A Dictionary for the Anxious
by Matthew Radulski
I have lied to my therapist to make myself feel better. The best possible therapy session, or so I’ve convinced myself, is not fruitful. It’s giving an old “I’m fine,” followed by the same old feelings of isolation that we both know so well. I lie to him, then lie to my parents who ask if it went well. Then I’ll set up another appointment, he’ll cash another check, and we do the whole damn thing again, for that’s the way the wind blows.
I’ve never cut myself. I couldn’t handle the seeping. I’ve beat the edges of tables until I can’t feel the fists anymore. In order to get through an attack, energy must be expelled as quickly and efficiently as possible. Anger is the imprint left in a palm after the fingernails are done digging. Anger is getting up in the morning.
Two t’s construct the lofty tower of attack. Another ever-present word. At is normal enough, but the singular extra t makes the whole thing look glitched out. As though this isn’t a word that is supposed to happen.
At the designated eating area. At the assisted living center. At the eye doctor. At home. At night, a car, a couch, but always in the head. Attacks.
Every synapse is focused on the right hand. With thirty minutes to go before the next obligation, just the right hand won’t stop moving. Fingers bore into my palm, then extend. Knuckles turn rosy in minutes. Therapists have suggested long walks or music to sap the moment of its power, but it’s helpless. Once the tape has started playing, it will repeat, and repeat, and repeat. The only guaranteed way to beat a panic attack is through attrition.
At the battle of Alesia, Caesar defeated the Gaels by building a series of concentric walls around his camp. His enemies slowly suffered due to a lack of food, but even more than that, it was impossible for them to know if or when reinforcements were coming at all. Attrition comes from the Latin attritionem, meaning “a rubbing against.”
The right eye now won’t stop winking, and soon both hands are going. Walking down a short cobblestone path toward a pond where the tiniest of bugs linger before appearing at once, the panic only increases. The little bugs are white, small, and will cover the bench not instantly, but fast enough that they can’t be brushed off quickly.
This bench is home for about fifteen minutes before the class—and it could be any class—begins. Pen twirling, legs bouncing, short trips for water, and an agonizing hour as the panic just won’t end. Minutes turn to an hour, an hour into an afternoon. Nothing can be done to regain control. Nothing at all. Eventually class ends, and eventually, mercifully, sleep can take over.
On the morning after days, though, something sacred does happen. If falling asleep was fraught with thoughts of regret, then waking up becomes the best part of the day. There’s a few minutes when the sun beats through my window and hits through the shade just right to lighten the room without touching my face. Thoughts center just on what happened in a dream soon to be forgotten. In that moment, whatever hell happened the day or week or month or year before doesn’t quite exist yet. I forget the past for a glorious minute. Then I awaken, and the memory fights back.
Breakdown’s first known use was in 1897, but break down dates to the 14th century. Breakdown means “a failure to function,” while break down means “to make ineffective.” In this way the older word is more active, or at least more productive. A breakdown is more akin to sheer collapse.
I didn’t go to senior prom but I had to help set up for the post-prom party, which I wouldn’t be attending. That’s where this particular breakdown began, in the large yellow room with the ceiling fan that was not good enough in the summer and way too good in the winter. It was cold.
Six of my closest friends are here to help set up the furniture, which only really involves moving everything to the wall and pulling out sleeping bags. Focusing on the task at hand means ignoring the topic of conversation: dates. They exchange stories of asking people out, the successes and the failures and the joys of being sixteen. If I put this wooden chair in front of the mini fridge then one more sleeping bag could be placed near the door.
Then I sat in the old chair with the rickety back, six feet but miles away. The chair forces me to hunch, and I take out my phone and start to type, “I hate myself. I hate myself. I hate myself. I hate myself.” Nobody notices my teetering back and forth, back then forth.
“It’s a drag, innit?” Paul McCartney told reporters in the days following the death of John Lennon. He was criticized for not mourning properly, or for being too glib, or for not being poetic enough, or for not quite saying the right thing. Evidently the proper response to the tragedy was not to say bummer. Paul was not wrong. It is a drag.
When George Harrison died my mother made a makeshift memorial out of her collectibles. A couple Yellow Submarine action figures still in the boxes, a handful of albums and one candle. By the end of his life George could no longer remember how to write his own name.
