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.

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Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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Personal Essay

Where depression begins (Or, Spikes!)

By Scott Ross

I’ve been ruminating on this subject as essay-fodder for some time. The recent “apparent” suicide, as they say in criminological circles, of Robin Williams is coincidental but not, I don’t think, incidental. The single most concise (and most heartbreakingly apt) description of chronic depression I’ve ever come across is Dick Cavett’s:

“[…] when you’re downed by this affliction, if there were a curative magic wand on the table eight feet away, it would be too much trouble to go over and pick it up.”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/27/smiling-through/comment-page-21/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

The roots of depression are, of course, not yet firmly fixed. That its presence indicates a chemical imbalance seems assured, but is the condition genetic, or in any case, purely genetic? At this point in my life, I feel as certain that my own chronic major depression, which has blighted most of my adult life, and indeed much of my adolescence, is a function of my father’s DNA. His father, whom he loathed, was an angry, violent man and one, I believe, who bequeathed that genetic curse to at least two of his children. Dad’s sister, my Aunt Peg, committed suicide when I was very young, and I recognize many of the behavioral symptoms of depression in myself as reflections of Dad’s own persona. My mother always resisted any such conclusions on my part (“He’s not depressed.”) but at my worst I see far too many similarities between us. (The high anxiety I also contend with comes from her side of the family, or at least from her mother’s.) It was in fact my screaming—literally screaming—at other drivers on the road that finally convinced me to seek a diagnosis. That rage was not the sole manifestation of my depressive symptoms, but it was the decisive one.

Riding in a car with my father was a test of nerve. Every other drive was an idiot, and at fault, and he could also be vindictive. More than once I clung to the armrest, terror-stricken, expecting to die at any moment while he passed a driver in a no-passing zone or even, memorably, while crossing a two-lane bridge. Interestingly, to me, while Dad despised his father for his bullying, he was incapable of seeing the ways in which his own behavior often mirrored that of my grandfather. Like the man we referred to as Grant, Dad’s temper was quick, and never far from the surface. And while he at least attempted to govern his hands, he did not always succeed. At least, not with his son. A cousin recently reminded me of just such an incident, one I’d completely forgotten but which made her extremely leery of him. Like Grant, Dad had always to be right. He could not seem to locate the proper angle at which to view himself as others saw him—a common enough failing but one which, I believe, inhibits one’s making the changes to one’s own personality necessary for self-improvement. My ex shared that blind-spot and, if confronted, made the excuse that people had to take him as he was. Everyone has to adjust to the man who will not adjust himself.

My passivity in the face of brutality, psychic or physical, is, I suspect, a result of the dictum handed down to my father by his. More than once in my pubescence and adolescence I heard the “Fight your own battles. Don’t come crying to us” speech. As a result, and because I was unable to fight, I held my torments inside. I vividly remember one pleasant autumn evening at around 14 or 15, sitting with my mother on the front stoop, and her saying, The previous two years had been a waking nightmare, that screaming hell we once called junior high school. “You used to be such a happy-go-lucky kid,” Mom observed sadly. “I don’t understand whats happened. Why you’ve changed.” I was, as always, silent. How could I tell her, even if I’d had the words then, which I surely did not, that living in hell, and being told not to whine about it, can turn the happiest child into a diffident, interior-dwelling emotional recluse?

Depression becomes manifest, we’re told, following a trauma. It may be physical or emotional. In my own case, I date the onset of my depression from the age of six or seven, when I broke my wrist in a fall from a tree. (Well, from a tree limb, to be more precise; it was a dumb stunt, and a disaster waiting to happen. Had it not been me, it would have been my sister, or one of my cousins.) In any case, I can recall sitting in a dark Canton, Ohio hospital corridor after my near-compound fracture had been X-rayed, waiting to have it placed in a cast. Was my mother with me, or had she gone off to look for a nurse, or a doctor? I no longer recall anyone near me, only the dark pall, the body-size net that cocooned me with almost as rapid a descent as the fall from that tree branch. The ensuing days are shrouded by that caul. Each time it recurred as I grew older, it was always with that same, terrible, all-encompassing swiftness. The climb back up, as anyone who’s ever been depressed, let alone depressive, can tell you, is nowhere near as swift.

