I remember my first. I often forgot about a lot of the ones in between that first time. Maybe that sounds cold and callous to some but the first time is the one you should never forget. I remember her vividly. I remember it was August of 1984. I was 13 going on 14, maybe too young. The heat was stifling. The air was stagnant. The heat loomed above like God himself was holding his breath. Even though I heard words, or something that resembled words I couldn’t tell you what they were, who was saying them or if they had any meaning in the context of that moment. Nothing in that moment mattered. She was there. I could feel something inside me changing. My breathing was labored, my heart was racing. My skin felt that if touched I could shoot lightning bolts out of my fingertips. My heart continued to race, faster, exasperating, my breath now almost panicked. My hair was longer then, I was sweating profusely, I could feel it almost percolating at the nape of my neck dripping down my back, saturating my clean Sunday church shirt. I felt trapped in my own skin. She didn’t play fair.
People pay for this kind of experience with those escape rooms nowadays. You’re trapped in a dark room, locked, nowhere to go. There are some clues to follow and you have to get out. There’s this dark room, she created, that didn’t have a door to escape from, she offered no clues. You just need to sit there and endure it for what seems to be an eternity when truth be told it’s seconds, maybe minutes. Time ceases to exist in her grasp. The silence is the worst part. I can hear our heart beating in unison in my ear, not beating but throbbing. Ba bum..ba bum..ba..bum…ba bum, like the timpani section, beating mercilessly on those drums. I look around aimlessly, fake a smile, everything is cool, look I’m smiling, everything is fine, no one notices, no one is looking, everything is fine. She tells me no. Everyone is looking, everyone knows. They are staring at you. You are an aberration. You are not normal. You bolt.
I remember my first panic attack sitting in the second pew of mass at St. Raphael’s like it was yesterday. We normally sat in the back, but we got there late that Sunday. The usher sat us right up front and center. My mom, dad, brother and me kind of squeezed into the tight confines of the medieval catholic church pews. I am fairly confident that the catholic church was never built for comfort. It was designed for everyone to feel the suffering Christ felt on the cross. The rigid wooden pews and 1 millimeter padded kneelers were akin to the wooden cross where he was crucified. Sit, stand, kneel, repeat. You could make a multimillion dollar exercise program based on the concept of Sunday mass if you sped it up a lot. I sat on the end within smacking reach of my mom for if I acted up. She would at times bring a wooden spoon with her. It was her weapon of choice for close quarters outbursts. For long distance she had the tomahawk which was a heavy rubber spatula that flew through the air like a tomahawk obviously. The aerodynamics on that thing were so outstanding even NASA would want to replicate the trajectory of this thing for 70’s and 80’s space exploration.
So 11:00am mass begins. It truly is hot as fuck, as described above so eloquently. I’ll tone it down a notch to really explain what happened. A woman arrives late and she proceeds to squeeze in to our pew where there was just no room for her heavily perfumed fat ass. Her scent was stale in the air, cheap perfume, church incense and that unforgiving heat. She smelled like a cat hoarder bathed in rose water and she was all up on me acting as if she wasn’t the most intrusive human being on the planet. I was needless to say uncomfortable. She was encroaching, her flowing Sunday church dress polyester all up on top of me like an old lady blanket made of SOS pads. I was getting claustrophobic. I went from annoyed as fuck to panicked over time. If I started shit I’d get the spoon. I’d have to endure somehow.
Catholic mass isn’t fun. It is really less fun when Father Callahan was doing the mass. His homilies were just not built for children. He seemed to beg for money more than anything, chastising the congregation for not giving enough in the collection plate. I could never relate to him regardless. He was kind of a dick we’d find out later in life as my friend Kevin and I would drive by after a night on the town blaring the car horn at 2 in the morning outside the rectory for sins we convicted him of later in life.
