THE BIGGER LIFE
BY ALISA CHILDRESS
I am walking home from school on a dreary, cloudy day. The air smells like rain. The overcast sky always makes me feel comforted. Protected. Not exactly happy, but content. When the sun is out, I feel outwardly excited. But, under the grey clouds, I feel subdued. The world seems small and cozy.
Not today. Instead, everything feels off-kilter. The clouds make the world feel stifling and narrow. The thick air weighs me down, even more than the backpack I carry, full of cheap paper Valentine cards and candy. I ate way too much sugar at my sixth-grade party, and I feel a bit sped up inside, far from the calm I usually have on days like this.
I notice the uneven sidewalk beside the old brick church. I am careful to step around and over the cracks and bumps that I have become so familiar with, walking down this city block daily for much of my young life. I hear the traffic rushing by next to me. The colors of the cars do not seem as vibrant as they usually do. They are muted, faded, under the overcast sky.
Across a small parking lot, a large brown dog runs through his yard. The house he protects has asphalt peeling off and tar peeking through its faux brick façade. He barks at everyone who dares walk past. Every day, as I walk the entire length of the block, he yells menacingly at me. His actual ability to threaten has been rendered moot by the dog run he is tethered to and the tall chain-link fence he sits behind.
But today, I only make it a few steps into his territory when his barks begin to resonate in my head. They are bouncing around in my brain. Reverberating and growing louder and louder. They start to drown out the heavy mid-day traffic just a few feet away on Oak Street. I no longer notice horns honking, engines revving. I do not hear the chatter of the people around me as they walk by. Or the mechanical sound of the city bus on the corner as it stops to drop off some and pick up others.
And then the color washes out. The colors that had been muted just a second ago fade to black and white. The brightly colored cars become barely noticeable shades of grey. And then my breath catches, and I panic.
I am going to die. I am going to die.
I feel pure terror, a panic like I have never felt before. My head knows that I am not in danger. I have walked this route, listened to this dog, worn this scratchy plaid polyester uniform for most of my life. Nothing has changed, but everything feels different. I can no longer walk, so I stand with my feet firmly rooted to the concrete as though I were the giant oak tree in my backyard.
That backyard feels miles away. I wish I were home, but I cannot seem to force myself to place one foot in front of the other; to make any movement in that direction. My thoughts are racing as I am convinced that I will be forever planted in this spot.
I know that I am going to die right here, in my colorless world with only the barking dog. I feel dizzy.
I’ll go back to school. Everyone will know I am crazy. They’ll see it. But that is better than dying here. I guess.
If I go back, my racing thoughts will be telegraphed for all to hear. Since I am feeling like this, I obviously must look different too. The school is visible, only half a block behind me, but I cannot make my feet budge in that direction either. It may as well be as far away as my very distant and very needed front door.
I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
I am stuck here on the sidewalk for what seems like a lifetime. People walk past me. No one stops. No one notices. I finally steel my body to walk home. My mind is still racing. I am walking out of muscle memory—on autopilot. I walk the same route that has become rote to me over the years. I pass the dog, not noticing if he ever stopped barking. I cross the railroad tracks in a daze.
I can breathe. I can walk. But the world remains colorless. I do not see people coming and going. I do not notice if children are playing, or the mailman is out. I do not see anything as I walk home, but I am moving, at least.
I pass the bar on the corner of my block. And walk by the houses that I pass by many times a day. I know everyone who lives in every house from that corner to my home. I have been in them, knocked on the front doors to see if my friends could come out to play. But still, I am not safe. I do not recollect that walk home. I only know that I somehow made it as I open my front door.
The colors in my living room are muffled from the overcast day and the closed curtain. But I can see some of the brown in the carpet and the pattern in the wallpaper. Thankfully, my dog is not barking. He greets me at the door, and I pick him up. I sit with him on the couch, even though he has long since wanted to be put back down. As he struggles to break free from my grip, my tears drop onto his fur. I do not know if I cried during the panic attack or on the way home.
