Panic attacks are pretty special. Overwhelming surges of terror appearing out of nowhere, drowning you in fear, choking the breath out of you. No reason. No warning. There’s no crisis. You’re not getting chased by a rabid dog. Sometimes you’re just sitting there, and all of a sudden you’ll feel like a lightning bolt dipped in adrenaline has zapped you. Chaos ensues. Pounding heart, trembling, tightness in the chest. Zero control. Hot fear coursing through your veins, like a sizzle. If you cut me open in those moments I imagine you’d hear the theme song to Mission: Impossible.
I wrote about it for Bent. But with everything else going on (which you can read about here), the panic stuff ended up in a pile of discarded writing. And there was a lot. I could easily put together a whole different book about anxiety and panic. Or I could just tell you to read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. It’s genius. Or Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith. How that guy never self-imploded I’ll never know.
So here’s an excerpt from a orphaned chapter that never went anywhere. It was 1989. I was 22 years old. And this is exactly what happened.
I had just quit drinking when I decided I should just go ahead and starve myself. It seemed like a logical step, since I was so good at quitting stuff and all.
Why didn’t I think of this before.
Meetings were one thing. I could dig meetings. Total strangers getting together, smoking jillions of cigarettes and telling funny stories. Sometimes there’s cake.
But the rest? I wasn’t up for it, the whole let’s get down to the bottom of why you drank thing. It all sounded like a lot of work, especially the part where you’re supposed to take a good, long look at your “defects of character,” as they’re called. That’s right, defects. Bad behavior stemming from resentment, anger, fear, all the stuff they said was just waiting to take me down, get me drunk and land me right back in the pokey.
It’s just not fun, working on yourself. And my plan was better anyway. I’d just starve myself and get megaskinny. L.A. skinny. Waify. Size zero, baby. If it was good enough for Kate Moss, it was good enough for me. Everyone would seethe with jealousy, including Kate Moss. I could be one of those chicks who shops in the tween section and gripes about having to take everything in. It was called getting your shit together.
So I restricted my diet to that of a rat. Sunflower seeds went a long way. Same with heads of lettuce, oranges and basically anything else mostly made of water. Thermosfuls of chicken broth. Jello. I told myself there’d be hell to pay if I ate so much as an extra raisin and the hunger didn’t hurt. These mental whippings usually took place during my 6:00am runs.
Seriously. Could I be more in control.
Things went well. In six weeks I lost a fifth of my body weight, I was almost a size zero and I was pretty sure the jealousy thing was working. People begrudgingly hid it with concern for my health and rapidly dwindling shape. By the time my mother spoke up, I had gotten a little tired of it.
Talk to me, Anne. What’s wrong.
Why aren’t you eating?
I am eating.
Are you on diet pills?
Are you throwing up?
Only once. OK, twice. No.
We want you to talk to a doctor.
Why were people always trying to get me to talk about things? I really, really didn’t want to. I was fine. What I wanted to do was go down to Venice Beach and look for some used jeans to go with my super fly new bod. I could walk there. Burn some calories.
Venice is a grimy place for freaks and oddballs and other outsider-types and that’s why I love it. You can really do your best thinking there. Having to watch your step in case used heroin needles are underfoot has a unique way of putting things into perspective.
A little perspective. That’s what I needed. It was hard to admit. I could barely admit I needed to consume more than 600 calories a day if I was planning on continuing living, let alone that. Look where needing had gotten me. The DUI alone had cost me thousands of dollars, and for what. Because I needed to drink and drive? That made sense.
And that’s when I saw it. There it was, the restaurant that had the amazing chicken salads. God that sounded good.
And I thought about caving.
I could sit down in that restaurant. Maybe order a half a salad. People did that, right? Even Kate Moss probably did that.
Then. Out of nowhere. A whoosh of terror swelled up inside me. Whoosh. My limbs went all tingly. Whoosh. My vision went blurry. Whoosh. My heart started thump, thump, thumping like a hummingbird locked in a cage frantically trying to make a break for it.
In short, it was bonkers.
Somehow I managed to not die before I made my way over to a bench where I could sit and keep my head down. I knew if I looked up, the sky would eat me.
WHAT. THE FUCK. WAS THAT.
It was a panic attack. My first. At the time, I chalked it up to malnutrition. There went the whole not eating thing.
