Personal Essay

Pushing the button: Panic attacks

By Scott Ross

One of the lovelier aspects of chronic high anxiety are periodic panic attacks. I’ve been having these for years but, as they have always accompanied emotional unexpected trauma, it’s only comparatively recently that I’ve realized that is indeed the name for these episodes. In my case, it begins with being broadsided by another person. After the initial shock, my face becomes numb, my entire body begins to tremble violently and I experience a state very close to what I imagine disassociation must be like: My mind is sharply focused on the violation, but the world around me disappears—and with it, any possible rational verbal response. Later, when I’m calmer, I think this must be very close to the way people feel when they commit sudden, unplanned violence. If the prompting incident is a direct physical confrontation (as opposed, say, to a telephone conversation, e-mail or instant message) I will likely end up screaming at the source, and the only possible recourse for me is a hasty exit from the scene.

(Panic attacks are not necessarily the same as hyperventilation, although I’ve experienced that as well. The first time was when, in 1979, I saw Alien in a theatre during its opening weekend. I knew nothing about it. When that thing burst out of John Hurt’s chest, I hyperventilated for five minutes.)

The first panic-inducing event happened when I was 15. Thinking about it in later years, I used to believe I possessed a long use, and a very short one, and perhaps that is so. I now realize it’s not necessarily the case, but the long build-up to this particular explosion certainly lent itself to my making that assumption. I’ve written elsewhere that what we used to call junior high school was three years of howling pain for me. To be at all sensitive—or, as I also was, bookish, shy, introspective and un-athletic—in early adolescence is to wear a perpetual “Kick Me” sign on one’s back. Mine was pretty much permanently etched to my clothing. In the spring of my 9th grade year, one of the perennial bullies who dogged my existence chose a moment in gym class, during which we were to attempt making free shots, to ride me one time too often. My face went numb, my limbs shook, my head roared like a white-noise machine and I heard myself saying, “Eddie… Get. Off. My. Back!” My voice began low; by the end of my brief outburst, I was shouting.

The second such occurrence was a little over two years later. I had been working since 16, on a part-time basis, at a two-screen movie complex in Raleigh (how quaint that then-new concept seems now, in this era of googleplexes!) The owner was one of the meanest little men it has ever been my disagreeable misfortune to know, much less work for: Stingy, piggy-eyed, a petty martinet who smiled only at own, sour humor and who never looked anyone in the eye while speaking. His eyes moved either to the left, or the right, but were never focused on the other person. Ray Nance was almost a parody of the humorless, un-pleasable employer, so much so that we often said to each other that, had he been a character in a movie or a book, no one would accept him as anything but a caricature. His approach to Mr. Lynch, the kind, decent, gentle theatre manage was to belittle him consistently… and behind his back, naturally. (The assistant manager was Mr. Nance’s son, who, having learned well at his father’s knee, made it known to us all that Mr. Lynch was “an alkie.”) On one immemorial occasion, Mr. Nance had come to the theatre during a typically hectic opening-weekend Friday evening of a new and popular movie. The start-times for the movies we showed on either side of the complex were usually staggered only very modestly, and we often found ourselves coping with hordes of customers on both sides at the same time. Frantic but professional, a half-dozen of us had nonetheless performed behind the concession counter with our standard mix of politeness, good grace and humor—and it’s worth noting that we had no cash registers behind the concession stand; every order had to be remembered, the cost totaled up in our heads and the change given back to the customer without recourse to any accoutrement beyond that of our own nimble brains.

Mr. Nance’s usual practice was to arrive between screenings, when the lobby was deserted, leaving us all suddenly left scrambling to find some busy-work to do. The fastest ones made for the sanctuary of the theatre auditoriums. The rest had to improvise. Ashtray urns already clean? Sift them again. Carpet swept? Sweep it one more time. It was ludicrous, but such is the game these types play; Mr. Nance knew his own movies’ schedules. He knew his presence would inspire this sort of mild panic. On this particular evening, and faced with the evidence of how well we had performed, individually and together… with what a bright and resourceful bunch of kids we were… during the lull that followed this explosion of hectic activity, Mr. Nance’s only comment was to lecture us, with the immortal (and, for him, all too typical) words, “I don’t want to see you enjoying yourselves while you’re working.”

