by SAMANTHA SCHUYLER
A car cries out from a place far away. Someone is leaning on the horn, squarely and securely, because the sound doesn’t let up for a full ten seconds. After the fourth second the air becomes strained, and faces lift in anticipation of something, or else in concern. Another car chimes in; it has become a chorus. The sound approaches, growing louder, until the two sing past the window: They have merged into one strained, long note.
I am in a public place and so I look to my fellow man to be assured that I am not the only one whose body lit up at the sound. I am coiled and taut, but I do not want to be that way alone. As it turns out, people lost interest quickly. I am cooling my coffee with my hands. People are industrious and quiet; they pick at pastries and slowly stir drinks both hot and cold. Outside, I can still hear the sound, and my whole body is ready for a collision, a disaster. There is nothing. The sound fades away. I stir my coffee; I contemplate a scone.
I had a panic attack the other day. I do not know where it came from. Out of nowhere, I guess. From what I gather, nowhere is an unpleasant place. Generally nothing wants to stick around for long. So I can sympathize with the attack, which had hurtled out of this place, nowhere, and into my synapses.
When it came, and it hit me, the sensation was physical. I conceived of it as an oncoming train (inevitable, thundering) and myself as something caught in the tracks (trapped, flailing). We wrestled very briefly, but the attack won, settled somewhere behind my respiratory system, and squeezed. My lungs struggled to catch up and siphon its quota of oxygen into my blood; I began to make the sounds of a beached whale.
I stayed up to nurse the attack because we were in this together, the panic attack and I. Nowhere, I realized, must be a terribly lonely place. I laid on my side and curled around the feeling in a way that appeared fetal, embryonic. I wondered briefly if I was coaxing it away or nurturing it closer simply by paying attention to it, like a stray animal. Through the distraction a singular thought made itself very clear to me: The last thing in the world that I wanted was for the feeling to stay. A secondary thought followed: Will it be leaving?
I closed my eyes and imagined myself floating in dark water, as if this would help. The water spread out infinitely and was difficult to separate from the sky. Being caught in a space that was endless on all sides was overwhelming, and I gave up immediately. But each time I closed my eyes the image appeared again, persistent in its complete neutrality. I wanted to be very far away from endless space, where nothing existed that was immediate or concrete, but if I tried to physically calm myself in what I assumed was a meditative and relaxed pose then there it was again. In fact, the immediacy of such a space thrilled the panic attack. In its excitement it enthusiastically sent a series of alarms up my spine, to which I responded by making fists that pressed five red half-moons into each of my palms.
I wanted the attack and I to have an agreement that would be binding and secure: I would let it run its course on the condition that it would eventually go away. I concentrated deeply on these terms. The panic attack responded by flicking a nearby cluster of neurons, and my whole sympathetic nervous system lit up like a pin ball machine.
Sometimes Florida weather is hard to bear in a way that the northerner would find insufferable. The warmth is unchanging; the sand is too powdery and fine; the sky is unnervingly blue. The sky, when it is clear and without clouds, is far too blue. Without any object — cloud, plane, tree — to create a point of reference it seems to be without end. It is Lynchian in its saturation, a caricature of real sky. In a way, it is reminiscent of another sky, dim and starless, indistinct from an expanse of dark water.
Today I step outside into what appears to be a prototypical Florida afternoon, crowned by a layer of swampy heat. The pavement is white and glinting from the sun, oppressively present; immediately my skin acquires a lacquered sheen. I’m getting into the car with friends.
David rubs his head. It’s been recently shaved, and he will absently touch his new downy skull as though to savor the feeling. He slides behind the wheel while Annie and I take up the rest of the car, where the inside is so hot it hurts to move. His hand plies through his prickly short hair while he recounts to us what a few mutual friends saw at a party last night.
“So this girl — no one knows who she was — just falls on her face. It’s like 3 a.m., right on the pavement.” He pauses, sliding into midday traffic. “I mean, that’s what they think happened, at least.”
I can only see the side of Annie’s face from the back, where I stretch my legs across the two empty seats. She appears concerned; her glasses wiggle as she adjusts them.
“They think? Did they see it happen?” she asks.
“Well they just found her. Sitting in a chair on the porch. Her two front teeth — gone.” David removes a hand from the wheel to gesture to his own face, miming blood running from two holes in his mouth. Annie and I make a noise of disbelief in unison.
