Back in August, I suffered a pretty miserable panic attack. I didn’t know it was a panic attack until about six hours after the initial symptoms set in. It snuck up on me when I was on my way home from work, at a job that I really, really like but do not love, for no good reason beyond it not being what I believe I was put on this planet to do, or in more tangible and current terms, what I (paid to be) trained to do.
I was on the train, after working my purely delightful nine-to-five, with ingredients for a skinny Shepherd’s Pie for me and my partner, Brian, to cook for dinner. I had rushed on to the train so as to beat the hordes of horribles commuting home, a horde in which I was an inherent member.
A stop after my departure station, I began to feel funny and notice, ‘wow! it is a very hot day here in the city.’ I looked around at the other passengers in my car, all damp and dulled by a whole day’s work, and I thought to myself, ‘wow! this is a very crowded train.’
Upon taking in how crowded my underground subway car was, I began to feel how close all my fellow passengers were to me. I was listening — hilariously enough — to “Do You Wanna Come Over,” a track from Britney Spears’ latest (honestly triumphant) album of original music Glory. It features — nay, relies on — a driving four-on-the-floor house beat over which Britney intones, “whatever you want, whatever you need — uh huh — do you wanna come over?!” My train sped into its century-old Boston subway tunnel abyss.
I felt myself begin to sweat, and not in the good, natural, young-gay-listening-to-new-Britney way.
‘Wow! It is very hot in here! And not in the good, natural, we’re-all-excited-about-new-Britney way! Not even in the hottest-day-of-the-summer way! It is hot as hell in here!’
Funny thing about hell is that we’re told it’s one of the two menu items available when our name finally gets called for a table at Ristorante Death.
My mind began to race and my heartbeat picked up speed, racing well past the standard 120 beats-per-minute of the Britney track. I turned my music off and began to exercise some deep breathing techniques I picked up in my undergraduate training to be the actor artiste I call myself today.
It did not help. Two stops from my departure, I began to sense something was wrong when my head went light and the screeching sound of our train pulling itself along its antiquated tracks wasn’t the only pain I felt.
The doors slammed shut and everyone sweat some more. I shifted my weight from side-to-side, thinking some kind of movement, some minor inspiration towards blood-flow, would keep me… alive!? Had the stakes grown that high!? I looked around the subway car as my head went light and the train sped through the abyss thinking to myself, ‘wow! to whom should I reach out and what should I tell them about the confusing and frightening physical state in which I find myself?’
I narrowed the list to right-side-Spotify-scroller and left-side-Angry-Birds’er before deciding both were confoundingly unqualified for the job.
We screeched into our final underground station and I knew if I didn’t clamber off the train at this limited opportunity that I would keel over, stop breathing, start seizing and stroke’ing and die. I knew this as my most insane but deeply felt truth.
I pushed past right-side-Spotify-scroller and left-side-Angry-Birds’er and everyone else and out the metal tube death-trap onto the platform where my knees nearly buckled. I mustered strength and tried calling Brian from my phone. He, too, was on his way home (to make the skinny Shepherd’s Pie, of course), so no answer.
I lumbered up the station stairs into the blinding summer sun light and suffocating August humidity. I thought, ‘some water would really do the trick, huh!?’ and fought all heat and weakness to the CVS right outside the station doors.
Brian called back as I slipped into the clinically air-conditioned convenience-store.
“Where are you?”
“I don’t feel well; I got off the T at North Station. Meet me at the CVS there, please?”
He’d be right there, of course.
In my craze, I grabbed the most accessible, sensible thirst-quencher I could locate… A liter of Poland Spring??! No! A two-liter bottle of CVS-brand, ‘EverydayBasics’ water!?!? Fuck that noise, I can do better! I seized not one but two moderately sized bottles of Evian water! What could be a better cure!!
I slapped my way through the automated self-checkout and pulled the photo-station-stool out from the photo-station, unbuttoned my shirt and pants, and began guzzling water direct from the French alps. I opened my texts to Brian and let him know where I was before pulling up his contact with phone number. I rested it on the counter-top beside me in case I keeled over and someone cared to get involved. I was prepared!
A store attendant came to see me and asked how I was.
“Overheated, but someone’s coming for me, thanks!” I shouted at the top of my lungs, dying big-time.
I thought I was surely having a stroke. I began feeling the left side of my face for droopage™ and stretching my arms out before me to compare length in case the left began shrinking to the proportions of A StrokeArm™. My heart was going bananas at the prospect; my left arm shivering with astonishment; my head aching especially in its all-important-Left™ with confusion — what is happening to me? I was convinced this was it and I was 100% having a stroke.
Brian showed up and started to talk sense to me. I blared back, “I’m DYING!???”
“Do you need to go to the hospital?”
“I DON’T KNOW!!!!!”
“Okay — do you have anything to eat in that bag?”
“Ingredients for the skinny Shepherd’s Pie we’re going to make.”
“Anything to snack on?”
“Okay, if we’re going to the hospital, I’m going to get us some snacks.”
“Do you need more water?”
I grabbed a handful of Evian. We checked out.
