Emily Dickinson and the Panic Attack

Upon this street where time has died
The golden treat you never tried
In times of old, in days gone by
If I could catch your dancing eye

It was on the way
On the road to dreams, yeah
Now my heart’s drowned in no love streams, yeah

I listened to those words by Cream on Rock 93 just outside Greensboro on my way to UNC-G to do some research on Robert Frost at the campus library. The only problem I had was that I didn’t know exactly where the UNC-G campus was because I’d never been to Greensboro by myself. I wandered the streets, passing several campuses, thinking any one of them could be the one I sought.

I was medicated on Navane and Cogentin for paranoid schizophrenia in those days. Navane I took irregularly, taking none one day and overdosing the next. But Cogentin I took everyday for the side effects (pain in the legs mostly) of Navane, which-little did I know – by itself could give me panic attacks. I had never had a panic attack until this particular day when I took several Navane and ignored the Cogentin.

I roamed the streets of Greensboro in my old Mercury Zephyr, feeling like I was in another world and lost. But not to worry, I spotted a campus quad near the center in town and reckoned that it could be UNC-G, so I parked my car two blocks away and walked toward the college. I finally arrived and stood on the sidewalk facing the Greek architecture of a quaint little campus that I now knew was not the college I came to visit.

However, I decided that I would do my research here if I could find the library. I walked through the center of the quad until I came to a building with columns at the back, and it turned out to be a small library that probably wouldn’t house enough volumes to support my research.

At this point I didn’t care because on this winter day I felt as though I was on the campus of a New England college in the 19th Century and that Emily Dickinson was going come walking up to me any minute. I entered the library and saw one girl at the circulation desk. I went to the second floor in the stacks and instead of looking for Robert Frost I selected a collection of poems by Emily Dickinson and started thumbing through the pages.

I sat in a carrel next to a window and felt as though I could sit there and fall in love with the nascent author. For I’ve frequently experienced dÃ?©jÃ?  vu feelings about her in certain situations. The period and the power of her poetry often makes me wish for former times. I continued to thumb through the collection reading a poem here and there until I came to a poem I’d never seen:

Part One: Life
XXVII

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us-don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

Before I finished reading the poem I began feeling strange, a slight sense of fear I perceived overcoming me. But I think it’s only momentary and go back to reading Emily’s poem.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

By the time I finished reading that little bit fear encompassed me through and through. Am I lost, I thought. Where am I? Why am I afraid? There’s nothing to be afraid of here-I’ve got to get out of her. . . . Thoughts like that continued to assail me as I got up and made my exit from the stacks. I was walking down the steps towards the lobby when several girls spotted me and said, “Hey, hello, how r’ you?’ At this point I realized for the first time it was an all girl’s school since there were no guys to be seen anywhere.

I finally made my way to the street in a panic that I might not be able to find my car, or my way home. Plain old everyday fear was one thing, but feeling like you’ve got to get away from something you can’t define or put a finger on is something else. Panic is the feeling that you’re in the grips of something you can’t control. I rushed up and down two or three streets until I found my car.

I still felt lost, as if I’d been swallowed up into a big, dark hole. Depression and fear continued their assaults and I wasn’t sure I could find my way out of Greensboro. The Navane was working on me big time and I wanted to get home quickly to my Cogentin because I somehow believed that would alleviate my problem. The streets of Greensboro were strange and unwieldy, so I raced around looking for any signs that would take me to 220 South and home to Asheboro.

Traffic was heavy in the late afternoon and all the faces looked unfamiliar, even forlorn, as they sat behind the wheels of their tin machines. The eyes were black and staring, knowing no doubt that I was trapped in a quandary of fear as I ambled up and down Lee Street, Market Street, Wendover, Battlegound trying to find the way out. Without knowing why at first, I fell in behind a small, red Nissan pickup truck that I was determined to follow into hell as long as he got me back to 220 South towards home.

I followed on his tail north on Summit until we came to Wendover, which I had been on at least three times before. But time and space congealed into the fabric of the heavy traffic and the anxiety streaming through my body so that previously I was unable to make sense out of the traffic patterns or read the signs properly: Was it any wonder I didn’t have an accident? Now though, the red Nissan pickup truck was my guiding light, and it wasn’t long before we were on the on-ramp to 220 South. I followed close behind this stranger who was leading me home and didn’t know it-or did he?

Anyway, when he hit 220 he took off almost as if I was standing still. My little Zephyr was an old car, but it had some power. I stepped on the gas and was pushing 80 before I knew what was happening. What was happening was that the little red Nissan continued to accelerate as did I, and soon he was topping a hundred, a hundred-five, a hundred-ten.
I couldn’t go any faster, nor apparently could he. We drove at speeds of a hundred to a hundred-ten all the way back to Asheboro-no law in sight.

And I wasn’t about to let that little, red truck out of my sight until I made my exit from 220 South to Balfour Avenue. I finally made it home and went straight to my bedroom and took a whole handful of Cogentin and got on the bed on my hands and knees, wishing the pain would subside, but knowing it wouldn’t until I fell asleep.

Where the fear came from is still a mystery to me, except at that moment I was afraid to be alone in the world, afraid of being so alone that I would have no consciousness of any other person’s existence – that I was in fact the only consciousness in existence, all else being the product of a warped mind.
From that experience I wrote a tribute entitled: To Emily Dickinson with Love-I’m Nobody Too

Who am I? I don’t know!
To know, how droll;
It could take a toll
On my sanity, create inanity.

Go figure! I won’t tell!
I’ll keep a low profile-
I’ll be – Nobody-too!
And keep my-Nobody-style.

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