“She was holding the teeth in her hand. People kept asking her if she was okay, if she needed to go somewhere. She just kept holding the teeth in her hand, totally calm. Knocked right out. She only would say that she fell.”
Maybe it is the sun, but the image is visceral and nauseating. My hand is outstretched on my knee, and in it are two teeth, perfectly white, larger than I expected. I am parallel to the backs of the seats, leaning against the door, so all I can see is the image framed by the window: hot white pavement and unobstructed, infinite sky. Where I was once distantly sorry for the stranger I am now fully engrossed. The investment feels harsh and sour in my throat. It occurs to me that I feel the impulse to cry; the sun presses in on all sides; I feel inescapable contact with it and the car is lit up too bright to bear. If I shut my eyes the backs of my lids are red, lit by dizzying speckles of white.
“I’m glad we weren’t there to see that. It’s good that we left early,” Annie points out. Her voice is tangible and firm; I sense the feeling loosen and slide off. In my relief I can’t quite slow my heartbeat, but press my hand to my chest anyway.
“I need water,” I say.
“We’re here,” says David, setting the car in park.
The only other time I have ever had a panic attack was in a plane. I knew going into the flight I’d be vaguely terrified the whole ride, but I outdid my expectations. I sat next to an old woman with gray hair — hard and shiny like a helmet — reading a religious text. I found this ominous, but that was normal. As usual, I looked down hard at the book in my hands as we lifted off and my stomach collapsed into itself.
Once the plane was level, disorienting and incomprehensible dings sounded throughout the cabin, which were not acknowledged. This, too, was normal. As we cruised in a cloud of white noise, I ventured a peek out of the window. For the second time my stomach made itself as small as possible: I could see all the way down. Before we had climbed — or maybe this was after, I can’t remember — the pilot had mentioned the day was cloudless and clear. Great flying weather. Staring through the window, my whole body became fixed into place, my muscles frozen tense and coiled. I was gripping the arm rests with such force the lady beside me glanced up from her book and over her bifocals.
Usually when flying I can eventually handle looking outside. The clouds give a false sense of perspective — I can trick my brain into believing that they are the ground, whipped topping earth. Or the floor of heaven, which is my more truthful and childish mental image. But this time I had nothing with which to trick my brain, and it short-circuited. I was frozen in terror. The sucking shriek of the plane fed my anxiety, which had become a feedback loop of death and a very specific freak accident. I felt more convinced of my own doom than ever before; the theoretical horror was real and tangible. I refused to move any part of my body, as though any slight disruption would rock the entire plane and send us spiraling back down to Earth.
I sat in this way for the three hour flight, my eyes trained out the port hole, trying to think about absolutely nothing, physically and cognitively trapped. I woke up the next day and all of my muscles ached.
It took a little over an hour, but the attack went away. I knew because I was finally able to close my eyes and feel comforted by the nothing there. My breathing became inaudible; I was once again fixed and oriented in time and space.
The relief came from knowing the feeling was not going to last forever. It had ended itself by falling away, back to where it came or onward to occupy itself with someone else. But I do not think that is true, that once it expires the feeling is gone. The anxiety which was so palpable and tormenting was a crystallized form of something that always exists. The world is always a scary and bewildering place, that is a constant. What is variable is our ability to deal with it. Or, more likely, ignore it.
What I would like to know — and what I do not know the answer to — is what manipulates the variable.
Outside of the coffee shop it begins to rain. The sound of police sirens is distant, and then searing in its closeness. Pulsing red and blue lights flash by the window; the sky is blurred and gray and swimming with clouds. One head glances up to catch it go. And outside the room where I lay, feeling the absence of the attack as emptiness, it begins to rain as well. The sound, a lulling hush, always puts me to sleep, and I find that I can. I do not know what pushes anxiety to the corner of a person’s consciousness. I don’t know what makes it bearable. It could be inherited, or learned; it might be a temperament, or a behavior. Parsing this matters less as I sink slowly out of consciousness. Tomorrow I will hear the sound of a person leaning hard on their horn. I will look up. A feeling will approach on the outskirts of my brain and pick up a scent. It will become intent. Grow disinterested. Look onward, lope away.
Paintings by Per Adolfsen.
“Solo Dancing” – Indiana (mp3)
“Only the Lonely” – Indiana (mp3)