Interlude: Panic at the Opera

I grab the counter and wonder if I’m going to black out. The cashier is spinning. This first attack happens in a supermarket on south street. Supermarkets are so full of sensory overload that buying cheese and tomatoes could make anyone a little dizzy now and then. I quickly feel better and I don’t give it a second thought. I just leave and wonder if this woman who now looks like Minnie Pearl used to be a punk rock girl back in the day.

Weeks later the second attack happens. This one is at the orchestra and I can’t explain it away. A place of daydreams and sublime sounds. Here an attack doesn’t make any sense to me, and this time it is really scary.

If you’re not familiar with panic attacks…

Begin the metronome:  

  • Heart races like galloping horses. 
  • Palms get sweaty.
  • Difficult to take a comfortable breath. 
  • Attention turns neurotically inward assessing the above symptoms.
  • Begin to feel dizzy
  • The stage and performance move away like they’re deep in a tunnel. Normal objects like a purse or glasses look oddly unreal, or maybe too real.
  • Afraid I might pass out. 
  • Heart races faster.
  • wonder if it’s a heart attack, get scared.
  • I want to run! I want to get up and leave, but that will interrupt the performance, and I’m more afraid of the ensuing attention and embarrassment than an actual heart attack.
  • dizzier
  • Can’t focus thoughts.
  • Feel powerless and out of control.
  • Feel guilt for being out of control.
  • Adrenaline crash.
  • Feel weak.
  • Exhaustion.
  • Fear. Deep fear it will happen again.

So, what would you do if you felt all of that in a matter of seconds?

I try to avoid situations where they happen. So what if I never see another opera again. I have other hobbies.

This is a seismic shift in my life. Not too long ago I did things like jog on the great wall of china and swim with sharks in Belize, now I can’t listen to music in a safe concert hall? It is unsettling to say the least, and as my worries increase, the attacks increase. I begin to panic at work, in traffic, walking around the block; safe places are becoming scarce. I no longer feel like myself. Insidious, they even take coffee away, that ambrosia of productivity, because the caffeine will get my heart racing and easily trigger an episode.

I figure it must be stress from work. My chest feels like it’s constantly full of concrete and it’s hard to concentrate. It makes me not very present for my students the way I am used to being and I feel terrible for that. I give directions and make small talk on auto pilot.

I decide to take a sabbatical and try to reset.

On the last day of the school year I move out of my apartment and hit the highway to visit one of the safest places I know. Portland, Oregon. It is the classic American road trip 90 mph across the country with echoes of Kerouac’s On the Road in my head. It is awesome! I wish I could enjoy it. There are isolated moments of joy: visiting Brad and Dawn in Kansas City and then meeting my great friend from work Allison to visit several of the National Parks where we commune with dinosaur bones and geysers. But, again I feel this guilt that I’m not myself and not totally present with anything or anyone. Another attack always feels steps away. I anticipate them like a bully in a hallway.

To my horror, the change of scenery and the safety of home doesn’t change anything. They get worse.

One night watching the most benign episode of jeopardy in one of the places I feel safest in the world I had one of the worst attacks ever. There is a swoosh like a tornado in my chest and I can’t catch my breath. My world literally can’t get any smaller than my favorite couch. I drove 3,000 miles, but can’t get away from myself.

A more the glass is half full blogger might also mention that this year isn’t all panic attacks. It is full of great coffee shop conversations, I drive across the country twice. Memories for a lifetime with Allison. The garage is full of artwork I make filling every inch of wall and floor, We go to concerts, we hike the gorge, we walk the chihuahuas everyday, go to trivia with friends, restaurants, and enjoy small moments of warm afternoon sun on our faces that pause time; And, ramen. the house is always full of love, music, and stories.

My world is a small couch and from there I voice that I’m in trouble. My cousins have supportive words. I trust them enough that I begin to take back my world little by little. There’s little choice because I am going to have to drive back across the country soon for work. I push my world outward from the couch, to around the block, to the store, and eventually I decide to drive my friend Tom to see the redwoods in California, I need to get my driving legs. There is still a ghost of myself that remembers how to tackle things head on and take risks. As always, music is a reliable support. Hamilton plays twice thru to get us there. I am not going to throw away my shot to enjoy the world again.

Cosi fan tutte happens to be playing at the Portland Opera Company and this is my first visit to a theatre since these attacks began.

you never know what people are going thru.

Be kind.