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May 2023 Issue [Memoir]

The Anatomy of Panic

A personal history of anxiety

Illustrations by Virginia Mori


The Anatomy of Panic

A personal history of anxiety

I had my first panic attack when I was fifteen, in the middle of January, while I was sitting in geometry class. Winter in Illinois, flesh comes off the bones—what did we need geometry for? We could look at the naked angles of the trees, the circles in the sky at night. At noon we could look at our own faces. All the basic shapes were there, in bone. Bright winter sun turns kids skinless. Skins them. But there we were in geometry class. The teacher also taught physics. He was grotesquely tall. Thin. He’d demonstrate the angles with his bones.

This was Catholic school. The blackboard was useless. A gray swamp dense with half-drowned numbers. Mr. Streeling would bend a leg in midair: 90 degrees, cleaner than a protractor. He’d stand and tilt his impossibly flat torso: 45 degrees. He could lift his pant leg, unbundle new levels of bone like a spider: 15 degrees, 55, 100.

I was sitting under the fluorescence when it happened. The first time, technically. Though I could tell it was the first time only in retrospect, looking back from the third time. My right hand on my desk, my left hand fiddling with a pencil in the air.

Mr. Streeling’s voice booms: Open the textbook, page 96. The textbook lies next to my hand on the desk. Next to the textbook is a large blue rubber eraser. Hand, textbook, eraser. Desktop bright in the fake light.

My hand, I realize slowly, it’s a . . . thing.

My hand is a thing. Hand, textbook, eraser. Three things.


That’s when I forgot how to breathe. Ty saw it happen. He was sitting across the room. But he saw me, and he gave me a look like what the hell. Watching me trying to remember how to breathe. It wasn’t going well. I was sucking in too much air, or I wasn’t breathing enough out. The rhythm was all wrong.

Darkness at the edge of vision . . .

Two seconds blotted out. When I came back my lungs had picked up the tune. The old in-and-out, the tune you hear all the time. If it ever stops, try to remember it. You can’t. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. It never stops. But if it does, it’s hard to remember how it goes. Ask dead people. Ask me. I gave Ty a weak smile, like I’d been joking, my face probably red or maybe white or even a little blue. Ty turned slowly back to his textbook, shaking his head like I was crazy.

The second time it happened was in a movie theater. My dad had taken me to see The Godfather Part III. It was a Tuesday night. Late January. The theater was basically deserted. Kind of depressing, this father-son outing on a school night. Kind of cool too. Like we didn’t give a fuck about school nights.

I think the show started around 10 pm. Everything was fine. The film was pretty good. Until halfway through, when the Al Pacino character says he has diabetes. As he said that word, diabetes, I could feel gas rising in my blood. The gas started to rise maybe a minute before diabetes. Like I knew he was going to say it. Like I prophesized it.

This time what I forgot was how to move blood through my body. My blood stopped. When your blood stops, the gas rises. That’s my experience. Gas rising in the blood. Dad snored beside me. I woke him up, said we have to go. He looked at me. Okay.

As soon as we got up my blood started to move again. I was still in shock or something. Walking like I was about to fall over. When we got to the car I lay back in the passenger seat and pressed my forehead to the cold glass and Dad asked me if I was okay and I said yes, which he knew was a lie, but there was nothing else I could say.

I couldn’t tell him that my blood had stopped. I couldn’t tell him about the gas in my blood. Those were inside symptoms, not outside symptoms. I knew on some intuitive level that my blood stopping at the word diabetes wasn’t a symptom Dad could work with. There’d be questions. Plus my blood actually stopped about a minute before the word. Hard to explain.

In fact there was nothing that could be said between myself and Dad about what had happened to me in the theater. So it was the same as nothing happening. That was the second time.

The third time was two weeks later. A Sunday night in February. I climbed into my narrow bed in my narrow room at Dad’s place. I was reading Ivanhoe. The old Signet Classic paperback. There was a painting of a joust on the cover. A lot of red in the painting, I remember that. But not from bleeding knights like you’d expect. The knights were whole. The red was in the atmosphere. I sat up in my bed with my pillow propped against the wall and opened the book and started to read. It was probably 10:15 or so. I usually read for a little while before falling asleep.

