Falling Into the Heart of Panic
It is late. About 11 pm. The covers are pulled up under my chin, and my book is propped on my knees and I am reading.
For a moment, just a moment, I have the briefest flicker of a thought that something is not quite right. It is just a fragment of a second of strangeness. Then it is gone, nothing.
I refocus on the words on the page.
But I have only read a few words, and the faint sense of wrongness flickers again.
I can’t put my finger on what it is. Just a strangeness. An unsettled feeling that something is… off.
Without moving my body, my eyes slide around my studio, taking in my environment – everything is still… normal… in its place.
There is nothing.
I pick up my book again, my eyes quickly scan the text, locating my spot on the page. I fix my attention back on the words, summoning my focus, but my brain squirms away – it is not completely convinced… and then – there it is again.
Am I imagining this?
No… I am feeling outmy environment, like dipping my toe in a swimming pool to test the temperature… no, something is not right.
But I can’t pin it down. Can’t identify it. It is vague… and confusing. I struggle to focus my brain and sharpen my senses.
Yes, I am nearly sure now. I am not imagining it. Something is not right… definitely not right.
My spine stiffens, and I sit upright in bed, rigid and alert. My book has slid away off my lap, forgotten. My senses are gathering, tightening, sharpening. They are on high alert, straining to comprehend, my eyes flick around the room – searching – then settle on the far wall.
The far wall of the room does not seem right. I’m not sure how, but it just isn’t.
Whatever this is – this wrongness – it is getting larger. I can feel it expanding. It is starting to fill and warp the space that I am in, the air that I am breathing. And it is building around me, swelling and growing.
My heart is starting to thump in my ears. I don’t know what this something is, but it is big. And I am beginning to sense that it is very, very bad.
I realize, vaguely, that this feeling I am feeling doesn’t make sense. How could a wall be “wrong?” I have no idea. I just know that it is, and that this… whatever this is, is seriously not good.
I try to scramble out of bed and escape the pillows and tangle of covers, but my movements are strange. I want to move fast, but I feel weirdly slow, like time has decelerated or warped, and the air, like thick invisible mud, oozes around me, slowing my movements. To move, I must pull my limbs through this strange thick atmosphere.
What IS this?
I stand in the center of my studio. Although the house is still and quiet, everything around me feels chaotic. I determine that I need to know if this “not rightness” is just here, in this room, or if it is larger – something that is happening in the world, something catastrophic occurring in the universe… the earth slipping off its axis… or the planet being pulled into a black hole… is the world ending, and this is what it feels like?
The cogs and wheels inside my head spin crazily, searching, searching… but there is nothing, nothing within my bank of experiences and knowledge with which to connect and make sense of this.
I think fleetingly of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that tore like a freight train through this house, and I had scrambled then to escape these walls and the deafening roar of the earth’s plates grinding and shifting, and the walls of our house groaning and creaking, as hanging pots and pans had clanged together and glass smashed. I had felt a wrongness then too.
Only now, there is no earthquake, nothing I can identify as the source of wrongness. An earthquake would make sense. But this… now it is silence that is roaring in my ears.
I stand dumbly, looking about me. Everything in the room is wrong, so wrong. I am not sure how it is wrong – it is just dreadfully, dizzyingly, sickeningly wrong. Terribly, horribly, awfully wrong.
Or I am wrong.
That is a nauseating thought.
And then out of nowhere, it slams into me – a wave of horrible sensation gushes through me, over me. It is the feeling you get when you bang your funny bone, only so much grosser.
It reverberates throughout my entire body – a disgusting, exposed, raw nerve feeling. And I am engulfed in it – the shrieking horror of fingernails raking down my spine. This growing sickening thing rolls over me and over me, like waves. After what feels like ages, it begins to recede, and in the fading aftermath, I think I may faint.
One or the other, almost certainly.
My heart is skittering. I can feel it beneath the skin in my neck, agitated palpitations, quick, like hummingbird wings.
I can hear my blood, rushing and thudding in my ears. There is an awful blackness hovering close to me. I am not quite in it, but I can feel it close by.
The world must be ending, I realize. This is it, I think. It must be. And in this moment, I feel too awful to really feel very sentimental about it.
So, this is the end. Well, it’s been nice knowin’ ya.
I am flooded with a sensation of blackness, horror, and nausea. The blackness is starting to engulf me, and suddenly I know that I need to get out of this room. Now!
The message is crystal clear: GO! GO! GO!
I fumble with the doorknob, stumble downstairs from my room, and into the darkened family room. In the darkness I stop for a moment, feeling wild-eyed and crazed. I feel for the light switch on the wall and flick it on.
I breathe and assess.
The “wrongness” is here too. I hear a sound and then realize it must be me making some kind of whimpering noise.
No. No. No.
I have not escaped it.
