My Anxiety Journal
—fiction by Michael C. Keith

   Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the
   wormwood and the gall.

       –– Lamentations 3:19

After a series of frightening anxiety attacks, I began keeping a journal account of them when I was in my mid-thirties. I’m not really sure why I did. It might be because they represented some of the most upsetting experiences of my life. Recording these attacks required that I think back several years to recall the first few. However, these harrowing encounters had been so seared into my mind that it was easy to remember them in detail. What I catalog below are those occurrences that stand out most in my mind. Of course, for every one of these, there were dozens of a lesser nature.  

Circa 1965: This was the first time I was hit by what I came to call Panic Bombs. I was ten years old, and I truly thought I was dying. I had no idea what was happening to me. My heart pounded, I couldn’t catch my breath, and I was sweating so much that my pajama top was soaked through. My father thought I was just acting up––that is, being overly dramatic (which, in fairness, I did have a tendency to be)––but he soon sensed that I was going through something unusual. He tried to assure me that I would be okay, despite my breathless pleadings to get me help. Not having a family doctor, he took me to the emergency room of the nearby hospital. By the time we arrived, my feeling of doom had substantially diminished. By the time the ER physician examined me, and found nothing wrong, I felt okay.

“You say his heart was beating fast and he was perspiring, Mr. Coven?” asked the young medico.

“Yeah, he looked like he was going to bounce of the walls. Had me all confused about what to do. Figured coming here was the smart thing to do,” replied my father, eyeing me warily.

“It’s always good to seek medical attention when things like this happen, because you never know. But as far as I can tell he really is fine. Can’t see anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes kids display symptoms that scare parents but really mean nothing. The growing body can behave strangely at times. If he has another episode, bring him back, and we’ll run some tests. But, I doubt you’ll have to return.” He was right––we didn’t.

April 1973: My second encounter with what I think Mark Twain called the “screaming fantods”––struck me when I was nearly nineteen. By then I was in the army and on my way to Vietnam. I know you’re thinking that the prospect of going into a war zone would cause anybody anxiety, but I’m not sure that was true in my case. This was the first panic attack I had as an adult (or nearly an adult), and it felt far more intense than the one I had eight years earlier. Anyway, I was working as the company clerk (just like Radar O’Reilly on TV’s M.A.S.H.), and as I was typing the Morning Report, I began to have major heart palpitations. I left the orderly room and stood outside as the bump-de-bump-bump worsened. It had to be a heart attack, I thought, and started heading toward the base’s sickbay near the mess hall. Every step was torture, because I thought I was about to keel over dead. Well, similar to my first Panic Bomb, my normal heartbeat returned as the medic was about to take my pulse. 

“You seem okay to me, corporal,” said Spec. 5 Holmes. “Maybe you ate something that didn’t agree with you. Of course, that could be anything from an Army mess hall, right? At least, you don’t have the GIs.”

The episode really shook me up, and for the rest of the day, I expected the heart palpitations to return. Thankfully, they didn’t. Not for another four years. 

December 1977: At a Christmas party with my girlfriend, I rode out my next anxiety attack in a bathroom. I kept praying it would pass and that I would not die. I stood looking at myself in the mirror as my body trembled and beads of sweat rolled down my face. I was holding the metal towel rack so tightly that my fingers began to bleed. The sight of the blood compounded my horror. I could hear myself whimpering like a child, and then tears began flowing from my eyes. This was it, I thought, as I began to pound the wall with my fist. The noise drew the attention of the party’s host, who asked if something was wrong through the bathroom door. It took what little was in me to speak and assure her that, yes, everything was fine. I told her I was just getting something off the bottom of my shoe. Doubt she believed it, but strangely––and thankfully––the exchange had the effect of bringing me around. I was able to rejoin the gathering, although I still felt shaky for the rest of the evening. My girlfriend noticed that I wasn’t myself. I told her I had an upset stomach, which wasn’t far from the truth. After my anxiety attacks, I always felt a little nauseous and was certainly drained. 

