Panic and Anxiety Disorder in Water Signs

Without a doubt, the most difficult part of the Water Signs writing process was incorporating my real-life bout with panic and anxiety disorder into Madeline’s experiences as my fictional counterpart. While overall this book literally flew out of my imagination and memory and onto my computer screen — seemingly with a life of its own — choosing to include the darkest period of my life into the story presented its own unique set of challenges.

No, I never faced the dreaded “writer’s block” at any point along the way, but I did have to overcome some serious resistance to pulling out and perusing some very old journals chronicling that entire, frightening phase. As strange as it may seem, while I was at my lowest point in the battle, I’d journal every day without fail — but I would never go back and read the previous day’s submission. I’d just turn to a fresh page and start writing. And when I’d fill up a book, I’d put it away with all of the others, never to be opened again. Or so I believed.

It’s kind of hard to create a compelling narrative without the use of proper description, which mandated pulling out all of those handwritten journals and figuring out which elements to include in the book. But even though  by that point I’d been free and clear of panic and anxiety disorder for well over a decade, I encountered tremendous internal resistance. For anyone who’s already read the book and remembers this portion of the story, it’s probably easy to understand why.

Eventually I worked up the courage to do it, but not before playing an emotional game with myself whereby  I actually skipped ahead and literally wrote the happy ending — which was a bit tricky from an editing standpoint when I then had to go back and fill in several earlier chapters. I suppose my unorthodox method worked because every time I’d read a particularly heart-wrenching entry in my journal, I’d remind myself of two things 1.) No matter how horrific it got, it was in the past and it could no longer hurt me; and 2.) I was working my way up to a magnificent conclusion, which in order to retain an air of unbridled triumph and victory, had to be preceded by a tough, seemingly hopeless struggle, a “dark night of the soul” kind of thing.

Still, reading those journals and being hit with the stark reality of just how bad things were at one point in my life was jarring, to say the least.

One thing I’ve learned from the countless readers who’ve come forward to thank me for writing about panic disorder in the book, and to share their own battles with this emotional menace  is that it seems to be an intensely personal experience. That while there are common symptoms — racing heart, pounding head, feeling of wanting to jump out of your skin — others are not shared by all afflicted.

In my case, one of the strangest and scariest was described in Water Signs like this:

But most distressing was a new and chilling sensation she could only describe to her father as a ‘tightening of my spine’. During these frequent and unpredictable moments, her legs and arms would suddenly feel limp and lifeless, though still fully functional. This was preceded  by a palpable sensation at the base of her neck, whereby she’d swear some invisible ‘puppet master’ was literally pulling her strings and forcing her into submission. All of these symptoms were now accompanied by vivid nightmares that typically featured disturbing images — from snake-pits and fire-breathing dragons to evil men in masks wielding AK-47s.

It might be of passing interest to note that at the time (1996), I was not really up to speed on radical Islamic terror, though I certainly knew about the unrest in the Middle East and remembered significant events like the Iranian Hostage Crisis. And although I didn’t include this in the book, somewhere around that time I had an awful nightmare in which my oldest brother Mark and I were captured by terrorists, who forced me to watch while they murdered him. Like I said, chilling stuff.

HurricanePalmsAnother point of interest in my experience with panic and anxiety disorder is that although most people associate it with acute, intense attacks, they were typically rare for me. Did I have full-blown anxiety attacks? Absolutely. But unlike many others, mine occurred maybe about once a year throughout the entire five-year duration. But when they did happen, they came on with a vengeance as described in Chapter 18:

But soon after they’d arrived, the pulsating rhythms and flashing strobe lights suddenly changed from energizing dance accoutrements to instruments of torture. In reaction to these typical club stimuli, Maddy’s heart began to race out of control, vying for first place with her head, which pounded ferociously. These sensations were accompanied by that frightening fight-or-flight response, compelling her to run as far and as fast as she could to some unknown destination. On this particular evening, Maddy followed her impulses back to the parking lot, oblivious to the freezing temperatures.

Her dance partner had trailed right behind and insisted on taking her to Shore Memorial, where a nurse attached a clip to her finger and proclaimed that Maddy was getting plenty of oxygen, despite her protests to the contrary. And though she saw the blinking green indicators that confirmed this sound medical opinion, she remained unconvinced. That belief only intensified with the nurse’s subsequent announcement that the patient was suffering from the flu — perfectly understandable given the recent outbreak.

There’s nothing quite so frustratingly embarrassing as trying to convince a medical professional that – while it might not be of physical origin — something is seriously wrong with you. In this particular instance, as with most others, I usually nodded right along with them, temporarily accepting the fact that no one ever would understand exactly what it was I was grappling with. For a while, it just seemed simpler and easier to concede.

But as I said hyperventilating attacks were not a common occurrence for me, thank God. However, the symptoms I dealt with on a daily basis were not exactly fun either:

But even though the acute onset of symptoms seemed to have subsided, a persistent general feeling of uneasiness had taken over, accompanied by relentless headaches, stomach pains and occasional bouts with alternating sweats and chills. All of this continued apace without regard for the fact that she’d dutifully gone back on the Pill at her doctor’s insistence, thus experiencing regular, if false, periods.