It happened again. And again. And a thousand more times. The worst part is you never know what will trigger it, so you become irrationally terrified and blameful of everything in sight. Eventually life becomes a series of avoidance behaviors because clearly the world is out to murder you. Bridges are nothing but unstable slabs of asphalt (you go around). Elevators are confining and airless (you take the stairs). Heights are completely off limits. For a while there, it was also crowds. Once I had a panic attack at a Bjork concert because there were way too many people there and they were all wearing glow sticks. Mostly it was all the people. The glow sticks were just kind of annoying.
Thanks to yoga, I have very few panic attacks these days. It taught me how to see what’s real and what’s not about phobias, which are fucking ridiculous and not at all fun. You’re body is constantly in danger mode and it’s incredibly draining. Hey there, adrenal failure. But just like anything else it takes practice, something I am really bad at, to not freak out when you’re confronted with whatever it is that scares the bejesus out of you even though you know it makes absolutely no sense. And part of that practice involves exposing yourself to that thing. I believe in therapuetic circles this is called “flooding.” (Which is unfortunate if the thing you’re afraid of is drowning.) I never felt much like doing the “flooding” thing, because it sounds like torture, but since everything was scary it ended up kind of happening anyway. And it gets really old having to explain to people why you have a problem hiking to the top of Runyon or going on rollar coasters or riding the subway. Then they try and trick you into it and you end up panicking, which totally sets you back and all you can do at that point is pick yourself up and keep going even though you now (deservedly) hate that person for what they did.
I’m cool with elevators now. Bridges, kind of. I can handle crowds as long as I have access to an exit. I worked many insane nights behind the bar at Dragonfly when there were like, 800 people in there and I’d have to stop myself from making a run for it for fear I’d get somehow swallowed. But even after all these years, nothing—nothing—is more terrifying to me than heights. Just looking at that old photo where those construction workers are sitting on a beam a mile up in the air eating lunch makes the soles of my feet tingle.
In the late 90’s, I worked in a penthouse bar on Sunset and Vine called 360. And penthouses, by definition, are high up. There was a window right next to my bar, and it wasn’t little. It was easily big enough for five or six humans to fit through at once. If you saw that window from outside the building, believe me, you’d worry. I did. People fall out of windows all the time. (Then there’s being pushed out a window, which common sense will tell you is something we should all be afraid of.) I could have slipped on an ice cube and lost my balance. Or get plucked out by a heavy wind. Or maybe I’d have some kind of attack where I would start convulsing out of the blue, and everyone would have to stand back to back to protect themselves, at which point I would back away toward that open window and my flailing body would toss itself out and I would end up plummeting to my death and splattering all over Shirley Temple’s Walk of Fame star.
To this day, whenever I drive by that building on Sunset and Vine, I look up and think about that window. Who designs a building with a wide open window 35 floors up.
That’s when I started doing yoga. One day I wandered into a class at the gym in West Hollywood, and that was it. It’s been over twenty years now and the one thing I can say about yoga and panic attacks is the more you do it, the less you panic. Because if you can breathe and stay somewhat calm and not want to run and hide or sock someone in the face when you’re in a stressful situation in yoga, then you can learn to do that in real life. And I didn’t even realize this until someone explained it to me like, four years ago.
A couple of months ago I was at the Staples Center with my friend Solana for a press conference for the Conor McGregor/Floyd Mayweather fight. Our seats were on the third level. So up we went one escalator, which dropped us off on a platform where the only way off was to go up the next escalator. And the next one looked so completely high and treacherous I couldn’t do it. I could not bring myself to step on that escalator. It was exactly like being next to the open window. I knew one wrong move could send me flying over the edge. Honestly, I can’t believe everyone wasn’t scared of it. But obviously they weren’t, because at least 80 people got on that thing as if it never occured to them they could easily die while I was pacing back and forth and hating life and wondering if anyone would notice if I took the first up escalator back down. I was stuck. I had to get on the stupid thing. And maybe perish in the process. Meanwhile Solana was trying to be helpful by going up it to show me how easy it was and doing the Titanic thing with her arms outstretched at the same time, which I completely regret not getting a picture of mostly because that is a good friend for you, and when she looped back around I was still not at all willing to get on it until she reminded me I had just spent a year and a half slaving over Bent and how the escalator had to be easier than that and she was totally right. Then she pretty much pushed me onto it. And I did it. Then I did the fastest walk ever to the elevator down to the ground floor and we talked the security people into giving us much better seats down near the floor. And it all worked out.
I always say it in yoga: You can do anything for ten seconds you don’t have to do for the rest of your life. And the escalator took more like five seconds. Now I don’t have to be afraid of it, even though I never go to the Staples Center, but still. One less fear ♥