At a certain point early in the first chapter I became aware that I was having or was about to have a heart attack. As long as I kept reading I didn’t have to think about this too much. When you’re reading, the words of the book borrow the voice in your head. Words need a voice. The voice they use when you read is your voice. It’s the voice your thoughts talk in. So if you give the voice to the book, your thoughts have no voice. They have to wait for paragraphs to end. They have to hold their breath until the chapter breaks.

So the lords and ladies went to the joust, and the Saxon guy threw meat to his dog in his hall, and the other Saxon guy ran away, and the Jewish guy spoke to his daughter, and I was having a heart attack, and the Knight Templar looked down from atop his war horse. He had an evil look in his eye.

I read at a medium pace. Too fast and the voice in your head can’t keep up with the words. That’s what your thoughts are waiting for. They catch the voice and flood your head with news of the catastrophe unfolding in your body.

But if you read too slow then it’s not just the chapter breaks you have to watch out for. Now you’ve got holes and gaps between the words. Maybe in some situations that’s a good thing. You can savor the words. The words come swaddled with silence, like expensive truffles, each one separate, while cheap chocolates are packed next to one another with their sides touching.

In a reading situation like mine you want the words packed together with their sides touching. Because silence isn’t delicate truffle-swaddling in that situation. It’s heart-attack holes. It’s not even silence. Every second the book isn’t talking your thoughts are talking, urgently, telling you about this heart attack you’re either having or about to have.

So I read at a medium pace. A constant, medium pace. I developed a technique where I’d read over the chapter breaks, and run the paragraphs together. I didn’t pause. Sometimes I’d feel myself speeding up—the voice in my head began slipping on words. But I didn’t lose it. I slowed down. Not too much. I kept the pace medium.

By chapter three I had it down cold. I was a genius at reading Ivanhoe by chapter three. I doubt it’s ever been read so well. It had a voice all to itself, with no interruptions, and no breaks, for the entire length of the book. How often has that happened in the history of Ivanhoe? The whole time I was reading I never even found out whether I was actually having the heart attack or just about to have it. That’s how good an Ivanhoe reader I got to be. The very next thought would have told me. But the next thought never came.

I suspended the heart attack in Ivanhoe. Like when you shake a solution of oil and vinegar. As long as you shake it, the oil and vinegar are suspended in one another. When you stop, they separate. So long as I read Ivanhoe my heart attack stayed suspended in the story.

I didn’t stop reading. I didn’t go to the bathroom. I didn’t change my position. I didn’t look at the clock. We went through the hours like that. Me, the Saxon lord, the Jewish guy, the heart attack, and the Knight Templar. We moved through 11 pm like that. In suspension. Midnight. 1 am. 2 am. 3 am. And then the legendary, unseen hour. 4 am.

I heard Dad get up. The end of the story was very close now. Richard Coeur-de-Lion has come home. The news of his return spreads. Dad moves behind the thin wall that separates my room from his. Ivanhoe, Rowena. The sound of the shower. Rebecca! Rebecca . . . Dad goes down the stairs and I can hear the clink of silverware. The sound of the fridge opening.

Ivanhoe distinguished himself in the service of Richard, and was graced with farther marks of the royal favour. He might have risen still higher but for the premature death of the heroic Coeur-de-Lion, before the Castle of Chaluz, near Limoges.

At 4:35 am Ivanhoe ended. I put down the book. I put on my pants and pulled on my sweater. Then I walked downstairs and told Dad that I was having a heart attack.

At the emergency room they told me what I was actually having was a panic attack.

“A panic attack?” I repeated.

The bright fluorescence of the hospital room shone on red and black medical devices. Shone on my hands, which were crossed on my lap. They looked more like things than ever.

Dad welcomed the news.

“A panic attack,” he said. “Nothing to worry about, thank God.”

The emergency room doctor nodded.

“People often think they’re having a heart attack when they first have a panic attack.”

Actually it was the third time, I realized. It took three tries for it to learn how to mimic recognizable symptoms, to make itself public.

“What am I panicking about?” I asked.

They didn’t find it easy to answer that question. To tell the truth they didn’t find it a very compelling question. In the emergency room they deal with organ failure, stab wounds. Things of that nature. Philosophical questions about quasi-diseases give way to the urgency of actual vivid outside-the-body blood, in large amounts. Pulseless wrists, severed legs. Prestigious, respectable conditions with absolutely unfakeable symptoms.

