Panic attacks, Part 2: A chapter of autobiography

Contrary to what I said before, panic attacks are in fact describable. At least by allusion, metaphor, and candied bullshit. It remains difficult to describe the internalized misery, the downright terror that comes upon us. It’s the Bristol, Pennsylvania earthquake all over again. There seems nothing to hang onto. Everything is slipping away. There is only timor mortis. And then: So what? You knew the job was dangerous when you took it. Thank you, SuperChicken.

Language is limited. Music often says more. And what of the snarky, sardonic prayer: “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil because I am the baddest motherfucker in the Valley.”

On 9/11

The date that will live in infamy, not simply because of what happened to us, but also because of the Death industry it finally allowed to surface. I try to keep politics and religion out of here. I detest political approaches to anything. I hate the disputes over religion where everyone’s mind shuts down, mine included. But sometimes the wars of political faith stick their filthy snouts into the higher forms of our imaginations. So: 9/11 spawned years of war, perpetual warfare of the kind Orwell described long ago. War without end Amen.

Language warning: expletives are not deleted, and this gets really vile because it tries to reflect what happened years ago. That said, the poison infects everyone. Hatred may be our greatest legacy: not just in America, but everywhere. On that date, 11 September 2001, we knew within hours (because they owned it) who was behind the attack on the Trade Center, on Washington, even on the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And there was I, at work, praying for the death of towelheads. Yes, that. And worse. Camel-Fuckers, Towelheads, Ragheads, Sand Niggers. Yes, that even. Don’t like it, please; just remember all of it. It was pure Islamophobic rage with a nice dash of Angostura bitters–the indigenous racism that’s been with us forever. If we do not acknowledge our rage, it will consume us. Deservedly. Sometimes rage is born of zombified love. Our country had been attacked. People–guilty? innocent? who cares?–had been killed. So kill back.

At moments like that, indeed, we want to kill someone as payback. To expose the roots, we need only revisit the blood-boltered prophet Samuel (for the unitiated, HaShem is the literally unpronouncable name of God):

Thus saith HaShem of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’

It’s not just the Jews of the prophetic period. This is not a “Jewish thing.” In the reign of Mary Tudor, Thomas Cranmer, the deposed Archbishop of Canterbury, was burned at the stake, as were hundreds of others. In the reign of Mary’s kid sister Queen Elizabeth, Catholic dissidents and plotters–including Jesuit priests–were publicly castrated and disemboweled. Hey, it’s showtime!

Fast-forward to our oh-so-terribly-civilized age. “But we are better than that, we don’t just flail out and hurt others!” No, we are not better than that. We are that. Vengeance may be mine, saith the Lord, but the Messiah has long tarried, and we are still here, in this shitpit of a world in which vengeance seems to the only available option.

At the same time, perhaps the thirst for revenge is the only authentic feeling in an age of inhumanity, to react against powerlessness and its co-conspirator, terror.

Rage is a human emotion: not one of our best, but there anyway. So on 9/11, after seeing the North Tower in flames, I was in a rage. How do we avenge ourselves against these bastards? How, how, how?

My immediate relief was to hear one of my sons on the phone from Baltimore saying, “Daddy, I love you.” And then I was awash in my own tears. And the tears washed out the thirst for revenge. But that was me, and it was just for the moment. Unfortunately, the whole country quickly acquired the ethos of the schoolyard bully. But for the remainder of that incomprehensible day, I could look downtown, a half-mile from the burning building, and admit numbness, filled only with the simple desire to go home.

I had at last the simple need of a little child to escape to where it feels safe, even if safety on the global scale is impossibly delusional.

Yes. I saw the fires. I was spared the sight of suicides diving from burning buildings. Benedicam. Who can judge those who chose to leave by the window rather than be roasted alive? This wasn’t the cannibals’ banquet from The Walking Dead‘s scenes from Terminus. Two nights after the attack, I was awakened in tears by dreams of what I later wrote of as “mobiles of death spinning from the skies.”

I was spared the waking vision of buildings sinking to the earth. But oh, I saw enough.

PTSD and Panic

My job continued for two months more. I took the train each morning from the Jersey Shore up to the City. I did the work I was assigned. Even before 9/11, I had been hired to write Disaster Recovery procedures for Merrill Lynch’s data center. So I tried to gather information from data center workers about what they did. There were no answers, only futility from my sources. “Why bother? They’ll only change them anyway.” “But we at least need a baseline,” I said. It did not help. I got nothing.

In the last week of November, right after Thanksgiving, I was let go from the contract job. Whatever procedures existed lived in people’s heads. Everything proceeded normally. It went on within me and without me.

I was relieved when it ended. I was making $57.50 an hour plus benefits to sit on my ass. It was boredom and the pervasive fear that had taken root like malaria. It felt like theft, but I would have kept on stealing forever. And then the music just stopped. I was too stupid to get scared.

In any case, I had to go back into the City the following Wednesday after being let go. I’d been having psychotherapy for over a year from a wonderful man whose office was across the street from Lincoln Center. And so I took the train up to the City. In addition to the therapy, I loved the City, and I loved Lincoln Center most of all.

When the train pulled into Pennsylvania Station, I fell out of love.