While hormones no doubt did play a part in this unwanted drama — exacerbated  by the Pill, which at the time was the apparent cure-all for everything — ultimately panic and anxiety disorder is an emotional problem, not a mental or physical one (although the emotions adversely affect the physical body). Years ProLieflater, Arbonne’s natural progesterone cream solved every problem I ever had of the female variety; if only I’d discovered it sooner. Better late than never, though, and I am thankful for happening upon such a simple solution by the time I hit my early 30s.

As for the panic phase of my life, encountering the “remote viewer” I discussed in a previous post was an absolute Godsend. But just as the problem affects everyone differently, its solution may also be unique to each sufferer.  That’s why my advice is to never give up, to keep seeking out potential solutions and trying everything that has the potential to help you without actually hurting you. Far be it from me to encourage anyone to see a psychic if that conflicts with their religious beliefs; I can only honestly report how my real-life story went down. I long ago made peace with the fact that my cure came from an unlikely source, one I will never believe came from a place of evil.

Perhaps when I get to the end of my life, I’ll find out differently (I pray this is not the case). For now, all I can say is that thanks to a psychic, I said good riddance to panic and anxiety disorder forever.

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Literary Techniques Used in Water Signs

As someone who believes good fiction should engage the reader to the point where he or she loses all concept of space and time, it was important to me that my book have the same all-consuming effect. Thus, I used several different techniques to create a “mental vacation” for the reader and underscore the points I was trying to make through plot and characters.

So here they are, in no particular order:

1. Italics – A significant factor in Madeline’s personal development is learning how to effectively confront people and circumstances when warranted. Throughout most of the novel, this is a daunting challenge for her. To denote this element of her personality and allow readers a window into her real thoughts and motivations, I employed italics. One of the most dramatic examples occurs in Chapter 19, when Ken forthrightly asks her how the news of his engagement makes her feel. Unlike Ken, readers get the truthful answer, immediately followed by her articulation of a lie she deems honorable and necessary under the circumstances:

How the hell do you think I feel Kenny? You were the one calling and crying on the phone for nearly two years about how much you loved me and missed me; the one who practically begged me to move here in the first place; and the one who kept your live-in girlfriend a secret until there was no turning back! How the hell do you think I feel after uprooting my entire life, hurting my family and having to face the consequences of a misinformed decision alone? How could you deceive me like that? Is this some sort of payback for hurting you?

“Hey, I think it’s great!” she replied brightly. “Congratulations! I’ve been dating a lot myself since I got here. Believe me; I have my own things going on!”

Look for this technique throughout the novel.

2. MusicWater Signs spans sixteen years in the lives of its two main characters — 1992-2008. In order to help readers identify with the changing time period throughout the story, and relate more deeply to Ken and Madeline’s world, particular songs and artists are mentioned. Some of these were chosen specifically for their relevance to real life, while others either fit the narrative at a particular juncture perfectly, or reflect the characters’ Philly-area roots.

For example, in Chapter One, Ken and Maddy’s first slow dance takes place to Elton John’s The One, which debuted during the summer of 1992 and immediately became one of my favorites.

In Chapter Three, as the two characters are driving to Atlantic City — site of their first official date — in Ken’s black Acura (another detail taken from real life), Maddy asks him to stop switching the radio dials when Jon Secada’s Just Another Day starts blaring through the speakers. That’s also a page (no pun intended!) out of real life, with the song being a 1992 hit with both the characters and their living, breathing counterparts.

In Chapter 23, Madeline performs her own unique rendition of the song, On My Own, from Les Miserables, for her dance studio’s local production. As I’ve mentioned before, singing beautifully and powerfully was something I’ve always wished I could do, but alas was not in God’s plan for me. Thus I took some creative license as an author and infused the character based on me with that very talent. I chose this particular song for two reasons: 1.) to dramatically underscore the melancholy circumstances of Madeline’s life at this point in the book; and 2.) to pay homage to my very favorite Broadway show. However, like Madeline I am also a ballroom dancer, and I did participate in a Fred Astaire showcase in Boca Raton, as part of a group tango!

In Chapter 30, The Spinners’ Then Came You, not only retells the love story between the two main characters, but also recalls their native metropolitan Philadelphia origins.

3. Sports – In Water Signs as in real life, professional sports play a significant role. When crafting the novel, I endeavored to recreate the culture of the Philadelphia/South Jersey area (site of Part One) and South Florida (site of Part Two) via the incorporation of real-life sporting events. Much of this occurs as a remembrance uttered by a character over a breakfast or dinner conversation, such as when Maddy relates her experience as a young teenager at the 1980 World Series when the Phillies beat the Kansas City Royals, and at the 1981 NFC Championship Game when her beloved Eagles beat the Dallas Cowboys, 20-7. Both are examples of art imitating life, as is Dr. Rose’s passionate devotion to the Phillies.