In this moment, with utter and complete certainty, I know that I am alone, not just within this house, but in the cosmos.
There is nothing.
The sudden realization of this enormous “nothingness” is physical agony. I am consumed by fear.
The house is still, but everywhere around me there is chaos and turbulence and the roaring of my blood in my ears. The very space around me is full of noise and chaos – like Van Gogh’s swirling night sky – only not beautiful at all, actually more like hideous loud static on a tv screen. I can’t close my eyes or plug my ears to it. It is inside me, surrounding me, filling me. I am floundering through the turbulence and chaos.
I rush through the family room, dining room, kitchen, and turn on every light, trying to chase away that darkness that I feel pressing in on me from just behind my eyes.
And then it crashes into me again – that wave of raw, horrid, sensation – engulfing my entire body, grinding against my bones, leaving me cringing. It is the worst thing I have ever felt. EVER. And, while it only lasts a few seconds, it is a fucking L..O..N..G few seconds. I want to bolt from it, but I don’t know where to run to. Besides which, it seems to be following me, so I start to move.
Around the kitchen, through the dining room, family room, and around again. The movement seems to lessen the chaos a tiny bit.
Around and around.
I make circles through the kitchen, then the dining room, and family room, then through the kitchen again. I keep walking, not feeling the cold Mexican pavers under my bare feet. My heart is thumping in my neck. My hands tingle.
Every now and then I press my fingers into my throat to feel the crazy uneven thumping of my heart. I clench and unclench my hands, trying to squeeze them into stillness, make them feel solid, but when I hold my hands out in front of me, they are trembling uncontrollably, and my fingertips have gone numb and tingly and cold. I shake them while I walk, trying to shake out the tingles and numbness.
In one circle through the kitchen, the clock on the kitchen wall catches my eye.
My brain is grasping for anything solid and tangible to cling to. Time is solid. I can see the second hand moving – that is something. Right?
Though… I am surprised by how slow it seems. Too slow, surely. Slower than it is supposed to move, I am certain. But still, it is something – it is regular and constant. The clock is still ticking. That is something.
Would the clock still be ticking if the world was ending?
I am not sure.
Possibly, I think.
And obviously, neither I or anyone else has any data on this, and so, I conclude, it could possibly still be ticking even as time and the universe was unraveling.
Suddenly, that searing wave of sickening sensation rasps across my raw nerve ends again, and I want to crawl right out of my skin and leave it in a crumpled pile on the kitchen floor.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! What IS that?
Yeah, you heard me, Universe.
And you can put the Guide down, because it is time to STOP hitchhiking and START panicking right about fucking NOW.
What IS HAPPENING?
But I can’t stop to ask questions. I can feel the wave bearing down on me again. I can’t be still. I quicken my pace, feeling almost that if I can keep moving, I might be able to outpace it. If I keep moving, I feel I might be able to stay one step ahead of being engulfed again.
I move and alternately clench and unclench my hands. In one pass around the family room, I see myself in the mirror on the family room wall.
Son of a MONKEY but I look horrible!
Pale and ugly, with dark circles under my eyes.
However… not as if I am dying, which kind of surprises me.
I pause for a moment on my next pass by the mirror. I can feel the darkness looming behind me, but in the mirror, I can’t see it. I lean in. The reflection I can see does not mirror the one I feel. I can see the pulsing vein in my neck, I notice. My entire chest is pulsing, actually. I feel the hammering of my heart beneath my palm.
How fast can a heart beat before it explodes, I wonder?
I feel a bit light-headed. I turn and lean on the end of the kitchen counter for balance. I try to breathe more slowly. Maybe that will slow my heart. But I find I can’t draw a full breath. I can only draw tiny shallow breaths. There is no room in my chest.
Suddenly I can’t get enough air. I have to take smaller faster breaths, so I don’t suffocate. I wonder if there is something wrong with the air.
Could there be less oxygen or something?
Whatever this is, it’s getting worse. Fear snakes through my body. The trembling is moving up my arms. I have to move. Shake it out.
I pace again.
Staring at the floor.
I don’t know for how long. I focus on the big, square, terracotta tiles on the floor. Each tile is one foot by one foot, and I step in the center of every second tile. I get lost in this simple repetitive movement.
Around and around.
Step. Step. Step. Step.
When next I glance at the clock it is 1:40 a.m., but I don’t stop.
Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step.
After a long, long time, I pause in the middle of the kitchen, and stand unsteadily, swaying a little on my feet next to the large black range. Dazed, puzzled, I stare dumbly around me, my eyes settling on the kitchen table in front of me with its red checked cloth. I stare at the red checks.
Red squares and white squares.
It has some meaning or purpose – that cloth.
