‘The Lurking Shadow’
Departure was a battle with the fear of shortness of breath.
My brother John drove me to the airport. Everybody in my family suspected I was going with Allie, even though we’d been broken up for months. When we got to the airport and she was nowhere to be seen, I found out later my brother rang my sister in-law, Christine, and expressed a fear that maybe I was flying up there to off myself in some way – like Nicholas Cage drinking himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas. My sister in-law checked the award on the net and found out it was for real.
But I didn’t know this at the time. All I knew was the navigation of my symptoms: gulping for breath, worrying whether my breathing was right, or contemplating what I would do if it got worse.
The plane itself was tiny, with just two seats to either side. I had a window seat, but was hemmed in. When the person in front of me leaned back in his chair, his headrest was inches from my face. The person behind never stopped coughing the whole time. I visualised him as eighty with emphysema. I saw him later when we disembarked, and he was only twenty or so and complaining to whoever had met him he had the flu or something.
During the flight, I had surges of anxiety, like the panic was having test runs before it went for ALL SYSTEMS GO. I didn’t have problems – or phobias – with plane travel, but now was in a highly sensitised state. I’d brought my CD player, headphones, and the Brian Weiss meditation CD that had helped me get through Aropax withdrawal. I listened to it, and it helped. A little.
At the Brisbane Airport, I was met by a driver bearing my name on a placard, which was cool. But I went through the same process in the drive up to the retreat and when the driver dropped me off wrongly at the retreat’s office and pointed to one of the water tanks – just visible through the trees – as where he thought they’d be housing me, I’d wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
One of the women who ran the retreat came and brought me to the right place, a gorgeous house I’d share with the three other winners. My bedroom overlooked a valley of woods backed by distant mountains, had a double-bed (with a latex mattress), a shower and a toilet, a spa, and a set of doors opening onto the patio.
The house itself was just as luxurious, with polished hardwood floors, a spacious dining room with a fireplace; and a kitchen with state of the art microwave, dishwasher, and other appliances.
Through that first day, I was sociable with everybody else, but in my head I waged a constant battle. It kept reminding me how far I was from home. A few times, panic swelled. Other times, my legs felt unsteady, the way they’d feel if I was standing on a boat swaying on the ocean. There were instances I wanted to flee. I fought the impulses down and maintained, outwardly, my composure.
This became my week: in the morning, we held workshops about writing. Then, the rest of the day we were left to our own devices. While I could keep my mind occupied, I was fine. But every now and again, the anxiety would peek in. I kept telling myself I had coped so far, and that I would continue to cope.
Sunday morning, I took my last antibiotic. In the afternoon, I stood in the retreat’s backyard, overlooking a gorgeous backdrop of woods and mountains, thinking, I can do this. I can really do this. I thought about getting a box of Coronas. Two of the other winners were having wine with dinner, so maybe I could have a few beers. It would take the edge off.
Sunday afternoon, I went out with one of the other winners to the local shops to buy groceries for the house. She asked me if I wanted to get beer. My head had begun to feel clogged and I told her I would leave it for now. By the time we got back to the house, I was regretting I hadn’t bought any.
Sunday evening, I had a headache and a pain in my throat, and I thought my throat infection was returning. When I was in my teens, I’d get throat infections chronically. I took one of the repeat course of antibiotics with dinner, just in case.
Sunday night, I felt atrocious and went to bed early.
Monday early morning – like 1.00 am – my buzzing head, phlegm in my throat, and a general heaviness awoke me. I had to get out of bed to clear my throat. This wasn’t my throat infection. Likelier, I’d caught whatever the guy who’d kept coughing behind me on the plane had. Melbourne was in midst of a Swine Flu epidemic. It’d be ironic if I caught it now during a trip to Queensland.
The week continued and I was never fully able to relax. Externally, I was my usual self, although I had to apologise a few times because I was going through such a rough patch health-wise – neck problems, throat infections, flu – although I didn’t tell them how much it was stressing me out. It was like my body was betraying me. One of the other winners compared me to Woody Allen
So just when I thought I was getting somewhere, this is what it seemed my life had come to: being a neurotic freak.