by Sharmaine Galve
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash
I suppose people think that when you’re diagnosed with anxiety disorder, with the prescriptions and certificate to prove it, your panic attacks would be loud, explosive, and a complete scene- stealer. You would be a puddle of water on the floor, crying at the sight of light and sounds and people peering over you.
But, you know what they say, that’s what movies have done for us. Perpetually giving us an inaccurate picture of things.
Of course, I may be wrong. Maybe I do look spooked during a panic attack. Dilated eyes, pale as an ordinary cloud unpossessed by rain, zombie-walking like I need brains rather than wanting to eat them.
But nobody has called me out for that. Nobody even knew I was having them until I softly say, “I am having a panic attack.” Then everyone panics.
Just this afternoon, I told an ex-girlfriend, who asked me to accompany her to her condo unit somewhere up north for an upcoming Airbnb client, “I will be needing water now. I need to drink my meds.”
“What happens if you don’t?” She asked, while making sure her iron griller still heated up so she could put it in the usable cupboard for guests.
“Oh, you know, road rage, running naked into the streets, ugly crying.”
She laughed. And that’s one thing I missed about her. All my jokes were funny to her. Which was why for about two weeks now I had been secretly seeing her, pursuing her, although she hadn’t exactly acceded. But we have been together almost every day, having dinners and driving her to work, and waking up at a heathen hour of 5:20 am to pick her up, go for breakfast at the drive-thru and bring her home.
All because when I decided to float around back in her hemisphere, she had just accepted the night manager position at an offshore online magazine. Meaning, she worked while I slept. Meaning, I would have to work harder to win her back into my life. Meaning she could meet someone in her new job, and this would be all for naught. Because it does happen. New things, new smell, new cravings.
But going back to my immediate need for water, she didn’t even know what was growing in me.
So, for accuracy, let me describe this: people with anxiety disorder, we’re mostly scared of people knowing we are panicking. So, we hide it. And we only show it to people who know about it. And which is why a lot of anxiety disorders develop agoraphobia. We’re scared of people knowing we are scared. So, the tendency is we avoid people. We avoid going out.
My very first panic attack was over twenty years ago, riding on a bus on my way home from work. Something precipitously hit me, like a wall slammed into me. I suddenly thought I was going to have a heart attack. It was coming. It was going to be intense. And it would happen on the late afternoon rush hour in public transportation where everyone was a stranger.
I need to get off this bus, I was screaming in my head. I cannot have a heart attack here. Oh my God, please don’t let me die here.
I looked at the passenger beside me because I thought maybe she felt my heart inside my body bouncing into her because we were shoulder-to-shoulder. Except that she was busy texting, all the while I was imagining scenarios of going into seizure and dying on the quaking aisle of the bus.
A second, if you may, perhaps panic attacks in movies were written by people with panic attacks. The drama fits, thinking about it now.
But going back to the afternoon, it wasn’t a panic attack. It was actually a withdrawal symptom for when I stopped my meds. Which was bad. Because the durations were getting shorter, meaning I am completely dependent on them now. I could go a week off them before. This time, it was just a little more than 24 hours.
Clammy hands, heart pounding, difficulty in breathing, feeling as if you were being suffocated by an invisible entity.
It started there.
But mine then would move to a distortion in vision. Nothing psychedelic. We’re not talking hallucinogenic drugs here with big bats flying out of your tummy. More of, you know how you would wear someone’s glasses and the grades are way high? Everything would look too pronounced.
Anyway, at least that’s how I would describe it. Then you would feel as if things were crawling all over you. You couldn’t tell if they’re ants or flies or bed bugs, however bed bugs would feel on your body. This discomfort that things were crawling all over you. Racking discomfort.
Then your body would stiffen and it makes you go into a weird position where one shoulder is higher. And then this overwhelming feeling that something bad was about to happen. Scared. That’s what anxiety was: just plain scared. Things bumping into the night and you don’t know what it is and you can’t do anything about it.