 Spring 1979:  At the Pieces of Eight Bar in Houston, I ordered a gin and tonic and then the bottom dropped out. A Panic Bomb struck me, and the Day-Glo walls of the disco lounge closed in on me. I gulped for air and lost my balance, toppling from my barstool. When I staggered to my feet, the bartender gave me a disgusted look. He said I’d had too much, and he wouldn’t serve me any more. I didn’t care because all I could think about was getting away from there. I had to navigate the crowded dance floor to do so. In the process, gyrating bodies battered me. On my way to the exit, I started to feel dizzy again and found myself grabbing the arm of an attractive young woman for balance. She saw that I was in trouble, and instead of pushing me away, she escorted me to the door. By then, I was sweating profusely and my body was seized by tremors. I stumbled to the parking lot without thanking my Good Samaritan. By the time I reached my car, my heart had literally stopped beating. At least, I believed it had. I crawled into the back seat and remained there immobilized and moaning. Eventually, after perhaps 20 minutes, the storm passed, and I found the strength to drive home.

Summer 1979: My therapist has tried to get at the root of the problem, but I don’t think we’ve made much progress. I’m still in the dark about the cause of my attacks. Something in my DNA, concluded the shrink, after I can’t recall any childhood traumas before my first Panic Bomb attack. She prescribed tranquillizers, but the idea of taking meds for the attacks turns me off. I try to get my emotions under control without using them. That’s how we are in my family. I recite my mother’s favorite lines from the poem Invictus: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” After a while, I think I’m gaining ground on my mystery affliction. Still, I believe it is only a matter of time until I let my guard down, and then bam . . . another bomb blast to my senses. I’m aware that just thinking about it makes me vulnerable to attack, so I try to build an insurmountable wall to keep the devil at bay. I wonder if I will always have to live with this. 

Spring 1981: I was driving down the highway with a friend when I suddenly felt my body go cold. The demon is out of its hiding place, I thought, and I was right. My heart was playing hopscotch, and I felt like I was about to crap my pants. My hands were leaving trails of perspiration on the steering wheel. The oxygen was gone––or so it seemed––and I gulped frantically. I was certain I was suffocating. I thought of the Valium I carried and cursed myself for not taking it. But I wouldn’t take a prescription drug. Not for stupid emotional eruptions. Maybe cancer. I am the master of my fate, I reminded myself. But I still felt like I was jumping out of my skin. As soon as I got to the next exit, I took it. My buddy asked me what was up, and I managed to say that I had to take a piss. Thank God there was a McDonalds ahead, but as quickly as the Panic Bomb came upon me, it left. I went to the restroom and doused my face in cold water. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! I muttered pathetically, as I dried my face.  

October 1983: My wife and I were in our local Safeway doing the week’s grocery shopping. We were at the checkout register, and I noticed the cashier had a face like an animal. When I looked around, I was startled to find that all the customers had taken on features similar to hers––long ears, pig-like snouts, and furry cheeks. I then noticed my breathing was impaired and my heart was rattling in my chest. I had to get outside, I told
my wife and then dashed for the door. She called after me, but I just waved and continued on. During the ride home, she asked me what had happened, and I told her that people in the market stopped looking human to me. She asked me what I meant, and I told her that I was probably having a migraine headache, although I’d never had one. She said nothing more for the rest of the trip, and I could tell she was upset. Why wouldn’t she be? Her husband was obviously going nuts.

November 1983: I didn’t feel great about taking the anxiety med. It made me feel like I’d given in, been defeated by some weakness of character, but I just couldn’t go through the attacks anymore. I’d had it, and if I needed to resort to chemicals to regain my sanity, so be it. When I felt an attack coming on after that, I’d pop a pill. I felt better but suspected it was probably the result of what’s called a “placebo effect,” more than anything.

Summer 1992: It’s been almost ten years since my last Panic Bomb. I’m confident that I’m finally past all that. Maybe the meds have done their job, but I think it probably has more to do with getting older and wiser and cultivating a positive attitude. I’m taking myself off the tranks. No telling what they may do to you over the long haul. I know there are side effect––always are. Damned if I want to find out I got some kind of cancer or brain disorder when I hit sixty. I’ve read that long-term use of prescription drugs can do something to the body, sometimes really nasty things. So why tempt fate now that I feel all that crap is history? Yes, I am the master of my soul and the captain of my fate. Damn right . . . finally.

February 1993: These muscle spasms and dizziness must be from overwork. Guess I need to cut back on my hours and get more rest. I’m fine otherwise. Maybe sweating a little more than usual because of having too many layers on in the car. It’s really stuffy in here. Hey, man, loosen your collar. What the hell is that creepy noise? It sounds like the Raptors in Jurassic Park. Whoa, I feel like I’m free falling . . . plunging down a dark well I won’t be able to climb out of. Jesus, the noise is getting louder! What the . . .? There’s no air in this goddamn car! Open the frigging window! I think I’m . . .

Michael C. Keith writes fiction and teaches college.