I am sure it does, but now I can’t quite make sense of it, the red and white checks…
I focus on it, willing myself to understand, fighting to pull the fragments of understanding and familiarity together into something coherent. But I can’t figure it out. It doesn’t make sense.
Red. And white.
It has no meaning.
There is, in the back of my brain, some faint memory of meaning associated with that cloth with the red checks. I know it should have meaning.
All of this – the things around me – they had meaning.
I’m sure they did.
Or, I thought it all had meaning…
Gasp… in this moment, it is as if a layer has been stripped away, or a curtain yanked back, and I suddenly see – the horror. I almost laugh at the insanity, the clarity.
This is what Kurtz saw in his final moments, I realize with horrified astonishment, in the final pages of Heart of Darkness.
“The horror. The horror.”
YES, I want to scream. I see it too!
The world around me is only a flimsy façade, like a backdrop for a play, and behind it gapes a dark hideous void – empty and vacuous.
The horror. The heart of darkness.
The void, I can clearly see, is real. Much more real than anything else. Everything else, I can now see, is a lie. The utter horror and hopelessness of this realization is unspeakable. I want to sob at the ghastliness, the sadness of it, but I can’t cry. I am too busy just now trying to stay alive.
I feel the wave building behind me, and I break from my daze and begin to move, hoping to keep ahead of it.
I pace around the kitchen again. I don’t know how many times I circle, but it feels better to move than be still, so I keep walking – around and around – even though I am shaky and unsteady on my feet.
Around. Around. Around. Around.
When I stop moving the sensations overwhelm me, cold and then hot, the trembling in my hands, my heart skittering out of control, the dread pooling in my stomach like thick black tar, and the wave starts to build at my back. I have to move.
Now, I don’t look at anything except the floor. Everything else has stopped making sense. It is hard to draw even a measly little breath. My lungs have closed themselves. And now I have to remind myself to breathe. It is no longer automatic. I will suffocate, I realize, if I forget to breathe.
Step. Step. Breathe. Step. Step. Breathe. Step. Step. Breathe. Step. Step. Breathe.
I focus on the tiles and remembering to breathe.
Step. Step. Breathe. Step. Step. Breathe.
A tension slowly begins to build at the back of my head, and an amorphous pain begins to grow, sharpening and intensifying, until I know that either an aneurism is about to burst inside my head (which may not be the worst way to go under these circumstances), or it is a migraine.
Migraines I do know. A migraine I can deal with. As I walk, the pain builds and solidifies into a point of pain behind my left eye, drawing some of my attention away from the chaos, and the blackness. The fear recedes a little. I continue to pace, a little more slowly now. My heart is still hammering like I’ve been racing uphill, and my head is throbbing painfully now with every thump of my heart.
Finally, I stop pacing and slump at the end of the counter. I lean forward and lay my forehead on the cool, white, counter tiles. I press my fingers into my throat again and feel the thudding of my heart. With my cheek pressed to the kitchen counter, I stare at the room sideways. Directly in my line of vision is the table with the red checked cloth. And suddenly, it is perfectly clear.
It is a tablecloth!
The pain in my head mixes with a rush of warm relief.
It DOES have meaning. It goes on the table, where we eat.
It is not fake, or a lie.
It is not the horror it appeared to be just a short while before.
It is just a tablecloth.
And in that moment, knowing that the tablecloth is a tablecloth is the best thing I have ever known.
For a while I don’t move. I just lean on the counter, stare at the tablecloth, and breathe.
In and out. In and out. In and out. In and out.
It is after 3 a.m. when I make my way back to my bedroom. And it is only now that I realize that I am very cold. My body is shivering, and a glance in the mirror on my bathroom wall shows me bluish lips. I am wearing the shorts and tank top I wear to bed, and the house at night is cold. But I can’t care about cold yet. I scan my room.
I move to the far side of the studio.
My studio seems mostly normal again. I exhale forcefully with relief, but for a few minutes, I continue to scan and rescan.
They seem normal now…
I leave the lights on and quickly crawl under my covers. I am shivering. The fresh memory of the dread, the horror, and the darkness still hovers heavily in the air. But now I am distracted by a familiar pain… and the nausea which just decided to join the party. My head is throbbing. I lay my cheek against my cold pillow, and with one hand I squeeze my temples.
Migraines I know. By comparison, this is a pain I can cope with. My eyes do another measured scan of the walls of the room, confirming for me that they have returned to normal.
The pain tonight is almost a friend. It is uncomplicated. Familiar. I close my eyes and take a breath. For a while I just breathe…
In and out. In and out. In and out.
What just happened?
What in the unholy name of creepy, flying, FUCKING monkeys just happened?
Did I take anything?
I need an explanation. My brain needs an explanation!
I lie there, empty, drained, stupid with exhaustion.
WHAT THE FLYING FUCK JUST HAPPENED?
So, yeah… that’s panic.