The Human Factor20 February 2017
CONTENT WARNINGS: PANIC ATTACKS & ANXIETY INDUCED DISSOCIATION
What makes us human? What is the elusive gossamer threading our brain to our personality?
A few weeks ago, I found out I was allergic to the anti-nausea agent Maxalon. I only took it to relieve a mild tummy ache, but what it caused was far worse. Akathisia. The word has Greek roots; kathízein means ‘to sit’ and the prefix twists it into its opposite. Its scientific definition is a state of agitation, distress and restlessness, and it literally translates as an inability to sit.
Lying in bed, I suddenly felt a strong desire to move and fidget, but it was different to restlessness. It was entirely internal. It was as if I were a separate entity to my own body and I was trapped inside it, thus movement did not relieve the sensation.
At the time I was watching Netflix, but I had to stop watching because I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t focus on anything. I felt an urge to dig at my skin so I could escape my own body, and the longer it lasted the more trapped, claustrophobic and restless I felt internally.
This extended to physical restlessness in a futile attempt to relieve the sensation. I started pacing and I felt a gradually growing pain in my head. It was not like a headache, but as though I was working out an immensely difficult mathematical equation without the satisfaction of any relief. It felt like my skull was caving in on itself.
I couldn’t understand how much pain I could inflict on myself psychologically. Doctors have explained the experience as the suppression of dopamine transmissions in the brain. Putting it simply, dopamine is a pleasure chemical, secreted in response to a smorgasbord of activities including eating, sex and acing an exam. So it makes sense an absence of our dopa-buddy in the brain would probably cause some discomfort.
Often akathisia is drug-induced, caused most commonly by antipsychotics and anti-emetics (such as Maxalon in my case). In addition, many addictive drugs such as heroin and cocaine increase dopamine levels in the brain, so akathisia can also be experienced as a withdrawal symptom from recreational drugs. It has even been suggested that people with naturally low dopamine levels are more prone to addiction. It appears life is an uneven playing field.
While there are other causes too, it always involves that balance of dopamine. If our brains are so easily moulded and influenced by chemicals, what are we but walking beakers? Where lies the ethereal wisp separating soul and molecules? I have always felt the spirit and the body were one, but then my akathisia caused a panic attack. Now I wonder whether they sit on entirely different planes. For those who have not experienced a panic attack, this is how it feels.
After I paced from my bedroom to the bathroom I started sweating. In response to my akathisia, the panic attack arrived in full force and it felt like I was about to die. I was contemplating writing a note to say goodbye, because it was as if nobody else knew. It felt like my brain was trapped in a cell inside my chest and my head was on fire. I remember feeling very trapped. A strange man appeared beside me and he was whispering,
“You are about to die! This is what everyone feels before they die but nobody alive knows because they haven’t experienced death! It’s very important not to tell anyone what you’re experiencing because nobody alive can know. Even if you don’t die now and you manage to escape this, you’ll only be postponing your death for another time. You’ll never again live in peace and you can never tell anyone how this feels.”
I knew that only I could hear this devil, which made me feel isolated and even more convinced that nobody around me knew of my impending doom. It was an incredibly frightening and legitimate fear, and it felt like I was on the edge of a cliff despite clearly being in the bathroom. It was like an out of body experience experienced inside my body, and as if my body and mind were on two separate wavelengths. In fact, I remember several moments where I sympathised with myself as if I were not the one experiencing the pain.
The doctors call this anxiety-induced dissociation. It is the absence of serotonin – a brain hormone mainly responsible for regulating mood, sleep and cognition – and excess of adrenaline. But still I question what separates our ‘soul’ from our body. If I can have an out of body experience and wallow along time’s coil without belonging to any physical being, then what defines who we are? Because certainly both our body and our personality can change drastically over certain plots of time. We only have to examine ourselves as children when we were both physically and intellectually different people to wonder what drives our consciousness.
The voice described earlier, despite being within my own consciousness, was not following my command of silence. We can naively believe we are master of ourselves, but to what extent is this true? After all, we often recognise our own faults, yet still struggle to change them. What if we are merely that: a body of swirling chemicals with the simulacrum of consciousness. The panic attack and akathisia did indeed subside. But it was, scientifically, merely the return of dopamine to a satisfactory level.