Friday, December 09, 2005

Panic In Year Zero, or: The Last Man On Earth

This is real:

I’ve just finished addressing the main, adult congregation of my church. I’ve been asked to speak about my experiences at Bible Memorization Camp and, for some reason, I’m totally on.

Material, timing, build-up, everything is working. My short speech has them in the aisles and the more I go on, the louder they laugh. I can see a woman in one of the front rows dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief.

My mother, who had slipped out for a moment, returns at the end to find people with broad smiles on their faces walking over to my father and shaking his hand. She can’t figure out what’s happened…

The day after my epiphany in the bunk, I stayed after the daily Bible Studies meeting to talk to the instructor, a near-sighted old lady who peered out from behind thick lenses.

“I think I was saved last night,” I told her.

“Really!” she said. “That’s wonderful!”

“Yeah, I was really suffering and then felt overwhelmed by this sensation of peace.”

“Well,” she said, “that sounds like the Holy Spirit entering your heart.”

You ever wonder about the high number of people doing time in prison who experience a religious conversion?

I don’t.

At some point, the mind and body simply isn’t up to enduring any more and it flips a switch and does whatever it needs to do to survive.

My body declared that my sentence was over and it devised a scheme whereby I could stop the suffering. I would be what they wanted, I would become this person I needed to be to live here and, in so doing, enjoy the extra benefit of this sense of calm that I’d been told was part of the package.

It did this on a deep level that I didn’t know existed. Later in life I would learn that panic and anxiety also worked this way, creating distress for the purpose of removing me from stressful situations. Someone who can’t function can’t be expected to deal with stress. He’d have to stay in the nest, wouldn’t he?

My problem now was that I was in a double bind. The truth was that I was actually feeling worse than ever. Having completely forfeited my identity in an attempt to stop the pain, I was in a state of extreme emotional turmoil, even though superficially I was convinced that everything was now all right.

Simple, right?

On some level I suppose I believed that I had been “saved.” But deep inside, in a place where I couldn’t acknowledge it, I felt as if I were in someone else’s skin and I was screaming to get out.

I needed help, desperately.

(March, 2005: Los Angeles. The palm leaves that litter the sidewalks start to look sick. Nausea bends me in half as I slowly make my way down Sunset Boulevard, desperately trying to figure out what to do. A drink? Food? My head is spinning. Am I going to faint here, right on the ground until somebody notices?)

That night I lay in the bunk again, trying to understand what was happening. There was a need to release all of this pain, all of this poison I felt was coursing through my veins.

(I see that I’m not far from a McDonald’s. The pain stabs me in the stomach again.)

I’m shaking on the mattress, nauseous and dizzy. Where can I put all of this? It needs to go somewhere, but where?

(Suddenly, I know exactly what’s going on. I dash into the McDonald’s and search for the Men’s Room.)

Oh, god, no…don’t let me…not on the…

(Locking the door, I make it just in time and sit down, wrapping my arms around my stomach.)

I run to the bathroom and it all comes out, everywhere, everywhere anything can come out. My body held back as long as it could until it told me, “This is all wrong. Stop it.”

When I’m finished there is nothing left, all the fear, all the nervousness, all the poison had been purged. It was time to be myself again.

In retrospect, maybe this was the first of the many panic attacks to come, attacks that would come in the form of fake heart attacks, sudden disorientation, and agoraphobia. Certainly it made plain that I localized my emotional pain in my lower abdomen, which bothers me to this day.

Did I start constructing my fortress that day? The ramparts that protected me from the Night Of The Living Dead outside its walls, keeping me safe from the zombies and vampires?

I was still a few years away from discovering Joyce and Stephen Dedalus’s cry of profane joy at the sight of the wading girl, a scene in which I recognized myself and that showed me there was only one place I would ever really belong. But even before that, there was the speech before the congregation.

They’d asked those of us who’d made the trip to say a few words about the experience. Lightning shot through my newly adrenalized bloodstream and I crafted a humorous speech that transformed the pain into comedy.

I killed that day like I never have before, all four cylinders hitting perfectly.

And as I looked out at the audience, eyes wet with tears of laughter, and my father’s broad smile, I felt so far away from that suffering shell in the woods. I felt more like myself than I ever had before. I felt like I was coming into my inheritance.

I felt born again.


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