As I was heading to the first of three subways I would take, suddenly there was a hard pain that seemed to thud into my chest. And the pain radiated down my left arm. “I am dead,” I thought. “I am having a heart attack. I am 57 years old and I’m going to die in a fucking subway station!”

So here comes the fear. The handholds have fallen away and all that is left is my exposed heart.

I was not so much afraid of death as of where it is taking place. In the Times Square subway station. Disney and whores. Jackrollers, pickpockets, noise and death at the soi-disant crossroads of the world.

All I could think was “Not here! If this is going to be my end, I wanted it to be at home. In quiet, near people I love and care about. Not in a subway station with the infrahuman scum of all races and nations.”

And then the pain let go, subsided. I could not take a deep breath yet, but at least I was not dead. Yet. So I got on the Times Square shuttle to Grand Central Station on the east side. I would take the No. 6 local to 59th Street because I had shopping to do. I needed razor blades from an overpriced boutique called The Art of Shaving. I was going to buy cigarettes, Gauloises, from a tobacconist right nearby.

And then I felt punched in the chest and left arm again. What is wrong with me?

The pain did not last as long. I did my shopping. And then, even through the remaining throb of a faux coronary, I suddenly intuited what might be happening.

Sonofabitch! I am having a panic attack. Hello darkness, my old friend. I’m back in New York, ergo I’m having a panic attack. Welcome to the God Comedy Hour. I was remembering the last words of Sophie Zawistowska in Sophie’s Choice, William Styron’s magnificent tragic novel: FUCK God and all his Hände Werk. And Sophie goes back to her abusive but devoted lover Nathan Landau, to die with him. They ingest sodium cyanide while listening to Bach’s “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring.” It’s cinematic and almost unreadable in its pain.

All things equalize, free of blame. Sophie has committed what is for her the ultimate sin, feeling compelled to sacrifice her daughter when she entered Auschwitz. I was merely having a panic attack based on the hangover from where I was on 9/11. It makes no difference. There is no sin. There are only terrible punishments.

I went into an upscale burger restaurant on Lexington Avenue. I ordered a huge burger, cooked medium, with onion slices and sharp cheddar, a plate of steak fries, and a large Coke. FUCK God and all his Hände Werk. If I am going to die, I am going out on my own terms. Eat, smoke some cigarettes. To hell with it.

I was not dead.

I took a crosstown bus across the Central Park Transverse at 65th Street and went to my therapist’s appointment. I deathdescribed what had happened. Now I knew it was a panic attack of such intensity that I truly feared for my life. He nodded. “Since that day, patients have come through here, and lots of them had fantasies of self-annihilation. Not of suicide. Just of ceasing to exist.”

I understood it. That was me. God, get me out of this charnel house. New York had transformed from a world of joy into a pestilential vision of Hell, a Dance of Death.

The following week I went back into New York again. And it happened again. Panic. Not even specific fear but simply of what Eugene O’Neill described afflicting the former Pullman porter, Brutus Jones: “Little formless fears.” It didn’t last as long and the intensity was a bit moderated.

The third week I decided I had to face it head-on. I went to the site of the calamity. I visited the Pit. Pit of Hell, pit of destruction. And I felt the panic again. But this time, contrary to what I wrote earlier, naming it somewhat released its grip on me. I went to J&R Music on Park Row and bought some music CDs. No, they were not of Bach cantatas, though they probably should have been. I got something to eat in one of the hundred cheap restaurants in the area. I had faced my demon. The great Lutheran “Pastrix” (her term, not mine) Nadia Bolz-Weber calls her depression by the name she gave it: Francis. She named it for Kurt Cobain’s and Courtney Love’s daughter, Frances. It humanizes what happens to her. It defangs it. I recognize much of myself in Nadia Bolz-Weber. But I haven’t yet named my depression. And I need to. It’s my constant companion.

I can name it for my parents. I can name it for bad teachers, disruptive lovers, false friends. I can name it for my ex-wife.

depressionI can name it for people who have hurt me and who I’ve hurt in my turn. I can name it for people who back in the Sixties sold me nickel bags of smack. I can perhaps name it for myself. For we all become our own best victim.

I am certain, however, that I will never call it Nadia. Because periodically, Nadia becomes a figure of Grace and helps me forget the worst thing I ever saw. So Nadia is the name of my ministering angel. Thank you, Nadia.



About Ken Wolman

Sit still, shut up, and listen. We might both learn something.
This entry was posted in anger, depression, panic. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Panic attacks, Part 2: A chapter of autobiography

  1. Nadya is the name of my spiritual director, so the end of this post made me smile.

    My friend and teacher Rabbi Irwin Kula set the final voicemails of the 9/11 victims to the trope we use to sing Eicha (Lamentations) on Tisha b’Av. For some years now it has been my most powerful way to connect with the memories of 9/11 — and it has helped me connect with Tisha b’Av, too, and the grief of the temple destroyed. You can hear them here:


  2. kenwolman says:

    I cannot find the link. Or better, the page I get to does not have a live link so I can here the recordng. The trope is haunting by itself. Worse yet are my memories of the last voicemails. Not “Make sure the stocks are up a,nd the condo has too high an asking priced” but “I love you, and tell the kids I love them.” There were a lot of those. We get down to life and death and we perhaps figure out what is truly important to us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s