Lifestyle & Culture

My Turn: Deer in the Headlights

November 27, 2016

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FOUR STONE-FACED judges stared at me, as I stood, front and center in a lineup of six young women who were cheerleaders from the year before.

This is my big break.

“Take your positions please.”

I turned my back on the judges, superhero stance.

The music started. The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” blared from the stereo and my heart flipped. I missed just a partial beat, a nanosecond, but did the sequence–arms up, arms down, leg pop, head flick front. And that’s when it happened.

DITH  . . . as in Deer in the Headlights. Eight beats into the routine, I froze.


Deer in the headlights indeed. / iStock photo. / On the front: iStock photo.

Like that wide-eyed deer I almost hit in driver’s ed. We had screeched to a halt. The doe stared me down. Her nostrils flared in and out, and her chest expanded with a fluttering heart. After a pause of mere seconds, she leapt away unharmed.

Like the deer, I too recovered. Even though I killed that routine on the next go-round it was too late. I didn’t make the squad. However, when I auditioned for a spot on the dance team, I had no problem: I made the team and performed for years in front of thousands of people. In fact, for the rest of my young adulthood, I never again had a DITH moment until 15 years later, in Haiti.

Black clouds sputtered out of colorful painted buses. Dust wafted from deteriorating piles of rubble, pieces of concrete  office buildings, homes, hotels and roads cracked or flattened by the 2010 earthquake.

At the time, I was doing development work in Port-au-Prince, dealing with crisis after crisis—the earthquake, tropical storms, a disease outbreak, riots, protests.

What next, locusts? we would joke. It was the only way to keep going. But the accumulation of stress and pollution gave me daily headaches, and after 18 months things got worse.

One day I was standing in my Haitian kitchen, and inside my head I felt a jolt. An electrical shock hit, then, like a lit fuse, numbness traveled down my cheekbone to the outer edge of my upper lip. As I felt the growing numbness it only took a millisecond before taking an ominous turn. I know now that this happens precisely at the moment my thoughts turn from observation to imminent catastrophe, from, My cheek is numb, to Am I going to die?


I collapsed.

The cool tiles pressed against my body. I lay there motionless in survival mode, to stop, listen for threat and wait for it to be safe to move. And it went on like this, time and again, for weeks.

Doctors found nothing wrong, but everything started to trigger me.

I overheated in taxis. Basement restaurants trapped me. Watching a movie and going numb, blurry, then blind. Taking a peaceful walk, chilling out at a bar where something lurked, making my knees go weak. Unable to breathe and unable to relax on the dance floor, on the massage table, in bed.

Basically I was stuck in DITH mode.

When I left Haiti to get help, I got on meds, started exercising four times a week and practiced yoga. It wasn’t until I met Dr. J that I would learn how to get unstuck.

“You have garden-variety panic disorder,” he told me. “Catastrophic misinterpretations of bodily sensations are activating your stress response.”

The trick to it all? Stop misjudging my thoughts.

“Dr. J, how can I possibly stop a thought I didn’t even recall thinking?”

So he challenged me, “I want you to go to the movies, and when you start to feel those sensations, instead of leaving, I want you to just observe.”

Terror coursed through me at the proposition, the face-off between “it” and me. After weighing my options—the inevitable discomfort of an attack versus the potential payoff: the movie theater transforming back into a pleasurable experience—I replied, “Okay, I can try.”

Midday on a Wednesday I walked into an empty movie theater in Georgetown to watch the latest sap from Nicholas Sparks, The Lucky One.

I rocked my stadium seat to lull my nerves.

On the screen a box of popcorn and a slushie rode an outrageous roller coaster through space. Then the feature. Pretty people. A love story. A young man fresh out of the military finds work on a Southern farm owned by a young divorced woman. It pulled me right in.

I started to unwrap the chipotle chicken sandwich I had smuggled in from Subway.

I love the movies. I’ve missed this.

And then it happened.

No, no, no.

The panic started.

Oh my god, it’s happening.

The helplessness, the crisis, the imminent death. It was all happening. I knew my body was physically seated, but inside it was doing full rotations as if I were in a gravity-free chamber at space camp.

Normally I would rush out of the theater, into the light where, if I collapsed, people could call 911 immediately. But banking on Dr. J’s wisdom, I sat. I was scared, but I stayed put. Like Dr. J told me, I simply described the sensations to myself, “without adding judgment or speculation.”

I’m feeling sensations. Numbness. Nausea. I’m feeling weird, I told myself as I held my half-open sandwich.

I could smell the red onions. The sandwich was no longer warm.

I’m hungry. I don’t want to miss the movie.

And then . . . it went away.

As mysteriously as it had arrived, the torment disappeared. The sensations stopped. Ordinarily they would have affected me for an excruciating 20, 30, 60 minutes, wave after wave crashing over me.

Wait, did I just. . . . Ha!

I took a bite of my sandwich and went back to Zac Efron wooing a woman the way I would want to be wooed.

Full-blown attacks turned to anxiety, and later, after weeks of practice, I was panic free. But not without fear or discomfort. Retraining my brain to sit still and revise my runaway thoughts took work, and it still does. Now when I start going all DITH, I know the power lies within me to get unstuck.

—Kovia Gratzon-Erskine


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11 thoughts on “My Turn: Deer in the Headlights

  1. Edna says:

    I can appreciate the intense effort it takes to retrain a brain. Hopefully the result is life-long resilience to overcome the flaring nostril experience. Love you, deer…

  2. Fred Gratzon says:

    Powerful story. I had no idea. I’m glad you are getting better. I now see it’s not only soldiers in wars who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

  3. Kovia,
    Congrats! Dance diva, yoga teacher, good friend and great writer. Thanks for sharing your lovely story and sharing your story of a journey into the unknown in a creative and sincere way. It’s open my eyes and triggered my unconscious mind.

  4. Denise Richards says:

    Great story. Can’t wait for the next one.

    1. Kovia says:

      Thanks, Denise! I appreciate your support.

  5. Ros Limbo says:

    And it was our mutual friend Alonzo Wind that send me the article

    1. Kovia Gratzon-Erskine says:

      Yes, my colleague Alonzo mentioned he would send the article to colleagues in Africa. I’m glad the story could cross an ocean and still make sense.

  6. Doreen says:

    The power of observing without judgement is important in so many situations. Good advice and thanks for sharing it.

    1. Kovia Gratzon-Erskine says:

      Dear Doreen,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Quieting our minds enough to observe and being gentle and compassionate to not judge ourselves or our states of mind can be so difficult. But therein lies the magic.


  7. Ros Limbo says:

    Hi Kovia,

    Thank you for writing this article. I struggle with anxiety at times and lately it seems to be getting worse. Even writing about it has become hard. It’s great to know that I am not alone and that one can overcome it.

    1. Kovia Gratzon-Erskine says:

      Thank you for sharing, Ros! I’m so sorry you’ve struggled with anxiety. More and more people are telling me in private that they too have suffered. You are not alone. And you are very brave for standing up and saying it, writing it. Keep going. I hope to share more of my experience. Everyday we work to overcome.

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