“Probably nothing,” Dad ventured after a few seconds, looking hesitantly at the doctor.

“Could be anything,” said the doctor. “If it happens again, breathe into a paper bag.”


“A paper bag,” he repeated.

He explained, as best as I could understand him, that what happens when you have a panic attack is you hyperventilate. You breathe more and more quickly. So you have more oxygen than carbon dioxide, and your blood vessels constrict, which causes you to feel lightheaded. You get tingling in the extremities, and other symptoms which can easily mimic an ignorant person’s impression of what a heart attack is like.

He looked at me compassionately.

“But if you breathe into a paper bag, that will restore the carbon dioxide.”

“So a paper bag cures panic attacks?” Dad asked.

The doctor paused. His beeper started to go off.

“Yes,” he said. “Please excuse me.”

On the way back from the hospital, Dad stopped at the grocery store to buy some paper bags. He gave me two to stuff into my backpack. Then he dropped me off at school.

“Wait,” he yelled from the car as I was walking away.

I hurried back. He thrust something at me through the open window.

“Better take one more bag,” he said. “In case one of them gets wet.”

“My mouth’s dry,” I said.

“What,” he said.

“It’s not wet,” I said. “There’s no way the bag can get wet.”

“What,” he said.

“Okay,” I said, taking the bag.

“Have a good day,” he said, rolling up the window and driving off.

The regular entrance, where the bus dropped us off, was locked. So I had to go in through the main entrance. I’d never used it before. Plainly it was designed for adults. The door swung open into a corridor with what looked like a real marble floor. Expensive-looking dark-green tiles on the walls.

I crept through silently. The right side of the wall had about a hundred framed black-and-white photographs hung on it. Priests. All smiling. Facing the camera with the confidence of men who know they won’t have faces for long. Now they’d all stepped out of their faces. That’s what black-and-white photographs mean.

The faces hung there like rows of empty sneakers in a shop window. The priests had stepped out. Into the air, I thought. Breathing out, never breathing in. Maybe that’s what it’s like when you step out of your face at the end. Like the opposite of a panic attack. You breathe out more than you breathe in. Then you’re out. Free.

I fingered my paper bag. What had the doctor said? A paper bag is a device for breathing out more than you breathe in? Was that it? I wondered if other people used them. I stared at the wall of priests. Huffing their own carbon dioxide in a paper bag right before the shutter clicked. Maybe that’s how they practiced for not having a face any more.

I was sweating in my winter coat.

Pull yourself together, I thought. I hurried down the corridor.

When I was about ten feet from the end, the door swung open. A nun I’d never seen before stepped through, glaring.

“What are you doing here?”

I blinked guiltily. Sweating in my coat, still holding the empty paper bag Dad had given me. I hadn’t had a shower that morning. Greasy hair plastered my forehead.

“Get to class,” she said.

She held the door open, pointing. I stuffed the bag in my pocket and shuffled forward. When I got close she stopped me. Put her long white hand on my shoulder.

“What’s in your pocket?”

I gulped.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Show me.”

I dug the bags out.

“Just some paper bags,” I said.

She squinted down through her spectacles.

“That’s trash,” she observed. “What are you carrying trash around in your pockets for? Throw it out.”

She pointed. For a second I didn’t realize what she was pointing at. It looked like a model of a space ship. That opening on top . . . A garbage can! I clutched my bags tighter.

“I can’t throw them out,” I said. “The doctor gave them to me. I mean he prescribed them.” The nun opened her mouth. She stared at me incredulously. Then she closed her mouth.

“You’re planning to steal something,” she said at last.

“No!” I said.

“Those bags won’t be empty when you leave,” she said. “Because you’re going to steal something to put in them.”

“No way,” I said.

“I’m right, aren’t I?”


“What are you going to steal?”

I didn’t know how to respond.

“Three items,” mused the nun. “Three items smaller than a paper lunch bag . . . ”

“They aren’t lunch bags,” I insisted. “They’re medical bags.”

She ignored this.

“When you leave today,” she said, stepping aside, still holding the door open, “come this way. I want to see you before you try to leave.”

She made a brushing motion with her free hand, moving me along.

I walked through the door.

“Actually,” she snapped at the last second, “don’t come this way when you leave. Don’t come through here again.”

The door swung shut. I looked down at the bags, clutched in my sweating hand.

They were wet. They were soaking wet.