So there, the un-movie version of a panic attack. My version. You could have other versions, please feel free to share.
But here’s the thing, my ex-girlfriend was always late. Always, always late. The nail in the coffin, so to speak, for which I broke up with her. I couldn’t stand another hour waiting for her to finish whatever it was she was doing when I picked her up to go somewhere.
And by the time we left her condo that had no potable water, the sun had gone down, dinner hunger had arrived, and we had less than two hours before her shift started. While she was checking and rechecking her list, her cupboards, her bathroom, her messages, I was lying on the sofa, half my body raised from stiffness and whatever things crawling all over me and squinting my eyes because the grade on my eyeglasses didn’t agree with the lens grade in my mind.
“How much more will we be?” I would ask from time to time.
“Wait. I’m rushing. Really. Don’t you see? I’m really rushing already,” she would answer.
To myself I would say, it’s ok. I love her. I really love her. I was really crushed when we broke up. It’s ok. I’m fine. Do it for the one you love.
When I was young, maybe seven or eight, I watched this documentary on the Hiroshima nuclear bombing during World War 2 on TV. I only caught the last part but I saw the infamous mushroom cloud and pictures of the victims who survived it. Most of them were physically mangled by the bomb. They had this blank look as if they were in perpetual shock. Later, I would learn some of the effects would be internal. Organs malfunctioning as they try to lead lives. Later still, I would read how some of the townsfolk of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would apologize to those who lost loved ones during the bombing. Mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children.
Sorry, they said, we wish it was us who died instead of them.
Watching the documentary, that was the first time I felt debilitating sadness.
On the drive to work my ex-girlfriend drove because I could barely see, the lights on the road were astigmatic lights slashing the air. And because we were rushing, and she was just starting her job and was trying to make great impressions, no dinner. Meaning, no liquid to wash my meds into my addicted body.
We had about ten minutes before she started work so we went to a McDonald’s drive-thru. I took over the wheel and dropped her off at her building lobby. I was a little contained by then because my mind knew that beside me was a cup of Coke Zero and I could drink my meds.
When I checked for my pouch called the Wound Kit which carried my pillbox, vape and IQOS, it wasn’t in my bag. Then I remembered, in that high grade distorted vision, I had left it on the dining table in her condo, and she went up to get it but I forgot to get it back from her.
Meaning, my meds were in her bag. I could drive home to my stash but it’s half an hour away even in that graveyard period. That would be begging for an accident.
No meds, no vape, no IQOS and I could feel the crawlers starting again on my body as I took a moment to discern what I was to do. Please be reminded this was a withdrawal symptom, not my panic attack. So I was fighting against chemical reactions rather than my ability to control my mind.
Get the meds from my ex-girlfriend. That’s the only thing I could do. Go to her office, Coke Zero in hand, and gulp down my meds right there.
What an effing addict.
It didn’t even end there. She would turn her phone off at work, I didn’t know the name of her company, and this was a bustling night shift building because so many BPO companies trade there. At least I knew her floor. 36th. I could slip in and scour the whole floor looking for the online magazine operating there.
That’s what I did. Coke Zero in hand, the easy part was blending in the night shift crowd and getting in the elevator with them. The stupid part? I got into the elevator that only went up to the 27th.
When I got off the elevator along with the BPO kids already half-an-hour late for their shift, I was in for a night. Because I didn’t have an ID, I couldn’t get the elevators to open again. But I remembered my ex-girlfriend telling me how the emergency stair doors were never locked and there were two landings that were so dark it was called The Make Out Hill, because that’s where the horny kids went to make out. It’s night shift. Some people do things they can’t do in the light of day. Who are we to judge? So, I had no choice but to walk nine floors up.
Panic attack melding into withdrawal symptoms, my heart was jumping out of my chest. The lights on the floor were so sharp on my eyes. There were kids, oh so many kids, milling in the hallway. My body was so stiff that I felt like I was a walking zombie dragging my feet on the oh-so-shiny tiled floor that was reflecting the fluorescent lights. My hand had absorbed the ice coldness of the Coke Zero and it felt like it had penetrated my whole body so I was freezing. And, of course it was so cold there. I never understood the wintry temperatures of night shifts but air-conditioning was always at full blast.
