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One afternoon, some years ago, I went to my ex-wife’s office in Midtown New York City. I don’t remember the reason. We hadn’t been divorced that long. Things were still raw. I know I was. But there I was, in her Midtown office building, on a high floor. I remember at one point glancing out onto the street below and then, suddenly, my throat seized. My breathing became short. I felt as if every second were a struggle. As if I were learning how to do everything for the first time.
They didn’t use the term “panic attack” back then, but I’m certain that’s what it was. I didn’t have any idea at the time what was happening. I knew it wasn’t a heart attack. It was something else, something formidable. Whatever it was, it was in control, not me.
“I’m not sure I can get home,” I said to my ex-wife.
This got her attention, coming out of the blue as it did.
“Do you want me to call you a cab?”
“Maybe,” I said. “I just need a minute.”
As I say, I didn’t know what was happening, or why. I’m sure if there had been a therapist standing next to me, he or she might have said, “Well, clearly, you’re reacting to….” But I was without a handy therapist. I was alone. I’d never experienced anything remotely like that before. It scared me.
A panic attack feels like you are going to be swallowed by a black hole of yourself and disappear. Or that you’re drowning on land. This thing has you, and it won’t let go. Nothing you do or say to yourself diminishes its hold. “Panic” is a good word. No one takes “panic” lightly. I don’t hear it used that often, and that’s good, because if it were, it might begin to loose its impact.
The etymology of the word is enlightening: “from the Greek panikon, literally ‘pertaining to Pan,’ the god of woods and fields, who was the source of mysterious sounds that caused contagious, groundless fear in herds and crowds, or in people in lonely spots.”
“…or in people in lonely spots.” That sounds right to me.
Now that I know others have been the object of a panic attack, I can understand why some people I knew in the past reacted how they did on certain occasions. It was odd to me, their sudden, great alarm and withdrawal. In fact, I probably was one of those who made fun of the term and condition. I wouldn’t put it past me back then. Not now. Not anymore.
It’s the case with all unnamed afflictions, isn’t it? The beginning of remedy is naming. We’re used to the term “panic attack” now, and so we don’t look at people who experience them as freaks.
I remember leaving the building and walking out into the street, unsteady and on the edge. I declined my ex-wife’s offer of a cab, feeling a vestigial sense of capacity tempered by a desire to appear manly. But it was not an easy trip home by subway. When I did get home, I was shaken. Would this happen again? If it did, what would I do? Would I make it back home next time? Or would I collapse on the street? Or would I disappear?
This mind and body we have. They provide us with the most wondrous, exhilarating experiences. Once in a while, though.