I went into the first bathroom I saw and tried to dry out one of the bags under a hand dryer.

Dry, I thought. Dry, you bastard.

An attack could spring at any second. The damn bag felt like it was shrinking under the heat. When the dryer sound died I looked at what remained in my hand. A soft warm wrinkled tan skein. Like a monkey’s nut sack, I thought. I held it up. The neck was all ragged. It was going to be really difficult to get a good seal.

I began to experience a strong sensation that my body was a thing. Suddenly I felt very strongly that I had no more in common with my own body than with the gray walls of the bathroom.

Panic attack.

As soon as I put the bag to my mouth it started blowing in and out like an accordion, making an incredible sound, like a monkey was standing up and crouching down and standing up in it.

This is my breath, I thought. This invisible spastic monkey is my breath.

I got you in the bag, I thought. Trapped you. I see you now, you little monkey. Look at you jump.

After a while the monkey started to jump a little less frantically. This is what the phrase got it in the bag means, I reflected.

I got it in the bag.

I looked at my hand, wrapped around the neck of the bag. It had ceased to resemble the hand of a mannequin. It felt like mine again.

Another thirty seconds and my breath was bobbing gently in the bag, as tame as you please.

Gingerly, I took the bag away from my lips. It went limp. My breath, out of the bag. Free.

I waited to see what it would do.

I took in a big gulp of air and tensed, feeling the air expanding my chest, wondering if the exhale would be normal or whether it would be just a constipated little gasp.

A good long slow breath out. I felt my shoulders relax. Looked at the deflated bag in my palm with relief, and something like affection.

It works, I thought. It’s no problem.

Two days later, at lunch, I sat at my usual table with Ty and Nicole and the others. I was intensely aware of Lisa, who was sitting three tables behind me. I wondered if she was watching my back, guessing the movements of my hands as I ate my sandwich. I sat straight, tried to give my motions an unstudied insouciance.

“You have food on your face,” Nicole observed.

That was when I had a false prophecy. I suddenly felt absolutely certain that Nicole was about to say diabetes. I stared at her. The air went into pre-diabetic stillness. The seconds flattened and stretched.

I stared straight at Nicole’s face, waiting.

She looked back at me. “What. The fuck. Are you staring at?” she said.

Misfire. No diabetes. But I couldn’t blink. Neither did she. A feeling of unbearable intimacy developed. Staring at each other, our intertwined gazes like a sliver of ice, sliced off the social glacier, floating.

“Staring contest,” Ty said.

I somehow unscrewed my gaze from Nicole’s spiral eyes. We both blinked. She looked at me with quick, darting glances, like her eyes were sore.

“Weirdo,” she said.

“I’m zoned out,” I said. “I haven’t been sleeping too good.”

“You should drink cough syrup for that,” Ty said.

“That’s your answer for everything,” Nicole said.

“My dad’s a doctor.”

“Does he prescribe cough syrup for everything?”

“No,” he said.

Nicole laughed.

“He’s a bad doctor,” Ty finished.

Ty was covering for me. He’d noticed the weirdness, and he was spraying the table with the small-arms fire of a stupid joke to provide cover so I could pull it together. That was the kind of thing that made you love him.

“Ty’s right,” I told Nicole. “Cough syrup will cure any disease.”

“It’s just a question,” he said, “of the right dosage.”

“Two tablespoons to fall asleep,” I said.

“Half a bottle cures a fever,” Ty said.

“And ten bottles,” said Nicole, joining in, “cures diabetes.”

My smile vanished.

“Cures it permanent,” said Ty.

I put the smile back on my face. I got up and walked across the cafeteria toward the bathroom. The fluorescent lights were too bright. I was having trouble with my eyes. They would get stuck, as I was walking. Looking at a spot of tiled wall in front of me, I got stuck in it. Like staring at Nicole, but generalized. Inorganic surfaces became porous to my looking.

I felt my gaze vibrating inside my face. I became excruciatingly aware of the socket of my face, the socket that held my looking: the little fringe of my long hair, the faint brown circles of the frames of my glasses, the flesh-colored shadow of my nose.

My gaze turned in its socket. I couldn’t control it. It spiraled into that circle of yellow tile wall. Blinking didn’t cut it off. The blinks passed through it like bullets through a column of water.