In late spring of that year I had been offered a position elsewhere and was on the verge of giving a week’s notice, as, if I recall correctly, my mother believed that was the very least a person should do when leaving one job for another. The manager, a man I liked and had respect for, had called the day before to ask me if I would come in an extra evening that week, and I had initially declined. After reconsideration, I called him back and said, sure, I’ll be there. After all, I thought, while I didn’t really want to be there, I could use the extra cash. When I called him back he said he’d already gotten someone, a new young employee (we were all either high-schoolers or college students) to take the shift, but that if I still wanted to come in., I would be welcome. After I’d been there perhaps half an hour that evening, the owner came into the lobby. He asked me why I was there. I told him. He ordered me to go, making a point of telling me how much more reasonable the new kid was. “You said you didn’t want to come in,” he smirked at me, “so leave.”

Despite enduring the unpleasantness and absurdities of this petty little gnat of a man for a year, I had shown him every respect and courtesy. An entire year of his absurd mean-spiritedness welled up in that moment. Again, my face was numb, I was trembling uncontrollably and, as I stormed to the big metal door off the lobby I shouted (something I almost never do) at him to shove his goddamn theatres up his ass! and slammed that door as hard as I have ever closed any portal, before or since. The manager later told me that everyone on the staff had to run off in a big, tearing hurry to some task or other. Anything would do, just so Mr. Nance would not see them all laughing. I suspect I said that night what all of them had at one time or another wanted to, and after the shock of it had abated, they were giddy with it. I should stress that I was not proud of this moment. I’d lost my cool, shouted at another human being, and suffered a debilitating state that, however brief, was deeply unsettling. I remember standing outside that door and leaning against it, shaking from head to foot, unable to believe what had just happened, or how I had responded. When I could collect myself I called my mother, gave her an abridged version of the confrontation, and after a walk and a cooling can of soda, somehow found the serenity to at least drive myself back home.

As I get older these attacks hit me, when they occur, with no less alacrity, and are generally spaced further apart. But getting over them takes considerably longer. After decades of chronic major depression and high anxiety, I suspect my resistance is far lower. (To panic attacks, and to so many other little goodies, thanks to years of unrelieved stress.) In the past few weeks, the wonder that is Facebook has been the staging ground for not one but two such attacks. The first I elide over to a large degree, as it’s too personal and painful to go into publicly, but the appalling nature of it, from a woman who, although we never spent a moment in the same room I considered a close friend, was dismaying. Her betrayal of my trust in her, and the way in which she went about flouting it, were as close to evil as a human being gets without actually being a serial killer. (I understand from a mutual friend that she now feels it was “the worst thing she’s ever done.” Well, yeah. I sincerely hope so. But that doesn’t mean I can forgive such deliberate malice.) And the panic attack I got from what she did was certainly real enough.

The most recent event occurred last a week ago. The work-day had been such that by Friday my nerves were stretched taut by the time I got home. A nap helped, dinner made it a little better. (My choice of a movie did not, but that’s my own lookout; I knew when I opted for it that Salvador would very likely upset the hell out of me. That’s why I’d put it off for so long.) Taking a cup of coffee into my home-office and logging on to Facebook, I immediately discovered an instant message from a former friend. This, if my memory is to be trusted at all, was a man with whom I had a mutual friend, and who had requested that I “friend” him. And although I found his obsessive attacks on a certain former television actress a bit dismaying (what the hell had Bonnie Franklin ever done to this guy to make him institute on his home-page a weekly flaying of her?) I had not voiced any opinion on the matter; as with a television’s channel-changer, the virtue of a social networking site is that one can simply scroll past that of which one has no interest. Somewhere along the way, however, began annoying him. I began receiving chiding notes from him in my instant-messaging in-box and ultimately decided (o being told how “hateful” I was) that, rather than continuing to argue with him, the better part of valor would be to remove my irritating presence from his life. So I “un-friended” and blocked him. End of story.

