“My fight with panic disorder” part II

Cindy ZelmanBY CINDY ZELMAN
The Early Draft

From the essay, “Stuck in the Middle,” by Cindy Zelman. To read part 1, click here.

When I was thirteen I met Gwin, new to town, and we spent a lovely year bonding as we entered the eighth grade at junior high. We walked to and from the bus stop each day, chatting about our young lives, and yet feeling so mature.

“Those seventh graders still act like children,” she might say, and I’d answer, “Yes, they do, Gwin, like babies.”

Already, she was interested in junior and senior boys in high school. I thought this made her very grown up. Although we didn’t share many classes at school, we hurried to each other every afternoon when we caught the school bus home. We babysat together, and spent all waking moments keeping each other company. We shared secrets. Her father drank too much. So did my mom. Her mother was mentally unstable. So was my dad. She was a virgin but she wanted to have sex. I was a virgin and I wanted to learn to play the guitar. We ate Swiss Rolls (chemically produced cake with chemically manufactured whip cream) and drank Diet Pepsi (with fake sweetener to give you brain tumors, someday, long down the road, we imagined). We laughed so much. That was the thing: I’d never been so happy as I was with Gwin.

She had cat-green eyes and a reddish-blonde afro, a hairstyle popular in the 1970s, no matter your skin color. When she smiled at me, all other reality collapsed. I had fallen secretly in love with her. The secret was on me, and it would take me years to understand these feelings. I would have done anything to please her, and I did.

Before panic attacks exploded as a regular part of my life, I agreed, at the end of our freshmen year in high school, to try marijuana. By age fifteen, Gwin enjoyed smoking pot. She thought it was her right that I should smoke with her.

“What are best friends for? I want you to get high with me. That’s what best friends do together.” She demanded it, her tone chastising.

I had done a little drinking since entering high school, but I never got drunk. I hated the taste of booze, truly, and thought of my mother every time I felt even a little tipsy. My mother was a big nighttime drunk. As a child, I’d suffered through her episodic inebriated jags, always as she came home from a night out partying, fumbling with her house key, noisy and incompetent. Such memories made me afraid of the idea of pot — the potential loss of control — but I did not know how to articulate such a fear to Gwin or to myself.

As we departed the woods, I stumbled down a three-foot embankment and blacked out. I could not remember climbing down the embankment. I was at the top of it, and then I was staggering at the bottom of it. I couldn’t remember the two seconds in between. A terror ignited inside me, extinguished, lit again and extinguished, like brush fires ravage through the woods on a windy day. Somehow I managed to reach Ellen’s patio, which served as an open and pretty backyard to the condo she lived in with her mother and sister.

Ellen had laid out a feast for the stoned: potato chips, onion dip, little meatballs on a stick, chili, Doritos, candy, cake, and Diet Pepsi. My getting high for the first time signified an occasion. I sat down in a patio chair. Ellen turned on music. We were seventies rockers. We listened to The Who, Rod Stewart, and Queen. One of my favorite songs of the era was “Stuck in the Middle,” featuring a now obscure band called Stealers Wheel. The song played out of Ellen’s stereo speakers. Ellen and Gwin were giggling ecstatically, but I sat with a mortified expression, feeling stiff and paralyzed and other-worldly.

“Are you having fun?” one of them asked.

“I don’t know.” I managed to say.

“What’s the matter?” Giggles.

“Nothing. Just let me feel the music.”

“Just let me feel the music!” They mocked with more uncontrollable giggles.

That was a line I never lived down with those girls. Yet how appropriate some of the lines of the song: Well, I don’t know why I came here tonight/I got the feeling that something ain’t right /Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right/Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

I was stuck in the middle of a drug experience. I was stuck in the middle of my first full-fledged  panic attack. I was in a state of marijuana hallucination. I stared at the red brick wall of the back of Ellen’s condo. The brick wall existed and did not exist. I viewed everything through a warped visual haze that apparently my friends either did not experience or did not experience as terrifying. I saw a hand crumbling Ruffles Potato Chips to my lower right, understanding that this was my hand, but this wasn’t my hand. I had no reference point for reality, and my perceptions floated un-tethered and petrified, as a hand, mine, not mine, crumbled Ruffles.

My throat was parched. The table with the refreshments rested just feet away, but it seemed miles. There is a table but there is no table. I couldn’t imagine how I would get out of my seat to pour a drink, and I could no longer speak to ask for one. I could see my friends laughing and munching Doritos, but I couldn’t figure out if they were there or not. Gwin, Ellen? There, not there. I would die from thirst. My tongue was huge and leathery in my mouth.

I was pouring myself a Diet Pepsi over ice cubes. How did I get to the table? I did not remember rising from my chair. How will I get back to my chair?

 I am paralyzed.

 I will fall and die.

 I am back at my chair.

The hand continued to crumble potato chips. It’s my hand. It’s not my hand.

I couldn’t lift the glass to my lips to relieve my enormous tongue that no longer fit in my mouth. It is my tongue. It is not my tongue.

I was downing Diet Pepsi and trying to un-parch my tongue. Drink or die. I felt myself swallowing liquid. Drink or die.

I swallow. I cannot swallow. I swallow.

I could not turn in any direction; everything I saw was there but was not. I looked up to the sky (which exists and does not exist) and prayed to God (who exists and does not exist) to get me out of this: Dear God, if you get me out of this, I promise I will never again take another drug.

I saw my father, difficult and frightful, walking toward Ellen’s patio, although he did not know where she lived. I imagined him, with his dark-tanned skin and wounded eyes, demanding that I get up and go with him. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t walk. He would have a tantrum. I can’t get up. My father is not here but he’s coming. No he’s not. Yes he is.

My prayers worked, eventually, because I started, after what seemed like hours, to come down. Reality slowly started to look real again: the brick wall, the table, the glass in my hand. Potato chips were just potato chips. I ate some. I thanked God in my head, and I experienced a deep physical calm and acceptance of all things. I wondered if this was how people felt right before they resigned themselves to drowning at sea. I felt I had drowned, had lost something in silvery waves of fear. Although God (or something) got me out of this horror, I had not been saved: I remained the daughter of a drinker mom and a mental case dad, and now, I would come to find out, I’d triggered a psychiatric disorder and would become a teenager with a wrecked adolescence.

To be continued.

A version of this essay was originally published in Cobalt Review.

Cindy Zelman is a writer based in Boston, whose blog, “The Early Draft,” explores a variety of topics, including lesbianism, writing, agoraphobia, and humor.

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