It started to affect my walk. I was being pulled toward the spot of wall while I was aiming for the door twenty feet to the right. My head was turned one way, my body another. People will notice, I thought.

I fumbled for the paper bag in my pocket. Somehow I got my gaze free and pointed the right way. Quick glances, I thought. That’s the key. That’s the secret. Quick fast glances and the serious stare doesn’t develop, the gaze doesn’t get stuck.

And now I was worrying about whether it was real, whether the gaze-getting-stuck thing was even real, whether anything real had happened between me and Nicole, whether it was a weirdness that had a name, or whether it didn’t have a name and would disappear on its own.

Fuck diabetes, I thought.

I made it to the bathroom. Dull mirrors and drab metal stalls passed sickly fluorescence between them. Thankfully one was empty. I kicked the seat down, then kicked the toilet paper roller hard with my foot so it sounded like I was getting a whole lot of toilet paper, masking the sound of me unwrinkling my paper bag. If people were listening, I thought, they could think I needed a lot of toilet paper. They could think I had diarrhea.

Then I had the bag to my face and the carbon dioxide was expanding my lungs and my thoughts were slowing. I forgot that my gaze was lodged in a socket of flesh, a socket of thingly substance. The frames of my glasses no longer stood out against my vision as alien.

It’s just a reaction, I thought. Everyone has words that are bad for them.

My breath came slower now. The bag de- and reflated calmly and regularly, with the unurgency of a domestic machine. A lawn mower, a vacuum cleaner. I lowered the bag.

I sat on the closed toilet seat with the paper bag loose in my right hand, breathing slowly, a smile growing on my face.

After a few weeks I’d learned how to deal with the panic attacks pretty well. Just having a paper bag, knowing it was the ten-bottles-of-cough-syrup cure for panic—that gave me confidence. Plus I began to learn some little tricks. When I felt the looking getting heavy and bright in my head—when I felt the first sudden flicker of awareness at the weirdness of my face and skull being a thing that had somehow trapped this thinking-looking that was thinking this very thought, that was looking at this very thing, that was burrowing out of my head into something else—when I felt that, I started to move my look around.

Quick fast glances, not lingering on any object—and especially not on any face. Linger for no more than a second. That was my rule. Keep it moving. The panic would dissipate after a few minutes of that.

I wondered a little about why and how it worked. I’d wonder—what the hell is wrong with me, anyway? Who or what am I? Why, in certain moods, when my gaze rested too long on a single object, did I physically feel as if I was starting to come out of my head? Like my head was a diving board. My thinking and looking standing on the diving board. Starting to bounce a little. Blue water below. Or yellow tile wall. Or Nicole’s eyes. Or a carpet, or the dull metal of a bathroom stall. The diving board: a stray strand of my dark hair, the flesh-colored outline of my nose, the frames of my glasses. My looking stood on this, started to bounce a little, testing . . .

Like I could dive out of my face, leave the empty vibrating board of my head behind. Like my looking could drip onto the porous yellow tile of the lunchroom wall, or pour into Nicole’s eyes, into the capacious strangeness of her thoughts, the rooms she knew, her instinctive movements. And I’d be out there in that—gone.

I wondered if the panic was my head clenching down on my looking. The way you bite down to keep from throwing up. I wondered—but not for long, because thoughts could start the panic. Thinking about panic could turn into panic. I wasn’t even sure if thinking about panic was different from panic. A philosophical question. I was a pragmatist. I kept my eyes moving. I kept a paper bag in my pocket. I was good. The majority of the time I felt fine.

The first person I told about it—besides my dad and the ER doctor—was Lisa. I’d finally gotten up the nerve to speak to her, and we got friendly. One day she asked me over to her house. I rode my bike. We were in her brother’s room—he was at college—looking at records, talking about the old song “More Than a Feeling,” and somehow I ended up telling her about my panic attacks. She didn’t freak out or anything. She seemed interested, curious. Her questions made me realize I didn’t know anything about panic attacks.

The next day I went to the library to see what I could find out. I rode my bike all the way into downtown Libertyville, a thirty-minute trip. When I got inside, I found that, as usual, the library was mostly inhabited by kids and their mothers. They were concentrated in the children’s book section, which was separated from the rest of the library by soundproof glass.

As I walked by, kids pressed themselves against the glass, making horrific faces, showing what they’d do to me if they ever got loose. Their mothers hovered in the background, dim, harassed figures. Once in a while a really little kid would streak by, half naked, waving a book, a stick, or a diaper.