But that’s the thing. Inside I was all raging but I would come across people and they would smile at me as if I was just this regular person working on that floor. And I would smile back.
My understanding of mental illness before was only on the first tier. Meaning, I got it from watching too many movies. I thought mental illnesses were a complete break from reality. I mean complete. I had no idea of varying shades of illogical thinking. And that was me. I really believed that there was something physically wrong with me. Because the next day after that bus experience, it happened again. The minute I got out into the open air, I would feel dizzy as if I would faint. My eyesight was distorted, yet everything looked like they were too focused. Not blurry, the way fainting spells would predicate, but overly focused. Buildings were harsher. The sky was too blue. People looked crisper. Sharp. Everything looked sharp.
This was in December and for a month until just before New Year’s Eve, I went to so many doctors. I was sent to so many doctors because these doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me. I guess twenty years ago, our acceptance of mental illness wasn’t as, I don’t know, accepting? I thought and they thought and everybody thought it was cardiological, neurological, hematological in nature because there was always something mildly wrong with my lab results. Yet nothing explained why I was dizzy and all of a sudden I lost half my energy and looking at things hurt my brain.
That 29th of December, some friends and I decided to go to Antipolo to have dinner in a place that had a full view of the city skyline. But it was December and it was Antipolo and we were two hours stuck in traffic and not even halfway there.
I was driving because I could still drive then, and then it happened again. That ghostly wall that yanked me out of my stillness on the driver’s seat. Then the pounding in my chest started, the stiffening of the right upper side of my body. Then this feeling, as if someone was strangling me.
I needed to get out of there.
I told my girlfriend then, “I need to get out. I need to get out of this car.”
I got out and walked, paced, trembled on the side of the road while no car moved in traffic. After about an hour, we hailed a cab to bring us all home.
The next day, I went to the ER with my girlfriend and all my vital signs were fine save for my heart rate that was in the 150s. They stuck a needle into my wrist to inject an anti-vomiting medication in case I caught a bug, causing the dizziness.
After four hours in the ER, I wanted to go home. I was desperate to go home and just lie on my bed. But something in my head suddenly spoke. It was so loud and clear as if somebody was really speaking.
Mockingly it said that even if I went home, it would still be the same. Even if I stopped all of this, it would still be the same. You will still be in the same place as you are now. So might as well just kill yourself.
I had never been so spooked in my life.
By 10 pm, the 27th floor had become deserted. I walked along the hallways and I could hear people chattering in one room and then complete silence in another room except the sound of keyboards clacking. Some doors were closed but you could see movement behind the frosted glass. Some doors were completely transparent, and there was a reception desk in each and most were empty.
I slipped into the bathroom. I needed to calm myself. With all that was going on, I was also horribly hungry. And I couldn’t suck any sugar in my Coke Zero for at least an adrenaline rush, save the taste of it.
I sat down on the toilet bowl to inhale, exhale as was taught to us. I looked for five real things I could comprehend. This tip I learned from an article on Facebook. It helps, it said, to get a grip on reality. It helped by about 1%. But I wasn’t complaining. I would accept any help I could get. I was angry at myself, though.
My first thought was, from my ex-girlfriend’s condo, I could have gone down and looked for a convenience store to buy water.
Still, in my laziness to walk, I could have driven out and bought us dinner.
I could have drunk my medicines while we were in Café Aguado after breakfast instead of rejecting the taste of their service water.
I could have just not joined my ex-girlfriend in fixing up her Airbnb condo.
I could have started weaning off my medications because I was already fine. Even my shrink said so. I could have stopped them by now and overcame the symptoms before they got this bad.
I could have just not tried to get back with my ex-girlfriend.