“Do you want to go to the hospital??”
“I guess we should go there… How far is it?”
“MGH is not far; I can get us an Uber.”
“No, let’s walk! Let’s walk; maybe I can walk this off.”
And so I thrust my work-bag and bag-of-groceries into Brian’s hands and led us marching into the hottest, most humid day of the summer, having a stroke on our way to the hospital!
We tripped the light fantastic through downtown Boston as I recalled all the different minute developments of my day to maintain a sense of normalcy before realizing and exclaiming, “You KNOW! I ran out of my favorite kind of underwear today and had to wear really tight undies so maybe my balls are very constricted and therefore making me feel this way!!”
Brian smiled through the three tons of nonsense he was carrying/dealing-with/surviving.
We strolled up to Mass General Hospital’s lobby doors.
“I just want to get more to drink and walk a bit more! I’m feeling a little better!!”
We went into the nearest CVS where I grabbed a Gatorade and a water and made Brian stand in line for me while I did a few time-steps around the store before strolling up to the the cashier when our time arrived to tell her I was going to die in the time it took the chip-reader to process my debit card payment.
“I just want to walk a bit more!! I’m feeling a little better!”
“Can I sit down?”
“O K!! Where?! How about the J.P. Licks (famous New England Ice Creamery) across the street!?”
“I don’t know…“
“Then we can keep walki — “
“J.P. Licks it is!”
Hungry (exhausted) Brian wanted ice cream, so I did, too. We sat by the window, where I took a spoonful into my mouth before pushing it aside and calling it, “just too much for me to handle right now.”
“Do you want to call your mother, the brilliant and highly qualified Registered Nurse who bore you?”
“No!! Quiet with that nonsense!!! Let me writhe in the foyer of this public Ice Cream establishment and tell you the many ways in which I am presently perishing!” I suggested an alternative to my loving partner.
After we couldn’t stay there much longer, Brian asked me if I wanted — now — to go to the hospital.
“I just want to walk a bit more!! I’m feeling a little better!”
I could tell, at this point, that if I was not dying, Brian was going to kill me in front of J.P. Lick’s in Beacon Hill.
“One block and I’ll be good to call an Uber back home!”
I kept my word and back we went, myself shvitzing in the backseat the entire way, watching my twilight hours pass in the city twilight out the window.
We got back to the house, and for the next hour, I sat on the couch shouting excerpts from Death’s User Manual to Brian, who was trying to make me some sustenance in the kitchen. He thought — the undeniable fool he is — that might be a good idea. ‘The dead don’t need food!!!!!!!’ I reckoned.
The sun set and I got real bad. Brian put the cooking on hold and held my head in his hand, wringing a cold cloth onto my forehead, as I recited the alphabet forewards and backwards to prove my presence in the World of the Living. My phone rang. It was my mother.
“Pick. Up.” Brian trilled, bird-like, while wringing life-preserving droplets of cool water onto my already-drying corpse.
Early-onset rigor-mortis wrestled my phone to my ear and slid the ‘answer call’ key open.
“Hi Mike, how are you?”
“Okay, mom. Not feeling too well.” Ecstatic with my honesty, Brian performed a complicated series of gymnastic moves around the living room.
“What’s wrong honey?”
“Well, I think I’m having a stroke. I was on the train after work and everything became tight and started spinning and everything got hot and everyone got awful and my chest started pounding, I got heart palpitations and my left side started hurting all over and I got lightheaded and nearly passed out and thought my tight underwear might’ve had something to do with it and maybe I needed to go to the hospital but now I just think I’m dying even though nothing is happening with my face and my arms are the same length but the pain won’t stop and I am scared and sad and confused but boy isn’t Brian the best?!?!?!!!!!!!????”
“Honey you’re not having a stroke.”
“You’re actually insane.”
“Honey you’re not having a stroke.”
“I love you but you need to be committed.”
“Honey you’re not having a stroke.”
“I know you are but what am I???!”
Over a delicate twenty minute FaceTime call nothing like the above dialogue, Sophie talked me down from the ledge and convinced me to subscribe to the sensible notion that the physical sensations I was experiencing were not a stroke but, rather, a full-blown and terrible panic attack exacerbated by exhaustion, overheating, and a hangover.
Brian went back to the kitchen as Sophie prescribed Aspirin, carbs, and rest.
I puttered around the apartment, recovering a normal heart rate and weeping openly at them both with gratitude for their unfettered devotion and care, for their rescuing me from the clutches of the Grimme Reaper herself, for their loving me in my momentary break from all reality.
Brian made us some food—skinny Shepherd’s Pie—I inhaled in one breath before weeping some more at him in the next — about everything from my undergraduate training as an actor to our fizzy and delightful romance.
“Can we go to bed?” he impartially suggested the next of the evening’s events with his eyes closed.
“Okay but I am going to sit up or I might die in my sleep!”
We woke up the next morning — Brian, exhausted, and me, still alive.
I started seeing a therapist. We went on vacation. Life went on, thank God.
Last Sunday, we went to see La La Land. It is a Good Movie about some white people who want to make art but fall in love and it’s tough so they sing and dance but still have a difficult time with it.
