When I became a writer, I signed on for a life of sharing and being vulnerable; of pinging my data from the other side of the Black Hole. But I’m very controlling about what you get to read; I demand an impossible standard of myself. (Just then, I went back and put that semi-colon in. My small act of control.) I don’t think I’ve ever reported on my sense of anxiety from within the throes, and a huge part of me is telling me not to, that this is going to be artless, that no one cares, it’s navel-gazing, and will make me unlovable. But it will be totally honest. So I’m pinging. Do you read me? Come in…
Midnight last night, I shot up from the couch where I was trembling and sweating, and started to get dressed. “Sorry, babe, I think we need to go for a walk.” The preceding three hours had been a raving, crying fear-vomit where I cursed our apartment and our decision to move to NYC, lamented that I don’t belong anywhere, don’t know what my path is, have no meaning in my life other than him. I frantically searched my mind for something I cared about, something that made me feel safe, something to ground me. My brain whizzed around the stratosphere. Dissociation. It’s one of the shittiest parts of a panic attack. The heartbeat, I can take; the breathing and dizziness, whatever. It’s the dissociation I can’t handle. The loss of self, of all the memories and dreams and loves and disdains that make you You.
I mentally Rolodexed through my friends, family, options. Where am I going to go if this breakdown gets worse? I rattled Nat’s shoulders. Do you know what to do if I melt down? Who will help us?
I didn’t reach for the Xanax I’ve been hoarding for three years; I have a drug phobia, for one, so I haven’t taken something for panic in about eight years. I got control of my panic attacks using a cognitive method I learned from the internet, during a bad spell in 2005 that compelled me to pay $45 for an e-book promising The Easy Secret to Stopping Panic Attacks! I only used the Xanax when the attack got threateningly bad, always alone, after I’d broken up with my long-time boyfriend and moved across several states to Austin. Why am I always doing this to myself—leaving a place once I get comfortable, safe? It’s hubris. It’s running on broken legs.
This is how you shut down a panic attack:
You acknowledge the symptoms, out loud, and in a neutral voice. I even give them a personality, like a boring old neighbor who shows up and prattles on. Hello, Mrs. Neebaum. Hello, rapid heartbeat. Hello, dizzy feeling. I see you. I see you, dissociative feeling.
Except this one just hung on—and it hangs on still. It’s the next afternoon and I don’t feel like myself yet. I sit in an office full of people who don’t know me or talk to me, trying to find something humorous and cute to write about a duffel bag covered in a meat pattern. Meat, I think. Meat, meat, steak, protein. Pro-tein. I can’t latch on. How can I do this job? Is it over for me? Is it a tumor?
I dash off an email to a therapist I saw once about a month ago, asking if she can do an emergency session. I text a friend and ask her to hang out tonight. I need to pack, I am flying home for a work/visit to Austin on Wednesday, but I can’t imagine packing. Or being in the apartment. Or eating. It occurs to me I haven’t eaten yet, so I go downstairs to get a juice. I forget my card, and go back up. The nice boys behind the counter at the juice place thank me for being patient while they fix their machine. I say it’s nice to be around such good vibes. They ask if I’m from NY—it is all I can do to keep from telling them everything. That I’m so scared. So lost. So alone.
People are fond of reminding me I sometimes felt this way in Austin, too (though it was only this bad in the beginning). I don’t see why anyone thinks this will help. If my circumstances were to blame (and I’m sure the truth is they are, but only in part) then it would mean nothing is wrong with me. Nothing that will follow me wherever I go, poison whatever I do, burden my husband, lose me my job. If it were the city, and not me, I could ride it out until we fled. But how does one flee oneself? It feels like the wrong question, since what defines my severe anxiety is not feeling myself.
Someone well-meaning asked me what was giving me anxiety. Ha. Take your pick: a tumultuous childhood with no constant parental figure. Finding my mother murdered. Leaving everything I knew for a city where I barely knew anyone. Genetics. Leaving behind another city, and with it a hard-won community of caregivers, including a doctor, a dentist, a therapist, an acupuncturist, a handful of yoga instructors, and friends friends friends—so many friends! What the hell was the matter with me? Putting my dog-sister-mother-baby of 17 years down. Winter in the northeast. Getting older. No longer seeing the point in writing, thus losing my identity. A tendency to go into denial and binge-watch TV shows or play computer games, get lost in books and short stories.
Anxiety attacks can teach us things, if only that we are not living healthily. But I’ll be honest: I don’t really know what to do. I don’t know where to go, who to see. Where’s that part of the lesson, the luminous clarity?
The Color Purple is one of my favorite movies. I wouldn’t watch it now, for heaven’s sake. I need light humor—Anchorman, Big Lebowski, that sort of thing. But I’ve watched TCP, no exaggeration, about 30 times. Oprah’s fantastic in it. There’s a scene toward the end, after the shitty white folks beat her, threw her in prison for 12 years, made her be the housekeeper to the mayor’s wife—in short, after she’s been to hell and back—where she is allowed to see her family for the first time, allowed to spend one Christmas meal with them. She starts to cry, “I don’t know none of you.” She is as far from her sense of self and place as a person can get, in the arms of their grown children, not being able to feel connected to them. Later, she’s a swaying, emotionless husk at the dinner table, and she watches as Celie stands up to Mister, “Your daddy ain’t nothing but some dead horse shit.” And then, a low, deep laugh shakes Sofia’s shoulders. She begins to laugh louder and louder. “The dead have risen,” observes the mean old in-law. She cries and thanks Celie for giving her hope. And then she starts dishing up the mashed potatoes, happily: “Oh, Sofia home now. Sofia home.”
This is a thing with us, around the house. Saying “Sofia home now.” I get the blues sometimes. I get anxious. I get away from myself and can’t smile, can’t laugh, can’t desire anything, find no comfort. I wrestle with it, like a dinghy in a storm. But I know the moment will come—it feels like you’ve been disconnected, and then plugged back into yourself. All your memories, the excitement of who you are and where you are going, stories you want to tell, stories you know, who you love and who loves you, things you want to eat, movies you want to watch…you can suddenly feel them coursing through you again. When that moment comes, I always say to Nat, “Sofia home now.”
What if this is the time Sofia doesn’t come home? This time, it’s taking a really long time. I thought sleeping and waking up would reset it, but it hasn’t. Maybe it’s like being sick—a really bad spell will be hard to shake. I’m always so impatient, so desperate to get back to myself. I look for the moments: a phrase comes more easily (I feel my mind for a second), a stranger makes me smile (I feel my heart for a second). I can let myself spiral into the fear that this is it; that I’ve finally gone loopty-loo. I will be unemployable, doped up in a hospital, will drive my husband away, I will never be able to write a word, my life will be sad and ruined and over from an illness we didn’t know how to cure.
I have no choice but to believe it will come, the moment when I feel plugged back in again, the moment I finally turn to him and say, “Sofia home now.” And you as my witnesses, I want it. Do you hear me? I don’t care if I’m a fool; I’m on a limb, telling you I want it.