I know that I will never be the same after this. I know that I cannot tell anyone. I am already the weird kid. The fat one. The nerdy one. I am the quiet one, and my only friends are other misfits. I do not want to be the crazy one too. Since my dog cannot talk, I tell him about everything that had happened to me over the past hour. He does not seem to think I am crazy. Overbearing and needy, maybe. But not crazy.
“Petchi, I am so scared. Something is wrong with me. I made it home. But it was so hard. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I am dizzy. I think I am dying. I am crazy. What do I do, Petchi?”
Days turn into weeks as I live with the constant fear that this will happen again. I do not walk home by myself. Choosing instead to wait for my neighbors to get out of detention. I am on edge even when walking with the others. They do not notice, which comes as a surprise and a relief. Since I am going crazy, at least I am not attracting attention to it.
I am afraid at school. I am afraid at home. I am most afraid outside. I do not want to spend time alone. On the bad days, I fake sick. If I do not go to school, I do not have to walk home. I am by myself then, but I can watch TV for company, and my dog is there. And as a bonus, I do not have to hear the other kids tell fat jokes about me. I do not have to feel like an outcast. I do not have to listen to who got their period and who is French kissing.
Fathers and daughters
Eventually, I get up the nerve to tell my most trusted person about that day—my dad. I wait until one of our Sundays together. A rare one in which his girlfriend was not around. I certainly did not want to give her any more reason not to like me. We are sitting in his living room, listening to music and working on a crossword puzzle. It was another overcast day, so I was more worried about it happening again.
I begin to cry my way through my story as he listens and asks questions.
“Were you afraid of the dog? He couldn’t get you.”
“No. Not the dog. It was the barking. The barking was all I could hear. It was so loud. And everything looked different.”
“Was your heart beating fast?”
“I think so. I was dizzy.”
“I am going crazy. And I am so scared,” I gasp, barely able to breathe through my sobs. “What if it happens again? I’m going to die.”
My dad pulls me onto his lap on the worn brown couch and hugs me. I feel safe. There is no safer and more comforting place in the world than my dad’s hug. It has just the right amount of firmness to make the rest of the world ok. He lets me haltingly make my way through the rest of my story.
“That sounds awful, and I understand how scary it was.”
“You are not going crazy. And you are not going to die. I know it feels like it. You had a panic attack.”
I am taking this in as my sobs turn to whimpers.
“You will have more of them. Probably for the rest of your life. But you will be ok. I have them too. I had my first panic attack when I was twenty. Mine also came out of the blue. Nothing unusual seemed to cause it.”
I learn that the Valium for which he went to rehab just a year before was prescribed by a doctor to fight these panic attacks. I also learn that my nan went to the emergency room twice because she thought she was having a heart attack, but they were panic attacks.
“The most important thing to remember is that they may feel like they last forever, but they don’t. They can only last a few minutes. The best thing you can do is just ride it out. And no matter what, keep doing whatever you were doing when you had the panic attack. Make sure you keep walking down that same block. Don’t let it stop you.”
I take this advice to heart. He tells me this again and again over the years as he becomes increasingly agoraphobic. He is not trapped in his house, although he has those days, and tells me stories of fighting his way through them. First making himself step onto the porch. Then his front sidewalk. And, finally, get into his car. But there are many things he will not do and places he will not go because of panic. He avoids crowds, no longer going to concerts despite his love of music. He rarely drives more than 15 miles away from his house and never on expressways.
And, of course, he is right. Throughout my life, I have panic attacks on public streets and buses, in grocery stores and libraries. I have them at home, work, and school. But I keep going back. I want a bigger life than what I could have limited to only my city or my neighborhood. Or, worse yet, stuck at home.
My dad approaches his seventieth birthday with a sense of dread. He is healthy but says that no one in his family lives much past seventy. I understand this is the misplaced anxiety that runs through our blood.
