I woke up Tuesday morning to a white-out. Half-asleep, I looked out the window and forgot where I was. The fog rolled in, I thought. Everything outside was silent and still, puffs of tan air obscuring the tents across the street.
I went out to pee and the wind blew so hard it picked my skirt up and tore at my hair, kicked stinging beads of playa against my legs. It hissed faintly like blowing snow. I was used to seeing out to B and beyond, to the white spires of the commissary, but all of that was gone now, wiped away by gusting playa.
A college professor once told me that Milton had gone white blind. When his vision started to fail, rather than the world fading into darkness, everything was gradually washed out by white light. All the references to evil he makes in his later writing are to its all-consuming brightness.
Being in the white-out felt like going white blind. My heart thrummed like hummingbird wings. When I got back into the trailer, my hands were shaking and I had trouble latching the door.
I sat on the bed for a minute and tried to get my shit together. I felt weird, and I couldn’t tell why — was I hungover? No. Was I hungry? No. Did I need to drink water? Never a bad idea, but I didn’t feel dehydrated.
The distance between the bed and the trailer door was enormous, an ocean of space. It was stretching out farther as I watched, and I waited for the floor to crack open from the strain. The edges of my vision dimmed and I was overwhelmed by the sensation that nothing I was seeing was actually real — that the world was more or less a giant video game and I was playing it, one step removed from reality.
That not-all-here sensation clued me in. I’d felt this way before, but not for a long time. I’m having a panic attack.
I have anxiety. Some days, anxiety has me. My most common reaction to stress is to become frightened; I sweat and shake and sometimes have panic attacks. I’m pretty good at handling my anxiety in the default world, but the playa isn’t always a relaxing environment.
I only had one panic attack at Burning Man this year. Explaining how I dealt with it might help you, fellow anxious Burner.
1. Know yourself
Recognizing that a panic attack, not dehydration or a hangover or anything else was making me feel weird, was what made me able to deal with it.
Burning Man is stimulation central. Pay attention to your body as you Burn, and if you feel yourself going to the anxious place, move on to step 2.
2. Cope intelligently
My panic attacks always involve some shortness of breath, so I did some mindful breathing exercises. Then I queued up my “Stratosphere” playlist. Music is one of the best coping mechanisms I have for bad anxiety. Before coming to the playa I had carefully curated this playlist, populating it with the chillest, most laid back tracks in my music library.
These coping mechanisms work for me. Yours might be different, but the point is to know what they are, know how to use them responsibly, and come prepared to use all of them.
3. Take a break
Burning Man doesn’t sleep. It’s a ten-day party, social experiment, spiritual adventure, new romance, breakup, field trip, art parade… and it’s impossible to do it all, but a lot of people try.
On Panic Attack Day, I ended up skipping Burning Man. If you’re having a hard time, it’s okay to take a day off. It’s okay to chill out around camp for an extra few hours. If you need a break, take it. It’s better to recover for six hours than it is to have three shitty days because you wrecked yourself trying to push through.
On the other hand, if you find you’re feeling bad and need to get out, hop on your bike and get moving. The point is, don’t feel obligated to have someone else’s Burning Man. It’s your Burn. Do what works for you.
4. Talk to Exit Strategy Bear
Those who have suffered catastrophic breakdowns on playa (dead cars, rides that left without them, explosive breakups) speak in hushed voices of Exit Strategy Bear. A fuzzy avatar of opportunity, he appeared out of the swirling dust and sat with them, wrapped them in his puffy arms and reassured them it was all going to be all right.
When in direst need, invoke the spirit of Exit Strategy Bear. Sit with yourself and figure out what you really need from your Burn. Sometimes you need to go home. That’s okay. Peacing out early does not mean you failed at Burning Man. And sometimes just knowing you have the option to go home is comforting enough to let you keep going.
Take care of yourself. The playa is waiting.