‘Hello, Panic, My Old Friend’
My twelve-year-old cousin started playing indoor cricket and his mum asked me to take him to the Centre. I didn’t know how to say no. But I didn’t know how I could say yes. I couldn’t go out. I told myself that it was just the Centre, where I’d gone hundreds of times. But those hundreds of times I could always leave. Now I’d be anchored there. What happened if I had problems? What would happen to him? What would happen to me?
The first game I took him to, I felt fine on the drive up as he yapped away. Once we got to the Centre, my breath shortened. My cousin went onto the court to warm up, so I slipped into the bar. I got myself a beer, and bumped into the owner of the Centre and a couple of his friends. We talked. Somewhere along the line – and a few beers later – I felt comfortable. Just like that. My cousin finished his game and I took him home.
That first trip gave me confidence for the next week. I was sure there wouldn’t be any problems. My apprehension disappeared. I could do this – it was easy. If there was any nervousness, I could just remind myself how I’d been fine the first time. That success would lead the way.
I picked up my cousin and he yapped all the way to the Centre. He went onto his court to play, and I slipped into the bar. Now there was nobody I knew. I grabbed a beer as anxiety swelled. I watched games, watched the TV, read signs on the wall.
I wanted to run. But I couldn’t. My cousin! I took a drink, telling myself I would be okay, that I’d survived this last week. I just needed to wait this out—
Now it was impossible to stay. I had to get home. My skin seethed with terror.
Oh, sure, I was abandoning my twelve-year-old cousin, but I had no choice. I WAS DYING! He was safe. With friends. With his team. Out on the court. Playing. He wouldn’t even notice that I was gone. And I so needed to be gone. I was rationalising but whatever was going on left me with no choice.
I jumped in my car and sped home. I panted; coloured spots danced in front of my eyes. I was worried I’d pass out at the wheel and crash.
Once I got home, I asked John to go watch my cousin, and went into the back room. My breathing settled. The panic ebbed away. What I really needed was beer. But there was no way I could make the five minute drive to the supermarket. Still, I had to go. I wanted my beer. It was the only thing that shut this up. Nothing else worked.
I jumped back in the car. It was like an ambush. Anxiety and breathlessness attacked. I rushed to the supermarket, grabbed some beer, cursed every delay, fidgeted through every instance where I had to wait, screamed assurance in my head that-I-was-okay-I-was-okay-and-I’d-be-home-soon, then rushed home.
This became a pattern – not just for beer, but whenever I had to go out. It was ingrained in me now. Going out meant danger. I couldn’t survive being out. If I was to go out, I had to leave when I was at my calmest, because from that moment I was on countdown. Then it was a matter getting whatever I needed done before I blew – and I would blow. It had become an inevitability.
Soon, I felt the same around friends. Whenever they visited, I’d be uncomfortable. Discomfit mutated into anxiety. Then it was just a matter of time before I thought the anxiety would blow. I couldn’t let them see that happen. What would they think? There was my mum creeping into me. But it was embarrassing. None of them were like this. As far as I knew, I was the only person like this.
The only place I stayed a bit calm was at the GP’s clinic, and that was only because I told myself there were four doctors, two dentists, and a couple of dental nurses there who were available to save me if anything happened. But even that resolve was only born from frustration, rather than any cognitive rationalisation and assurance.
Most times, I coped with beer. Sometimes, my friends came over to watch cricket – Australia were touring the Caribbean – and we’d have a few drinks. I’d down the first couple quick, then, from there, the rest of the night was manageable. The anxiety would still peek its head out to remind me it was there, but it would never take hold. That was the magic of beer: it was a relaxant – at least at the time you were drinking.
But the next days were always worse. I lived on the cliff’s edge of panic. The worst problem was the shortness of breath. That was with me now all the time, building up to a meltdown of anxiety. I grew obsessed I had asthma or something worse, like the development of emphysema. I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Whenever I saw Dr Warren he’d check my lungs and always declare that they were fine. And that would satisfy me for a bit. He told me if things got too bad, to breathe into a paper bag, but that never worked for me.
Conventional solutions never did.