A month after his birthday, he is diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He struggles through cancer treatments because they were on the third floor, down a long hallway. I wish I could go with him; to support him the same way he supported me so many times, but I can’t because of COVID protocols.
Six months later, he dies on the top floor of a hospital and down a long hallway. Never having been on an airplane, despite wanting to see the museums of Europe. Having missed his father’s funeral because he was afraid to drive on the expressways and afraid to let others drive him.
Mothers and Sons
After college, I have a brief respite from panic attacks, but they return when I am pregnant with my only child. First, in a swimming pool, triggered by the noise from Fourth of July Fireworks, I struggle to pull my way up the ladder. And again, on a family camping trip at a state park when I am convinced that, if I go to sleep, I will not wake up the following day.
After that, they come more frequently. They come at home, where I have to sit down because I am hyperventilating and afraid, I will faint. I have to remind myself that I am not dying as I try to catch my breath. They come while driving, forcing me to pull over to the side of the road. But still, because of my dad’s advice, I keep going back.
When my son is only two years old, he gets stuck at the top of many play structures, at parks and playlands. He cries, terrified to come down.
One day, after lunch, my dad watches as I climb up to help his only grandchild down. “He is one of us. He is going to have problems. You are going to have to help him.” Don’t let him be like me. Let him have the bigger life. The one you created. The one you fought for.
Just as with me, Dad is right about my son. His occasional fears—elevators, heights, stairs—while quirky when he was small, develop more resolve. And his panic attacks begin in high school.
“Mom, I feel awful. I can’t go to school. Mom, I’m sick.” He has diarrhea, but I can see the anxiety in his eyes. I can feel his stress and terror as much as I can my own.
“Mom, I am afraid to go to class. The teacher doesn’t like me. I am letting everyone in my group down.”
“It’s ok. We will find you some help. You have to keep at it.”
I call his pediatrician about his stomach upset and his anxiety. The nurse tells me to give him Imodium for his diarrhea. They will not give him anything for stress, but she gives me a list of psychiatrists.
He has diarrhea every morning and misses more school than ever before. He tells me about having panic attacks on the bus and in the halls. He feels like he does not fit in and has social anxiety. I talk to his teachers, but they tell me that he is likable and friendly. They do not understand how much work he puts into being “likeable and friendly.” Each day gets worse, and he becomes more and more afraid to go to school. He has a brief respite over a long weekend but comes to my bedroom Sunday night.
“Mom.” This time he is talking around his sobs. “I am so sorry. I love you. I am just so sorry. I love you so much. I didn’t mean it.” Again, my breath catches as my heart stops. I know what is coming.
Please don’t let him say it. Please let me be wrong.
“I did something stupid. I didn’t know what else to do. I just can’t go to school anymore.”
I sit up and try to remain calm for him. “What’s going on, bubs? What did you do?”
“I took a lot of Imodium. At least eight pills.”
I call poison control, who tells me to take him to the emergency room. My husband drives as I hold my son’s hand, not allowing myself to cry. We watch him as he forces down the activated charcoal and vomits up the black goo. My husband and I are allowed to visit him for one hour each day as he spends a week in a psychiatric unit for teens. I am reminded of my visitations with my dad when he was in a mental hospital for six weeks when I was a child. He is right. We are the same, the three of us.
My son is 18. He is still afraid of heights. But he has been hiking in the mountains and to the top of the Sears Tower. He still has panic attacks, especially around school and social situations, but goes to college two hours away. He lives in the dorm and finds his way around campus. He drives, even when he is not comfortable. He is making friends and trying to find a boyfriend. I am happy that I have instilled in him, the same thing that my dad instilled in me. And regretful that my dad could not reap the benefits himself.
Never give in to your panic and never stop fighting your fears. Make sure you go back again and again. And keep going no matter how afraid you are. This is the only way to have the bigger life.