4. Food – As part of bringing regional culture and tradition to both a new and familiar audience, much of the activity in Water Signs revolves around popular foods and delicacies. Maddy and Ken’s beach picnic, for example, features provolone cheese from South Philly, homemade Italian wedding cookies and “tomato pie” (a special pizza-like creation first introduced to the area by a South Philly bakery in the 1900s).

Humorous Side Note: When I spoke at the Hawthorne Writers Group last fall in North Jersey (about 20 miles from Manhattan), I thought it would be fun to bring wedding cookies (baked by yours truly) and tomato pie. Although I knew the latter was mainly found in South Jersey, I’d assumed it had finally made its way north, for the simple fact that it is absolutely scrumptious. After several fruitless calls to North Jersey bakeries and pizza shops, I realized the Philly-area delicacy was nowhere to be found anywhere north of Trenton. So I ordered it from a local suburban place near my parents’ home and transported it by car. Thankfully, it survived the 2 1/2 hour trek unscathed (and uneaten). 🙂

5. Technology – One of the most enjoyable aspects of tracing the progression from 1992 to 2008 was referencing the various technology used by my characters. When the story opens, “car phones” are the latest rage, as evidenced by an excited Lori happily showing off the one that came with her brand-new Pontiac Bonneville (an actual event borrowed from reality) to her younger sister and her new beau. As the plot progresses, Madeline notes the heretofore unknown and excessive use of cell phones and pagers in South Florida (circa 1995). By the time we arrive near the end of the first decade of the new millennium, she is employed as a content manager for a company that specializes in online marketing for the hospitality industry, a fictional career based on the fact that I did indeed work as a content writer for a Boca Raton-based company, creating e-proposals for major hotel chains.

6. Juxtaposition – Water Signs is about the journey, not the destination. Therefore, readers know the ending from the moment they read the prologue, demanding a compelling narrative on the part of the author to keep them turning the pages. In addition to the other methods mentioned, the use of juxtaposition was a great help in building suspense, beginning in Chapter One. It opens with Madeline and Carmen crossing the Walt Whitman bridge, before speeding down the Atlantic City Expressway, their conversation informing readers of their backgrounds, motivations and plans for the evening ahead. Before long, the chapter shifts to a back-and-forth narrative that alternates between the girls’ arrival at the club to Kenny’s reluctant preparation in front of the mirror for a night of drinking and dancing (which also serves as his initial introduction to readers). This technique continues throughout the novel, with most chapters picking right up where the previous one left off.

7. Branding — Another method through which the culture and traditions of Philly, South Jersey and South Florida come alive for readers is branding. In Part One, I make several references to familiar retail chains and brands throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Jersey Shore, including Wawa convenience stores; Tastykake commercial baked goods; water ice (known to the rest of the country as flavored Italian ices); soft pretzles; Herr’s potato chips; and Turkey Hill ice cream.

In Part Two, Maddy gets stood up by Mark Donnelly, who was supposed to take her to SunFest (an incident straight out of real life, SunFest being an annual event held in West Palm Beach). Several chapters later, Maddy and Ken reunite over lunch at the Samba Room, a popular restaurant chain in South Florida.

Side Note: I did once work in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where I also shared a few lunches with former co-workers at this particular Samba Room location, thus the inspiration for using it as the setting for Madeline and Ken’s long-awaited meeting.

8. Water Imagery – Aside from obviously paying homage to the book’s title, the use of water imagery also evokes a dream-like quality within the narrative, and supports the interwoven concepts of renewal and reconciliation. On a basic level, the coastal locations of the story, the characters’ shared Pisces sign and Ken’s US Navy service contribute to Water Signs’ “escapist” quality, conjuring up images of beach-inspired beauty, majestic ocean waves, colorful fish swimming beneath the sea’s surface and American heroes serving their country on awe-inspiring aircraft carriers.

But on a much deeper level, water is a symbol of rebirth in traditional religious customs and spiritual practices. It is also a symbol of the emotions, which play a significant role in character development, particularly for Maddy. She suffers for years with panic and anxiety disorder — a gross distortion of the emotions that negatively impacts the physical body — without actually knowing what it is — until she reads the packaging for the medication prescribed by her doctor. Prior to her unusual cure by a psychic, the only time she finds relief from her sometimes frightening symptoms is when she’s immersed in water, whether swimming in a pool, riding a wave in the ocean or standing under the pulsating refreshment of a hot shower.

Ken, although not a co-sufferer with this affliction, often heads to the beach or to the Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier when life seems overwhelming. In Part Two, when rocked by Maddy’s unexpected arrival in Florida — blissfully unaware of his engagement to another woman — the pier is his destination of choice when he seeks his mother’s counsel in person.

Side Note: When I first moved to Florida, I’d often go to this pier for my own consolation, which is why it is also the setting for Maddy’s date with Mark (another fact turned into fiction). Today, I still visit there frequently, as this section of Deerfield also boasts plenty of retail and mom-and-pop stores and restaurants, as well as a beautiful, two-mile sidewalk along the beach.

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