Panic Attacks: No handholds

I have had few enough of these, and the memories therefore are somewhat vague and escape specific description. But what I remember is of perfect horror.

A few years ago I was living in an apartment in Bristol, Pennsylvania. Aside from being able to take the train into Philadelphia every week, it was a dreadful experience. Life in some garden apartment complexes doesn’t beggar description: it’s all to easily described. Shabby barracks-looking 3-story buildings, huge potholed parking lots, feral and stray cats hiding under cars to keep warm. Malvina Reynolds could have applied “ticky-tacky” to these places as well as to suburban single-family houses. They were shelter, for sure, but they sucked. I’ve lived in them in New Jersey and then in Pennsylvania, and the suckiness quotient doesn’t change.

One day, August 23, 2011, I was in the living room and the earth moved. No, I didn’t have the company of a woman whose intensity created a colossal physical and emotional force majeure that was amorally intense and outside reasonable standards of judgment. I’ve been fortunate: the earth has moved for me in the past under those circumstances, but this was different.

It wasn’t sex. It was a lot simpler. It was an earthquake. It was centered in Virginia, but the shock landed in Southeast Pennsylvania as well. The room shook. Tolstoy, my poor cat, tolstoywas visibly frightened.

He huddled behind some furniture (this isn’t the picture).

I stood up as best I could and walked into a wall. I could not get my balance. I felt as though the world was about to be ripped free of gravity, and hurled into space.

Got it? So now let’s talk about panic attacks.

“It’s Beyond My Control”

One of the terrible moments in recent movies is the moment in Dangerous Liaisons in which Viscomte de Valmont dumps Madame de Tourvel. Watch John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s hard to take.

There is no control during or of a panic attack. You can even say, “Oh no, it’s a panic attack” if you’re a battle-hardened panic attack veteran. You can know it. You can know it but you cannot stop it. Often, being able to name something somewhat defangs it and makes it easier to manage. You can do that with manic or depressive moods. “Oh no, this is depression,” or “Oh no, I’m about to run up my Visa to purchase a $1,700 musical instrument I can’t even play.” You can talk yourself down, alone or with the help of others.

But not so with panic attacks. “Oh shit, I think I’m having a panic attack.” But the walls keep turning to Jello and you feel like you’re starting to fall through space. It just keeps on going. Oh, you know it will stop eventually. But when? How long will this last? And then you start to feel like it will never stop, and that you’ve entered yet another closed world, not of suicide this time but of permanent panic, of cosmic reeling, and of utter despair.

It’s beyond your control.

It eventually stops, of course. If it didn’t, you most likely would drop dead from fear or despair. But the horror never leaves you. Even if you, like me, can’t remember the specifics of the last panic attack, that fear never leaves. The fear of the next one. It may never come. But it’s there. That very specific fear of something unspecific but terrible. It’s yours forever. You have entered what F. Scott Fitzgerald, who authored “The Crack-Up,” called The Valley of Ashes. Put on some music, pull up a chair, and wait for what may never come. Or for what, one day, may move its filthy self in, and never leave.



About Ken Wolman

Sit still, shut up, and listen. We might both learn something.
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