I live on the top floor of a Victorian-style house. The windows don’t close properly, so it’s always a little cold. The ceiling is vaulted and forms a real ugly looking pentahedron shape right in the middle of the room. I could stare at that spot for seconds or minutes. Time is important, so I have to move on to feed or sleep or go outside. Those are the three options, and I choose to sit and stare at this one spot on the wall, in the dark of the night, and think about how I’ve been sitting on this bed for hours. Willfully, I turn three locks and collapse on the bed, day by day. Day by day I put the keys in the same spot, lie on the same bed and think the same rotten thoughts.
Old coffins used to come equipped with a spike. That way they didn’t have to worry if someone was buried alive. An alternative was to have a little bell with the string running into the hand of the corpse. If you woke up buried alive, you could pull the string and wait.
Older cemeteries used to exhume all the graves every six years or so and cremate the corpses so there would be room for new bodies. The remains of Benedict Arnold have been lost because of this. I dropped a sock behind my dresser. Pulling out the worn wood revealed the dust and lint, plus a Frisbee and a framed photograph of some former tenants.
I have chosen to leave the walls of my apartment blank.
Anti-lock brakes allow the car to sense when it is sliding so it can slow itself down. Anti-slip technology was thought up as early as 1908, but the computerized version didn’t start until the 1971 Chrysler Imperial under the name “sure break.” Now a little light blinks on the dashboard letting me know the control is gone so it won’t skid out. The loss of control saves my life in the downpour. I tried to switch lanes going about forty when I couldn’t see the ground. I cuss out the system and tense.
If I get asked why I don’t drink at a pub, the short answer is control. The long, selfish answer is control. Con and troll swirl into a static lie.
Danger is suspiciously flat. Some say danger lurks around every street corner, but that’s ludicrous. Danger is everywhere all the time.
When a body decomposes, in cases of extreme physical exertion, rigor mortis can set in instantly in the form of a cadaveric spasm. The corpse will freeze instantly, so the last moment of the person is persevered.
The first bacteria in a baby’s stomach will stay inside for the duration of the person’s life. Putrefaction is the process where the same bacteria that used to break down food in the stomach begins to break the person down, devouring them from the inside out.
There’s an urban legend that the body regenerates itself every seven years. This is false; only most of the body actually gets regenerated. Skin and stomach lining get replaced in days, bone and muscle take much longer. Only a few parts of the body actually stick around from birth: bits of the heart, brain and eyes. Most of the heart will change, but not all will be regenerated. Some new neurons are created, but plenty of the brain is static. Then there’s the lens of the eyeball through which one takes it all in. This never regenerates. Eyes never change.
If a body is left undiscovered for long enough, the skin can start to literally slip off. Decay is a breakdown through stasis. I didn’t go visit my aunt in the nursing home or my uncle in the hospital.
“You know you hurt people with your lack of emotion, don’t you?”
“I like it when you smile.”
“There’s my son!”
“I have never seen you that happy before.”
“You have anger management issues.”
“I feel like you’re being dismissive.”
“You haven’t failed, but you want to be a failure.”
“You never cared about me.”
Franklin Pierce was the fourteenth President of the United States of America. By all accounts, he did a lousy job. Today, if anyone actually remembers him at all, it would be for repealing the Compromise of 1850 to try and keep some power in the South. Pierce was terribly suggestible. Folks like Jefferson Davis had him in their pocket, as Pierce wasn’t really interested in leading much at all. What people knew, but could never really know, was that he was deep in mourning from the second he entered the office of the presidency.
Pierce lost all three of his children before the age of fifty.
The first was his son, Franklin Pierce Jr. Born in 1836, he lived to be three days old.
Frank Robert Pierce died at the age of four of typhus. Jane, Franklin’s wife, was devastated by the loss. The love in the family went to their third son, Benjamin, or “Bennie.”
Bennie, Jane and Franklin were traveling on a train passing through Andover, Massachusetts. Franklin had won the vote to become the President, and the inauguration was just two months away. The train was traveling at forty miles per hour when it came off the track and rolled down a hill. Franklin and Jane were fine, as was everyone else on the train.
Except for Bennie.
Benjamin Pierce died at the age of eleven, his head nearly sliced clean off his body. He was mangled. Franklin was unable to keep Jane from seeing it.
