My drug is panic — panic so vital I must refer to it as a pronoun: The first time I tasted her was in front of an audience of a hundred or so people. I was performing in a play, mid-speech in a two-page monologue. As my throat closed and I fought to breathe and talk at the same time, I thought I was going to die. My scene partner looked puzzled as I clutched her arm and flop-sweated onto the table between us.
“You turned white,” she told me later.
“I know,” I answered. “I don’t know what happened.”
Another actor in the cast suggested it was because I had taken on a virtually new character with no rehearsal. For this performance, the lead, who had an emotional range from 1 to 1.2, had been directed to be explosive, and when somebody is suddenly blasting you with killer energy, it brings out a whole new set of responses — new enough to turn me into a new character for whom I hadn’t set a foundation. Apparently, I had short-circuited.
However, since I have an emotional range from 1 to out-of-my-mind hysterical, my inner actor subsequently decided that the problem wasn’t just the aberrant performance, but perhaps it was any time I had to speak uninterrupted for more than a paragraph … or any presentation … or any time I had to talk — all these events became openings for her.
Over the next few years she came and went in the form of panic attacks. Some years I completely forgot to be afraid of being afraid and she hibernated. So did I — convinced that I was just too sensitive for this world, I hid. Gradually, I recovered from that delusion and rejoined society. So did my panic attacks. Last year, they erupted in the middle of a phone call to an editor about a freelance job, and my next call was to a hypnotherapist. Our sessions were fun and enlightening, but I didn’t feel panic-free.
Last week, coming home from the supermarket, I passed two cars vying for the same parking space. I sensed an explosion and walked quickly by. Bang! Slam! A shrieking female voice and a torrent of cursing.
“I think she was looking for a place to let loose,” I said to a fellow pedestrian, and the two of us rolled our eyes.
This week has been hard — I didn’t get what I wanted and was very upset. Everybody around me was upset, too. Some got angry, some got sick, some got drunk — we each have our pleasure.
“What would it be like to never get upset?” I wonder. “What would it be like to be consistently calm?”
“Is that all there is?” sings Miss Peggy Lee in my mind’s ear — her sultry, hopeless voice making me suddenly uncomfortable.
“Huh?” say I.
“Is that all there is?” she repeats, insisting that I contemplate it:
If there’s no upset, it might get dull. If it’s gets dull, I might be bored. If I’m bored … might I be less alive?
“Is that all there is?” asks Miss Peggy.
As I type, I’m listening to an athlete on the radio: “I live for the excitement,” he says, as if this were a rational notion.
If we don’t get angry, sick, upset, drunk, excited, are we less us?
The woman fighting for the parking spot was high on her rage. And I would wager that, although I hate being panicked or upset, there’s a kind of high to that as well. After all, it’s adrenaline. And hiding underneath that high, I suspect there’s something else — a sneaky, embarrassing belief: being so upset, so sensitive makes me special, and being so special makes me superior — superior to the masses.
And again I ask: what if I did give up being upset?
What a concept! If I know I’m doing it — intentionally getting upset — to feel special, superior, weirdly alive, I can stop it. Because, clearly, I already am alive — no effort needed. I am the only “me,” so I am special — as special as everybody else. I am! We all are!
And that’s all there is. Could it possibly be enough?
And suddenly I’m smiling … and calm. Very calm.
Nothing like naming an addiction (with all her deep, dark, nasty pleasures) to dissipate her power. Unmasked, she’s smiles at me sheepishly. Then, sticking out her tongue like a petulant child, she slinks off to excite somebody else.