Or so I believed. Until I found this, unbidden and un-asked-for (and, initially, un-capitalized):

“after 3 years I unblocked you and you’re still an asshole. How the fuck did you hone in my friends? Go away.”

Face numb? Check. Limbs trembling uncontrollably? Check. Laser-like intensity of focus? Check. Complete loss of time and moment and external world? Check. Urges to scream and do physical violence? Check, check, check, check and check.

Naturally enough, his act of aggression was a hit-and-run: Even had I the desire to respond—which, despite the need to scream, I didn’t—he’d made sure to block me again after depositing his charming little time-bomb. When I was able to recover some of my faculties again, I availed myself of the sole means of redress Facebook provides, and reported him for harassment. This, in case you’re ever in need of knowing, involves forwarding the conversation (and which, in this case, presumably included all of his previous screeds against my apparently limitless capacity for hatefulness.) There is, or at least has not been in this instance, any follow-up. Whether he was warned, or his account suspended, I have no idea. No more than I can discover just what it was that set this craven coward off; I went through at several weeks worth of my posts and saw there nothing that I could pin down. And in any case, no matter what action Facebook takes, if any, I feel reasonably sure it will simply, to his disordered mind, reinforce what an asshole I am. (The man attacks me out of the blue, and for no reason I can discern, and I’m the asshole?)

What astonishes me about both these incidents is the sheer unfeeling nature of how they were perpetrated. They were done with what seems to me ungovernable fury, and with no little relish. And they bring screaming back to me my own insupportable optimism at the beginning of the Internet Age when I thought, with stunning naïveté, that the act of writing, requiring thought and rationality, might make for a more literate, and perhaps more thoughtful, set of users. That I was spectacularly incorrect is self-evident. Moreover, in both cases, the individuals involved knew full well how anxious and depressed a person I am, and how easily my equilibrium—never especially sturdy at the best of times—can be shattered. I make no claims for perfection of self. I am as flawed, and as prone to solipsism, as anyone else. I have made a conscious effort in the past few months to refrain from comment when that statement is negative, or critical, or is aimed at a friend of a Facebook friend. So, while I try to govern my conversation, including my on-line comments, with some sense of propriety, I know I occasionally err on the wrong side of caution. How could I not? It’s just so damn easy to dash off a riposte! Still. To knowingly inflict that sort of psychic anguish on another person, as these two did, is beyond my rational ken. And it’s no good saying the sickness is theirs and not mine, no matter how much of a truism that may be; the panic attacks they engender are not lessened one wit by that caveat.

I have often said that the gravest of all human sins is a lack of imagination. The ability to empathize with creatures who are not our kind is one of the nobler qualities of the human, and one that sets us apart from the other organisms with whom we share the planet. The inability to empathize, however much it indicates a misalliance of intellect and emotion that borders on sociopathy, seems to me far more prevalent than it ought to be, and is and has been the cause of so much needless suffering throughout the history of our vain and self-regarding dominion over the earth. And nothing promulgates it as much as instant media. Things most of us would never dream of saying, or doing, to another soul if we were in his or her presence, we say and do at will, hiding behind our words, or our ability to hit-and-block, or whatever it is that allows us to inflict torment on another human being and sleep untroubled.

A friend whose anxiety is far keener than even my own has said more than once that he wished he possessed the ability to touch certain people with two fingers and make them feel what it’s like to be him, for 24 hours. I don’t think I would wish my panic attacks on anyone, even for a day.

It would be a lovely thing indeed if others didn’t wish them on me.

panic-attack-causes

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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