As I said before there is a lot of sit, stand, kneel. With each movement her scratchy polyester green floral dress brushing against me was like Poe’s tell tale heart. It was driving me into madness. So, there is a part of the mass that goes along the lines of “Peace be with you” and the congregation shakes hands as an offer of peace to their neighbor. It’s a standing part, I was already 3/4 of the way to madness at this point, I could stretch a little, shake a hand or two and maybe stop the heart racing. Nope, the crazy cat piss lady kisses me on the cheek. The scent of her perfume made me wretch and I was now in 99% madness panic mode. If I could only make it to holy communion I could turn left and just bolt out the door and wait to get beat after mass for leaving early. I was planning my escape. I found the way out but I just had to make it few more minutes. I knew mass by heart, they do the blessing of the wine and communion a couple other rituals and it’s easy street.
After what seemed like hours my pew was called to attention. Everyone always wants to take communion from the priest. It’s like getting an autograph from the lead singer of a band. The bass player equivalent was the deacon who stands dejected to the side to move things along. The deacon somehow is bestowed some of the powers of the priest but can still have sex, get married and gets all the perks of regular mortals but is allowed to step in for the priest should a bolt of lightning strike him dead during service. The deacon can also give out the holy sacrament. So I beeline over to that deacon almost knocking cat piss lady out of my way, grab my wafer do the sign of the cross and bolt the fuck out the door.
I gasp for air, panting like a southern coon dog laying on a porch in Atlanta in late August. Tears are rolling down my face, I am borderline hyperventilating. I don’t know if they are tears of torment, fear, or jubilation. I don’t care. Mass is over in 10 minutes now. I need to wait for the rest of my family. To possibly get cracked with a wooden spoon but I don’t care. I am a free man. I can breathe. I can move uninterrupted, unhindered, my shackles released. My heart is still racing, my breathing labored but I can start to feel human again. My breathing gets more normal, the redness I could feel take over my skin like a furnace subsides. My heart slows. I give a sigh of relief. I survived my first panic attack.
If you never had a panic attack you are totally missing out on something special. The physical impacts are unreal, the mental anguish with extreme paranoia are completely outstanding. You start to avoid people. You hate crowds. You stay away from things that might induce panic. You are an outcast. You get depressed.
So by the age of about 15 I spiraled into depression. It is a disease that comes and goes whenever the fuck it feels like it. It could be weeks, months, even years before it strikes. I don’t know what triggered it. I could blame my parents. I could say it was because I never made the starting basketball team. The truth is it is a trait built within us that just is. No one made me depressed I am just lacking some chemicals in my DNA that release dopamine. Normally I am fine, but I have had some serious darkness that maybe one day I can talk about, but just not right here right now.
I post this for Anthony Bourdain tonight, and I quote Trent Reznor in the song Hurt. “And you could have it all. My empire of dirt.” You don’t know what is going on in someone else’s head. Bourdain had it all man! He traveled the world, ate some amazing food, was a TV star, a millionaire. You know what else he had? Depression, and addictions to cope with that depression. People used to compare me to Bourdain in my writing style, and that is an absolute compliment to me. There is this jaded, narcissistic thing going on that exudes this I do not give a fuck swagger. That was Bourdain to me. He reached into that jaded part to be like a kid discovering new things. It was his eyes of a child trying things for the first time look he gave that told you he meant it. If it sucked he’d be the first to tell you that too. He lacked that gene of giving a shit about how his words and actions made you feel. It was a coping mechanism to help battle his many demons. It paid the bills. If he were a true sociopath I am sure none of this would bother him.
Bottom line here is we all have our demons. They are scars you can’t see where we are broken. I have anxiety, coupled with severe depression. It’s just a fact of life. It’s like being born with a disfigurement only you can totally hide from public viewing. Unless you are writing a blog about it. So, yeah I totally remember my first, but I forgot a lot of the ones after her. Even though there were many after her they kind of blend together and become less impacting after time. I wish Bourdain the peace and comfort he was seeking in the afterlife. Tragic loss of a true artist.