I watched for a little while. It was strangely soothing. Viewed from the outside, the children’s book section was more like an aquarium than a zoo, with the soupy undersea light, and the differing velocities, altitudes, and sizes of the inhabitants. Also like an aquarium, it was totally silent.

Inside the children’s book section, as you were reminded whenever the door opened, it was more like a zoo.

I walked into the adult section. The inhabitants intrigued me. Furtive, awkward individuals, carrying books. I didn’t know many adults who read books, except for Ty’s mom, who was a feminist. I certainly didn’t know any adults who went to the library.

What did the adults who came here do? What did they read? Where did they come from?

I saw a medium-size woman, of middle age, with glasses. Someone who would have been unremarkable if she’d appeared at the supermarket, or in the children’s book section. But here she was carrying what appeared to be an adult book, of appropriate size and thickness, through the adult section of the Libertyville library on a Sunday.

I went to the card catalogue to look up Panic. There were four subjects starting with that word:

Panic Attack Prevention
Panic Disorders Chemotherapy
Panic Political Aspects
Panic Finance

I wrote down the numbers for the books and began searching the stacks. The single book the catalogue listed under the first heading was missing, perhaps checked out.

The single book under the second heading was very technical, and concerned panic disorders as a side effect of chemotherapy. It didn’t really say much more about panic attacks than what the ER doctor had told me. It was mostly about different medications that seemed to prevent cancer patients from getting panic attacks, plus speculation about which parts of the brain would be affected. It didn’t mention paper bags, oddly, which made me think that maybe chemotherapy panic attacks were different than the ones I had.

There were no books at all under the third heading.

There were six books under the last heading, about financial panics.

I read a little from the introductions to the two least thick financial panic books. Maybe, I thought, they called them financial panics because they’re somehow like panic attacks. Or maybe the financial panics came first, and they named the other kind, the kind I had, after the financial panics, because of how they resembled them.

These books turned out to be much more illuminating and relevant than the chemotherapy book. The basic idea of a financial panic is that the stock market starts to fall, and then people start to panic. In an extraordinary passage, the author of the second book seemed to suggest that sometimes people just thought that the stock market was about to fall, so they panicked, and only then did the stock market actually fall.

This seemed to have potential application to my own case.

Perhaps when I felt the possibility of leaving my face and head—the possibility of falling out of my head, so to speak—I started to panic. Or was it the panic itself that caused me to feel like I was about to fall out of my head? I couldn’t be sure.

Regardless, there was one important difference between my condition and financial panics. The stock market did in fact fall. But I had never fallen out of my head.

So far, I reminded myself. I hadn’t fallen out so far. In the financial panics, the stock market always fell. “The bottom dropped out,” is how one author put it. The market fell catastrophically. This was how you knew it was a panic. It was how you diagnosed the panic.

Perhaps, I thought, I hadn’t actually had a real panic attack yet. Maybe I was just continually being brought to the edge of panic, suspended at a prepanic stage. Maybe the paper bags, and the other tricks I’d found—like moving my eyes around—prevented the actual panic. Real panic was falling. Catastrophic falling.

All this was suggestive, and more than a little anxiety-inducing, but it left me with more questions than answers. My condition was obviously related to financial panics, but I needed to find information about my specific kind of panic. I didn’t know where else to look. I had the vague sense that the Libertyville public library had significant gaps. But surely something as important as panic attacks would be discussed somewhere, probably under some other heading altogether.

I scoured the medical section of the stacks. It wasn’t easy. There was diabetes everywhere in those books. Every page was a minefield. And there was cancer, a word which was making me increasingly uncomfortable.

I was tired of standing in the stacks holding heavy reference volumes, tired of avoiding diabetes, cringing at cancer. I was about to call it a day when the non-descript woman suddenly got up from her chair.

She’d been reading from two different books. I’d surreptitiously observed her while doing my own research. Now she got up, gathered her things, and prepared to leave. I risked a searching glance as she passed. She was holding only one of the two books she’d been reading. I waited, pretending to peruse the medical book in my hand, until she’d gone through the checkout line, under the unsmiling eyes of the librarian, and out the front door.

Then I slowly, casually made my way to the chair she’d vacated. Making sure the librarian wasn’t watching, I picked up the book the woman had left lying there.

