This article was originally published by VICE US.
I can't understand people who don't feel like they are dying or losing their minds every day. Death and insanity are always imminent. We are so close to death (our bodies are so fragile) and so close to losing it (just one wrong turn down the wrong mental corridor and uh oh) that any weird sensation in the body or mind could easily be "the big one." When these extremes are always a possibility, how is everyone not just waiting for that other shoe to drop?
Some places are deathier and more insane than others. For me, it's places where I've had panic attacks before: classrooms, offices, restaurants, bars, clubs, coffee shops, movie theaters, other people's homes, any situation where it would seem "weird" if I just left. One might think it makes sense to avoid revisiting these places. I have a friend who says, "Go where it's warm," meaning only hang out where you are comfortable. But with panic disorders, this isn't really possible. No room in my house is safe. My body isn't even safe. I'd have to live in a black hole with wifi.
Sometimes I wish I lived in a black hole with wifi. A disembodied life devoid of other human beings sounds like a fucking dream. But there is another part of me that must really want to live, to absorb the human experience on this Earth, as uncomfortable as it is, because I haven't fled my body or transcended it yet. And despite past experiences, I haven't ruled out any one place from my life entirely (except for movie theaters).
Sometimes I even find it necessary to really test the waters and revisit an exact spot where I've had my worst panic attacks. I don't know that I do this for a courageous reason, like "getting back on the horse." I think I do this from a place of catastrophe and what-if thinking. Like, I'll think about a place where I've had the most paralyzing panic. Then I'll say to myself, What if you never go back there again? What if you start eliminating other places you can go, and eventually you can never go anywhere again? What if you are becoming unfit for society? What is happening to you?
This is why I find myself returning to the California desert, Palm Springs, the scene of my last major existential dissolve . You might think that I'm lucky to get to go to Palm Springs. It means that I have the time, resources, and means of transportation to travel—even if it's just a two-hour drive from my city. But the truth is, I fucking hate vacation. Vacation for me is no vacation. Vacation means that I have to be still with myself for more than five seconds. It means there is pressure to relax, enjoy, have fun and feel good. Those are way too many expectations, too many realms in which there is the potential to feel deficient. It's difficult enough to just be OK.
In the car on the way to Palm Springs, riding shotgun with my friend, I feel scared and sad. I am homesick. I'm not homesick for a place, but for my solitude: the ability to not have to perform for anyone. When I'm by myself I get way less panic attacks. If they do happen, on occasion, they are actually the scariest of the bunch, because it's not a situation I can flee. Like, I am the situation. But these instances are rare.
What's strange about social panic attacks is they are largely catalyzed and compounded by the fear of what others will think of me, yet the panic attacks themselves resemble dying. What kind of dying person would be worried about how she appears to others? I don't know. Yet somehow, the dying seems scarier to me when I am with others than when I'm alone making small noises to "test" if I'm still breathing.
I am glad, at least, that I'm not the one driving to Palm Springs. I've had many a panic attack in the driver's seat while transporting another person, when the feelings of fear and suffocation overwhelmed me. When this happens, the road begins to resemble a video game and I doubt we will make it to the end. Yet only once in my 15 years of panic attacks have I pulled over to the side of the road and said "oh my god I think I'm dying." When you're dying every day, you soldier on.
One of the things I make myself do in Palm Springs is eat at a restaurant where my last existential breakdown reached its horrific climax—a climax with no denouement for several weeks. At the time I was transitioning on my medication. Not only was I getting trippy feelings and sensations, but I was also seeing visuals. At this particular restaurant, there's a painting of Marilyn Monroe. In it she is supposed to be smiling and entertaining, but to my eyes it looked like she was cackling horrifically about a rotten American dream.
This time I make sure to sit with my back facing Marilyn. Yet I still feel her: in the weird tourists and business people, and their overpriced food. They all have somewhat of a wax-y, distorted look, as though the American poisons that killed her are showing on their faces. I don't know if it's capitalism, privilege, or what, but in this restaurant I feel guilty, mournful, and terrified for the state of the world. I feel we are all, myself especially, complicit. It's like a mad mushroom trip, when you feel that you are responsible for all the evil—that the weight of the world rests entirely on you—but you can't put it into words. It's grandiose and nauseating.
At the table beside me are a man and woman—he a corporate blur in his late 50s, and she a fox in her mid-20s: bleach blonde hair, huge tits, a pretty face and a giant rock on her finger. They are having a business meeting, eating some kind of disgusting salads with ham, deviled eggs and mayonnaise. He is only talking to her tits. He asks her tits if he can drive her to her car. She says she will take an Uber and he looks disappointed, but they continue speaking. I hear the words brand and content strategy repeatedly. I don't understand how she is able to sit there under her business face and not die. It makes me feel like we have a different constitution, like everyone is comprised of different material. It makes me feel like an alien.
The place I stay in Palm Springs is the same place I stayed last time: a beautiful, simple little cluster of Moroccan-style cottages. There is a pool, orange trees, fire pits. With the chocolate brown mountains behind it, the place looks like what Eden could have looked like. But I don't think anxiety knows beauty. In fact, I think that beauty can sometimes be a catalyst for anxiety, because you wonder what's wrong with you to not feel blissful.
Such was the case last trip, when I woke up at 3 AM, fragrant with oranges, and stepped onto the cool Moroccan tile and thought, I'm dying, help, get me out of here. This time, I wake up with anxiety two nights in a row: again at exactly 3 AM. It's as though the anxiety knows I am trying to prove something to myself and wants to show me that it knows more than I do. It's smarter than me. It's beyond consciousness and knows how to fuck with linear time.
But this trip, the texture of the anxiety is different. The fear is less visceral, less physical. It is more an anticipatory fear: me watching myself, waiting for the panic to set in, ready to freeze, fight, or fly. I watch myself go into the pool. Suffocating sensation? I watch myself read a little book of poems in the sun. Can I breathe? At times I am able to let go a little, to enjoy the beauty around me: the hydrangea, birds, and palm trees that look like pineapples. But then I catch myself in pleasure. I catch myself not thinking about anxiety and say, "Oh look, you're not anxious right now." Then I get anxious.
The three days pass and I survive, but I worry that this isn't how a person is supposed to live her life. Is the dichotomy between dread and relief really something to live for? I also don't really know which is better: to power through uncomfortable things or to just stay where it's "warm," even if that means seclusion. In considering this, I get the same feeling I do when someone who is suicidal asks me why she shouldn't do it.
Like, I can't say it's going to get better and then it will stay better forever and that is a reason to live. I can't say that. I can't say that if you push yourself out of your comfort zone your anxiety will heal itself forever and that is a reason to push yourself. I can only continue to live, myself, and share these experiences with others. There is something powerful and oddly life-affirming in saying, "Oh, you're fucked up in that exact way too? Same." I wouldn't say this makes it all worth it. But there always seems to be a surprising amount of hope and goodness there.
If you are concerned about your mental health or that of someone you know, visit the Mental Health America website.
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