None. None of this would have happened. I wouldn’t be sitting here on the john, sweating in icicles and having the worst panic attack I have experienced in ages, in the middle of God knows where floor, looking for my effing drugs.
Then I cried.
Oh boy, that helped. It was so cleansing, that brief spell of relief was heaven.
But I had nine floors to walk up. I got off the john, went to the sink, parked my Coke Zero by the faucet and looked at myself in the mirror.
Despite my eyes which cried, I looked like I always do when I look in the mirror. I looked normal. I always thought I would look crazed eyes, electrified hair deranged. But deranged people didn’t look deranged. They are Ted Bundy good-looking who could lawyer their way out of their crimes. I bet Judas Iscariot was good-looking, which explains why they trusted him with the money.
I finally found the emergency stairs, closed but whose hinges were manipulated to be unlocked. I looked up and imagined what nine floors looked like. But looks, as I kept saying, are deceiving.
I paced myself and survived one floor, my heart beating like copulating rabbits. I sipped on my Coke Zero which was almost halfway finished. Or, actually, not quite, but that’s why I had anxiety. I overthink ahead.
Two floors down. Or up. Three floors. On the 31st floor, I was surprised I could breathe better. The icicles were gone. The crawlies had been driven away.
But then came the dark side, The Make Out Hill, and I felt my heart gripped with fear again. But then, also, and another surprise, I realized I could see in the dark. I thought I was going to feel my way up but I could actually see the suggestions of the steps. When I looked up between the stairs, I saw it wasn’t just two floors, the darkness was three landings. Which was a relief because it meant my ex-girlfriend hadn’t been here. But, you know, obviously not the best time for jealousy.
Then I heard a door open somewhere up there in the hill. And a guy’s voice spoke up. Very cultured voice. You can tell a lot by the way someone speaks. Educated, rich guy, possibly management. Soothing.
“Ms. Miles, do you know why I asked to speak with you?”
“Yes, sir. My third time being late.”
“And you were absent on our second week. Do you have a reason why I shouldn’t be forced to let you go?”
“Ms. Miles, we are still just in training. You miss one class, it will affect you. You are late, it affects your evaluation. You are always late, management notice.”
“Don’t you want to say anything?”
“Sir, I’m really sorry. I will try my best not to be late. If you can just give me a chance.”
“Will you do anything to be given a chance?”
“Hmm. Wrong answer, Ms. Miles.”
I quietly went up to get a better look at this scene. I heard the voices. Management and the erring employee. But a look with proper faces would complete this anecdote I would tell people as soon as this night was done.
Going up, I could already imagine entertaining my ex-girlfriend with my exploits that night. In my head, I was perfecting the gestures I would do telling it, the comic timing to complete this comedy of errors, with this side dish of an employee being fired.
What I went through aside, I was loving it.
Because the door was open on the 33rd floor, I could see management and about to be fired workforce. Management was young, possibly late twenties, early thirties. Definitely not more than 35 years old. He looked as his voice looked: rich and educated. Ms. Miles, on the other hand, looked below his class, a little sleazy even, with her cheap, short skirt, Korean-inspired makeup of absolute white and red lipstick, and gaunt face. Like a filter on an app. She was young, around 22, and the kind who would hang out at Starbucks even if they couldn’t afford it.
I was not judging but I was rooting for management. Lates and an absence, that’s too much offense for my taste.
“Again, Ms. Miles, will you do anything to be given a chance?”
“Sir Rands, I don’t know what the right answer is.”
Rands closed the door and we were plunged in darkness again. This time, deprived of light, I couldn’t see a thing. I heard someone lighting a cigarette. A brief flash of dim flame then darkness again. I sat on a step since I knew I had to wait out this talk of termination. I was feeling my hunger rearing its ugly head and I didn’t care anymore what the right answer was and if she got terminated or not. I just wanted to reach the 36th floor to get my meds and go home.
“You used to work in a bank, is that right? But your branch closed and you were part of the retrenchment. You worked in your barangay office during the pandemic but weren’t earning enough. So when the pandemic eased up, you decided to try BPO.”