The book was very old. On the spine was the title: The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.

The name meant nothing to me. I opened the book. The font was a style I’d never seen before. It was quite legible, but it had a certain airy quality. The pages smelled ancient. Not ancient like old people. But not the scentless timelessness of a rock or a stone either. A third kind of oldness.

I looked at the table of contents. Then I picked a title in the middle: Salome. I turned to its page. Under the play’s name was an ornate image of a thin woman holding a man’s head on a plate.

I began to read.

The language was like nothing I’d ever encountered. A little like the Bible, maybe. But only a little. By the end of the first page, I felt excitement rising in me.

Or was it panic?

I stopped reading. I looked around—the stacks, the white walls, the lights, the distant checkout counter with the librarian laughing gaily with a patron.

Panic, I thought. Or prepanic. Whatever it was, I felt it clearly now. On the diving board . . .

I looked back down at the book, and now I could see the shadow of my thought . . . the warp across the page. But then the part of the page I was looking at resolved into a word, the word dissolved into a sentence. Then I was inside the book: “You are always looking at her. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen.”

My scalp started to tingle. Dangerous to look at people too much. I understood! I kept reading.

“Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood? . . . Nay; but perchance it is the taste of love . . . ”

I read. I didn’t stop. The play wasn’t very long, but it was long enough. When I looked up again, the lights in the children’s section were off. The librarian was standing behind the checkout counter, glaring at me. The clock read ten to four. The library closed at four on Sundays.

I couldn’t think about that.

I thought about Ivanhoe, about how I’d suspended a panic attack in that book too.

I thought about Salome. Salome dancing. I thought about Herod. I thought about Jokanaan. The man. Her lover. The headless lover.

The meaning of the play was completely clear to me. It wasn’t clear to Herod, who, when Salome kisses the decapitated head, orders her killed. He thinks she’s a pervert. The play’s meaning probably, I thought, wasn’t clear to other people who read it.

Today I am older, I have done the research, and I know that none of the many people who have written about that play have understood it.

I understood it at once.

Salome had committed no crime by having Jokanaan’s head cut off. Jokanaan wasn’t in that head. The play isn’t the story of a beautiful woman and a man who dies. It’s the story of the love between a beautiful woman and a living, headless man. A true story.

I remembered what Lisa had said, talking about my panic: “Would your head suddenly be empty? Would I be sitting here with you, and suddenly your head would like—roll back—and your tongue would loll out? Would you be out there in the air . . . headless?”

Prophecy, I thought.

My mouth was dry.

I went into the stacks and didn’t come out until I had every book by Oscar Wilde the library possessed. I even found a biography of him.

The biography of Oscar Wilde was mostly useless. The author didn’t understand Salome. Not one mention of panic.

But it wasn’t entirely useless. It described Oscar Wilde’s fascination with ancient Greece. When I mentioned this to Lisa the next day at school, she grew thoughtful. She wondered if the word panic had anything to do with the Greek god Pan. Then she conceived the idea of going to the school library during lunch and looking up both Pan and panic in the encyclopedia, something that had never occurred to me.

The encyclopedia entry on panic confirmed Lisa’s intuition: The word panic is derived from the Greek panikos, meaning of the god Pan, and originally referred to the sudden fear aroused by the presence of the god.

We thought about this in silence.

The day was overcast; the high library windows held thin blocks of undifferentiated light. I leaned against a shelf, looking absently at the solemn, terse titles of reference works. On the spine of the L volume, an enormous fly moved slowly.

Lisa sat cross-legged on the narrow tile floor between the stacks, the big P volume spread open in her lap. Now she was reading the entry for Pan. Her lips moved silently. Her eyes widened.

“What?” I asked.

Disturbed by the unintentionally high volume of my voice, I peeked out nervously, glancing down the central hall to confirm what I knew I’d find: The nun at the checkout glowering in our direction. We were the only kids in the library. It was technically legal for students to be there during lunch. But it was strange. The nun’s suspicions had been aroused.

Lisa gestured at the page.

“It says here that Pan was generally a happy and playful god. But he would sometimes like let out a great yell that would scare everyone.”

“Everyone?” I asked.

She looked up blinking.

“The shepherds, I guess, or the animals. Pan is the god of the wild.”

“The wild?” I whispered.