Midway through, I started to think, ‘well, I’m going to die watching Emma Stone sing her way through a crap audition for a shot-in-the-dark impossible fantasy project that would never exist in a million years because the world isn’t a fairy tale and no one could date a man who looks like Ryan Gosling!’
Brian blinked beside me.
‘I am going to die with a belly full of Italian food watching Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling fight about making art — I should be making art, I’m not making art, I’m making money and spending it filling my belly with Italian food and watching Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sing and dance — I should be singing and dancing, I’m not singing and dancing, I’m dying in this movie theatre next to my beloved with a belly full of Italian food watching Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling — I should be Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling,’ so on and so forth.
“Hey I’m feeling anxious™ and claustrophobic™, so I’m going to go get some water; I’ll be right back,” I shouted into Brian’s small ear in the packed evening showing of the Oscar-buzzed movie of the season.
“I’m going to be famous!!” Emma Stone farted.
My heart began pounding in my Ariana Grande sweatshirt.
I wet my whistle and did a jig in the lobby — ‘I’m a real boy!’ — before scurrying across the front of the theatre in my Ariana Grande sweatshirt, my whole body quaking with some kind of deathly fever within, all the way back to my seat. I can only imagine I was more interesting than the classic cinema revivalism onscreen.
“Are you okay?” Brian whispered to me.
“I’m going to die but yes, quite!” I bellowed, blowing him three seats away from me. He picked himself up off the floor and returned to his seat next to me. I writhed through the last twenty minutes of the picture, escaping the clumsy throes of the Grimme Reaper herself before the credits rolled and I sprinted out of that dark, butter-scented deathtrap humming Justin Hurwitz’ unforgettable score!
We traipsed through the cool winter air back to the house, Brian calming me down, me demanding final rites and declaring burial wishes.
“God, I just don’t know what’s happening to me!” I intoned, monk-like, hoping to combine prayer and plea for understanding.
We slipped into the apartment, and I stripped myself of my clothes before running laps around each open space several dozen times and demanding Brian assign me tasks to keep me alive through this latest hurdle set by my mortality.
“Wrap this gift!”
“LIKE MY LIFE DEPENDS ON IT LOL!”
“Put the cushion covers on the couch!”
“BEFORE IT KILLS ME HA HA!”
Finally, and much sooner than last time, we spoke the truth to each other as I zipped the grey Ikea cushion cover around its innards: “this is another panic attack.”
I confessed, “since my dad passed and my grandma passed and Hillary lost the election and Trump began a nuclear arms race and Emma Stone can’t make it as an actor and my belly full of Italian food began giving me indigestion and we turned our clocks back for winter, I have been haunted by a spectre of death and I fear my heredity and vulnerability as a being on this Earth will catch up to me and I will die.”
“I know,” Brian said.
“We can go to sleep.”
We hugged and kissed and I fell asleep sitting up.
The next day, I went to my nine-to-five an hour late and told my boss. “Couldn’t get out of your own way, huh?”
No, I guess not.
I feel wracked sometimes. There is so much death and sadness in the world, but all I want to do is enact the charge of the sign hanging in my mother’s kitchen reading, “live • laugh • love.”
I am so tired of feeling disappointed by the way lives seem to go — fun little roller coasters with a break in the tracks no one anticipated, fatally tossing the riders to their untimely and gruesome deaths. Or, worse, even — fun little roller coasters with a break in the tracks we all knew was coming but just couldn’t fix. Or, worse, still — miserable shitty roller coasters with a break anticipated or unanticipated — what does it matter?
There is death and it is sad and this is the closest to nihilism I ever want to be.
I am tired of my chest hurting and thinking I’m moments from death. I am tired of getting a headache and wondering if it is too late for me to leave an indelible mark on this beautiful big blue rock in the stars we call home. I am tired of a muscle spasm sounding a false alarm in my sentimentality sector to begin cataloguing last moments shared with loved ones.
I am tired of getting old and getting closer to an inevitable death.
I am made weary by those around me doing the same.
I am made sick by those I know, or love, or know and love, falling in surrender to an inevitable death, as we are just designed to do.
A few days ago, Brian and I arrived to the hotel at which we’d spend a night in New York City over our winter holiday break from work. We were surprised to find the sixth-floor room had a beautiful terrace overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge. Life is beautiful; the world is beautiful.
We were sad, having just read news of the untimely passing of the beloved and inimitable Carrie Fisher on our car-ride into Manhattan.
We discussed how brightly she shone and how freely she lived throughout her time with us on this planet.
I resolved to discuss and disclose my fear of death and any and all challenges I experience with anxiety or mental and emotional health.
I want to find my own place among freedom and fancy, like Carrie who left us at fifty-three, and health and happiness, like my grandmother who passed at the age of eighty. I want to shine my own light on this Earth before I gain my place in the night sky’s stars above.
I want to do that and all it entails in all time it demands; I want to live in continuous joy and creation before I rest in peace, and may my mortal fear light my fire to illuminate the path ahead, onward, and upward.