“Yes sir. I’m still adjusting to working at night. Also, I’m a single mom.”
“Oh, well, that I didn’t know. But something I really don’t have to know. How old is your kid?”
“You got her at 18?”
It went quiet for a bit. I rubbed my growling tummy.
I was alarmed by the sharp tone of Miles’ voice. What happened? I wondered. Did he faint?
“Shh, I will give you a chance. And I will make sure you never get terminated. Ever.”
“Sir,” Miles replied, her voice trembling.
If a kissing was done and no one was around to see it, does it make a sound? What does an unwanted kiss sound like?
It sounded scared. It came with sobs that wanted to scream out loud but couldn’t, was afraid to. Perhaps it feared the source of the unwanted kiss, that it could punch her in the stomach or push her down the stairs.
I wanted to go up. I wanted to let Rands know I was there. I wanted him to stop. But I, too, was scared. I sat down again, my heart pounding, my head swimming in the dark.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck, my head was saying. Fuck. Motherfuck.
“Sir,” the crying was resigned.
Perhaps, the fear of crying out for help actually came from the thought of people actually coming out and seeing them.
Perhaps the fear was shame.
I thought I heard a zipper opening but then knew it for a fact when I heard a very testosterone-induced moaning.
I used to watch porn a lot, and I thought moaning was the most beautiful sound in the world. But, sitting there, it sounded so baleful.
After a few seconds, the grunting expressions of ejaculation were released. And then panting.
“Whooo,” it sighed. “Don’t tell anyone.”
The door opened and the light that flooded in was so bright, so harsh, it was blinding. Then absolute darkness again as the door seemed to thud with such heaviness and anger.
I heard her crying. And my insides were crying with her.
I didn’t want to go up and approach her. I didn’t know if it would even help her to know someone was a witness. Witness to her degradation?
Also, I was ashamed.
It was just a few minutes, but it felt like hours as she cried and my insides cried.
The door opened again, and a crowd of voices rushed in. It was so loud. Cigarettes were lit and jokes were exchanged. Someone asked for a stick. Another asked for a lighter. Make Out Hill became well-lit and festive as the door on my landing opened as well.
I continued to sit there and slowly drank my tepid Coke Zero.
After 15 minutes, the first midday break ended, and everyone went back inside. I knew Miles was gone a long time now. I imagined her sitting in the bathroom stall; if she had a handkerchief, she would be wiping the semen off her, wiping the reality away.
When the last of the kids had gone, I stood up and walked the stairs all the way to the 36th floor. In the lighted walk, everything looked high definition. Every step was effortless. I was just going up, feeling nothing.
Once I reached it, I opened the emergency door and was greeted by the word Harbor in well-lit letters behind a wooden reception desk with a vintage lamp on it, behind a glass door.
I went in and asked if Ellis was around.
“Your name?” The receptionist asked.
She picked up the phone. “Ellis, an Alex for you at reception.”
Ellis was carrying my Wounded Kit and she had a silly smile on her face. I knew she was about to say, I knew it, but she looked at my face and looked at the empty cup of Coke Zero in my hand.
She ran towards me and took my hand.
The second she said that a wave of panic came over me and my hands turned icy cold.
“Let’s drink your meds. Rica, can we have some water?”
“What happened?” She asked again.
I leaned my head on her shoulder while she hugged me. I thought I could feel being banged against the wall again and again.
I’m sorry, I wanted to tell her. I did nothing.
Rica came with the water. I took my meds and gulped them down.
About the Author: Sharmaine Galve is an entrepreneur by force, a writer by passion, and an electric biker by accident. She has been a fictionist since high school, an editor-in-chief in college, and was first published in Philippine Free Press in the late 90s. A dinosaur in this business. She had been published in Philippine Graphic as well and won third prize for a short story on mental illness, a favorite subject, it appears. She loves a lot of things artistic: books, movies, music, paintings and the occasional plays. She says she is 48 but still writes like she’s in her teens.