That’s when she grinned. Years later, when I was in college, I saw in a history book a picture of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, sitting on Beria’s lap and grinning exactly like Lisa did then.

Look it up. Google “Stalin’s daughter Beria photograph.”

Beria’s eyes are obscured by the glare on his round glasses. His face is expressionless. Stalin works at a table in the background. Only Svetlana shows emotion.

She’s grinning. And it’s as if the entire horror and mystery of that scene—millions of people killed for no reason; Stalin probably working on a list of enemies in the background; Beria, the head of the secret police—the entire emotional range of that terrifying world is compressed into Svetlana’s grin. A thousand tons of pressure per inch.

That grin is just about the only expression of human emotion from the heart of Stalinist Russia ever captured on film.


The look in Svetlana’s eyes—it’s not in her eyes, the look leaps out of her eyes. It’s loose, free, in the air.

The expression of a wild animal. Her grin is the expression of a wild animal. Wild animals, when trapped, when caged, often frown, sometimes grin. All animals grin, if they have the right lips. The ones with the right lips grin constantly. Tigers. Apes. Hippos.

The wildness of Svetlana’s grin is . . . obscene. No one could ever understand it. That’s what wild means. I first saw that image almost exactly seven years after that afternoon with Lisa in the Carmel Catholic High School library. And I recognized it. When I said the word wild, Lisa lifted her head from the entry on Pan and grinned at me like Svetlana.

“Pan is the god,” she whispered, grinning, “of the wild. Of, like, shepherds. Of wild music, and . . . ” Her smile opened wider. “The Greeks considered him also to be the god of theatrical criticism.

I literally fell over. I fell against the stacks and then slid to the ground, knocking half a dozen volumes down with me.

“No,” I said.

“Look,” she said. She was laughing now. She held the P volume to me, finger pointing. I was collapsed on the floor amid a heap of books. When she lifted the P volume from her lap I saw her white panties, a curl of dark hair at the edge.

I tore my eyes away, stared at the sentence she pointed to, not understanding. Over a slow second it resolved: “In addition, the Greeks considered Pan to be the patron god of theatrical criticism.”

Salome’s a play,” Lisa said slowly. “You interpreted the meaning of the play, which is the meaning of panic. You did theatrical criticism on Salome to understand panic, which comes from the god Pan, and Pan is the god of theatrical criticism.

“What are you two doing on the floor?” said the nun.

We looked up, into the light. The camera clicked. Lisa, with her wild smile, me with my round glasses full of blank light, my face like a mask.

When I got home, I got out my unused geometry notebook and began writing down the characteristics of panic. They were fresh in my mind:

1. Light too bright.
2. Something’s wrong.
3. Tingling in the fingers and toes.
4. Faster heartbeat.
5. Faster breathing.
6. Eyes moving around a lot.
7. The feeling that everything is strange.
8. The feeling that material objects are strange. And alien. They’ve always been horribly strange and alien, but only now am I really seeing it. Now is the first time I’m really seeing it, and it doesn’t feel like it’s just me, it doesn’t feel like it’s just a feeling, it’s more than a feeling. These . . . things.
9. The conviction that my body is a thing. My hands. My nose.
10. Eyes starting to stick in things.
11. The fringe of body around my looking getting very bright.
12. Very alien.
13. The feeling that I could come out of my body. My head, in particular.
14. That my looking/thinking could pour or leap out.
15. Wonder where thoughts come from.
16. Wonder what looking is.
17. Afraid of what’s next.

What is it? I wondered, looking at the list. Is this a disease? It felt strange to think of panic as a disease. Because each panic attack gave me the very clear sense that I was seeing and understanding things for the first time, things I’d never seen or understood before. This was symptom number seven on my list.

Of course, part of me always knew this was wrong. I’ve felt this way before, part of me knew, this is just another panic attack, time to get out the paper bag. With déjà vu, you feel like something has happened before, but you rationally know it hasn’t. A panic attack is the opposite. Even today, when one strikes, I rationally know it has happened before, but it doesn’t feel like it. It takes a little while, and sometimes a long while, for me to accept that what’s happening isn’t happening for the first time.

And it is taking me a very long while to accept that what the panic attack is showing me isn’t real, that there isn’t something basically strange and magic and horrible and impossible about being here, being in this.

Because a panic attack doesn’t feel like a panic attack. It feels like insight.

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