Far too many people, even well-meaning people, mistake “sadness” for depression. Everyone has known sadness. Almost everyone has experienced depression, even if only for a day. And “sad” is to chronic depression as “happy” is to acute mania. I liken my depression to walking under water, every moment of every day. I smile at times, I even laugh, on occasion. But what a friend describes as feeling like a weight that will not leave her, remains. I rise, although never easily, and never with the sensation of sleep having refreshed me. I go to work. I function. But if I gave in to impulse, I would not rise. I could not function. Those who refuse to “believe there’s such a thing as depression” (and there is a shocking number of such people, most of them, in my experience, highly educated and otherwise intelligent) should take up residence in my skin for an hour. If they did not instantly change their thinking (and I ennoble such purblind obtuseness with the positive noun) I should be amazed. A co-worker, whose anxieties and attendant neuroses make mine look like the proverbial walk in the woods, says that he wishes he could touch such doubters on the shoulder and transfer how he feels to them for 24 hours. Because, outwardly, we do not appear to be suffering, our illness is not generally perceived, even when we give every indication of it. We’re “difficult.” We’re “self-involved.” We’re “unpleasant.” “Unproductive.” More than one friend has told me I have “an edge,” never quite understanding that it might be because all of my interior edges have been ground to the nub.

For far too many of us, the combinations of therapy and medication simply do not work. When I was first diagnosed, in the mid 1990s, I was placed on Prozac, the “miracle” of the moment. within six weeks, I had regained that “happy-go-lucky kid.” I felt as I hadn’t since the age of 12. But one-third of Prozac users will cease to respond to the drug over time, and I, unhappily, was in that statistic. Within six months, the pall was back, and blacker than before. Because I knew then that it was possible for me to feel better. In this way, that experience is almost worse than the disease itself: I’ve been through a veritable pharmacopeia since then, and nothing I’ve taken since has had the slightest positive effect. Ketamine, if and when it is ever placed on the market, might be the answer. It has the virtue of taking effect, not in weeks, but in hours or even minutes. If all else fails, there is always electroconvulsive therapy, but that is extreme, and requires so lengthy a procedure I’m not sure my medical insurance even covers it, or even if I could take the necessary time away from the office to effect it.

Severe depressive episodes are known as “spikes.” I was trying to remember when my depression mutated from occasional spikes to a chronic condition. I’m not sure, but I suspect it was in my late 20s; before that, I endured the spikes but had the wherewithall to work both full-time and part-time jobs simultaneously, and (at an age very close to 25) to enroll myself in college, arrange for Pell Grants, and drive myself from North Carolina to Vermont. Further, after that particular disaster, to arrange for a transfer to a different school, come back home, work for a year and a half, take on the editorship of an Arts Council newsletter to pay for my matriculation, and somehow, get myself to Amherst, Massachusetts. The slowly accumulating exhaustion, the sense of someone constantly twisting a rubber band around my temples, the increasing incidents of emotional spikes… all of that came some time during my otherwise rather happy years at Hampshire College. So it was after my return, at 29, that the condition gradually became so debilitating it forced me to seek diagnosis, and therapy.

The spikes, however, remain.

Worse, they come with increasing frequency. And each subsequent plunge into the abyss takes longer to climb out of, requires a greater pull on my diminished—and diminishing—reserves. The recent death of my mother after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, notwithstanding its being in a way a relief, for her and for her family, especially my sister, who cared for her the last three years of her life, still served to spike my depression in unexpected ways, and with astonishing swiftness; I could feel it wrapping me in its insidious embrace on the drive back from seeing Mom the last time, and only in the last few days has it retreated sufficiently to take me from deep slough of despond to what I am accustomed to: My usual, plodding, exhausting, “norm” of chronic depression.

Some know-nothings and professional reactionaries have, typically, taken the occasion of Williams’ suicide to bloviate upon the matter of courage versus cowardice. And while I hold suicide as a perfectly reasonable response to insupportable pain, and reserve the right myself to exit at a time of my choosing should my depression prove endless and intractable, I would also say this: No one who survives, day after weary day of this condition can remotely be called a coward. As Seneca noted, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” So is reserving judgment, or at least, governing one’s tongue when one is an smug ignoramus.

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Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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