your direct commands in the way your arms and legs do. And because you are
an intelligent person you know that you are behaving irrationally, which
compounds the problem.
There may or may not be benefit in
discovering why this accident happened in the first place. Either way, this
note spends no time on analysis. We focus wholly on the practical matter -
how to stop the rising tide of panic and feel a growing serenity. Here’s
1. Smile. Never mind if people
can see you. Smile. From ear to ear.
2. Sit down. Right back in an easy
chair. For all the world as if you were relaxed!
3. Clench your fists. Hard. Then lay
them open, palms up. Let all the tension ebb away.
4. Tense both feet. Hard. Toes
curled. Then let all the tension ebb away. Forget them.
5. Smile still beaming? (You are
sending a powerful message to your involuntary system.)
6. Tense both lower legs. Ankles,
calves. Hard. Let the tension ebb away. Forget them.
7. Tense thighs and buttocks. Hard.
Then let go. Forget them.
8. Tense tummy muscles. Hard. Then
let go. Forget them.
9. Tense shoulders, neck, arms. Hard.
Then let go. Forget them.
10. Stop smiling. Frown. Tense all facial
muscles, eyes. Then let go. Smile. Back to 3.
Do this frequently. So often that relaxing
becomes a habit.
In between times - smile. Smile so often
that it becomes a habit.
You will soon begin to feel better. Your
sub-conscious will increasingly relinquish its bad habits as your
good habits get stronger and stronger.
You’ll wake up one morning and realise that
it’s been days since the tiger visited. Then weeks. Exploit this growing
freedom gradually. There will be down days. Smile at them!
Gradually start looking outwards. What can
you do for other people?
To qualify as a really expert panicker you
must have an active imagination, care about what others think of you, be
unwilling to do less than your best. You are, in short, a rather special
person. When the tigers are purring at your feet, enjoy putting all this
talent to work. With a smile.
Donald MacLean. Chiltern Self-Help Group. March 1999.
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If you suffer from Panic Attacks there is help on the
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