So Franklin’s presidency began. Franklin is known for his dashing appearance, but fellow cabinet members noted that he always looked like he had something else on his mind. His face was ghastly. Jane Pierce was too deep in mourning to make a single public appearance in the first year of his presidency.
No Bible was used to swear President Pierce into office. He believed that God hated him, and took Bennie from him for Franklin’s sins. He did not seek reelection. Jane was a teetotaler, yet Franklin’s last words before leaving office were: “There is nothing left to do but get drunk.”
He died of cirrhosis of the liver in September of 1869.
Grief is quite close to brief, a lie. It lacks the slice of greave, or the punch of “bereaved” or “widow.”
Yoko Ono featured the glasses John was wearing when killed on the cover of a solo album. The first set of glasses I got didn’t cover my entire eyeball, but the second ones I got specifically because they looked like John Lennon’s.
I start to show at about three weeks of high anxiety, and it’s these night rashes that expose it. Doctors say it’s hives, yet hives medication never helps. The only aid is sleep, which is hard to come by at this point. I can cover this with clothing. What’s more difficult to cover is a pain in my foot that also happens around the same time, or the irrepressible need to shake my leg while I sit down. I’ve gotten pretty adept at hiding this kind of thing. I can also get severe heartburn that feels like my aorta has knotted into itself, but I can hide that by leaning forward.
Nobody asks, so nobody notices.
My elementary school was right across the street from a Revolutionary War cemetery. People would use the cemetery as just a walking path, a shortcut, or a place for children to run in. Most of the stones had been overtaken with weeds and jagged branches. It reduced the headstone from a tool for legacy and mourning to a rock.
Fractions date as far back as ancient Egypt. Fractions were used to establish astronomical rules. Ratios and reduction would come in due time. Seventy-five out of one hundred turns into just three out of four; anything to save space and reduce. When I crumble down, I’m reduced to my lowest form. Again and again, reduced lower and lower from on high. Repeatedly diced to the lowest form of myself, face red and scrunched, but no tears left. Just mucus left to rebuild.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been reduced nor how close I’ve been to zero. However, I can count only two times when I’ve looked into a mirror, willingly, in my reduced state. My glasses don’t come off. The first part of my day is putting them on, and the day ends when they’re removed. When reduced, I lose them to a couch or the floor. My eyes puff, quiver, and just stare with no shield.
Forty-eight hours is the longest I’ve gone without speaking to a single person. I didn’t plan it.
Ted Williams is currently cryogenically frozen when he said he wanted his ashes spread across his old fishing pond. I’ve never been fishing, but will voluntarily sit in my bed for just hours on end. Stasis is a real curvy word, and sounds like it should describe a problem from the future. It’s quite close to “secure” or “serious” but is quite far from either concept. Stasis is just standing still and letting life pass by, but lacks the edge to it. Stasis is okay, I think, for it’s more of an in-the-middle thing. It’s not quite a failure to move forward as it is temporary. It has to be temporary. Someday Ted Williams will be woken from cryo-freeze to a world he can neither adapt to nor fully understand, and maybe I’ll still be sitting inside, lamenting that there just isn’t anything to do outside.
My straight-edge habit picked up in 2009. Professional wrestling taught me that not drinking was an option, but of course the man who didn’t drink then was the bad guy. CM Punk would preach that he didn’t drink; therefore, he was better than you. The crowds would boo vociferously, but I was enraptured. I really didn’t know that this was an option. I didn’t want to be a drinker like the kids in Ephraim Curtis Middle School were claiming to be. I wanted nothing to do with those kids. I wanted to be left alone, and not drinking meant I’d be left alone.
It’s not really just CM Punk, is it? People drink to forget, I’m told. I don’t drink to remember. I can’t because the thought of forgetting something, of calming down and not being wound up, is unbearable. I need to be in control. I need to be alone and think about my mistakes, not forget them. I can’t afford to lose control. I won’t lose control. I won’t take medication because then I wouldn’t be my own self. I’ve been given the hard sell on medication by siblings, best friends, “so-called” friends, celebrities in interviews, therapists, drug companies, and heroes of mine—my father and especially my mother. I still resist.
My mom says her medication makes the tape in her head stop.
“What would you do if you could do today over again?” I know I wouldn’t spend so much time on video games or wrestling or movies or anything else that makes me me.
Maybe I would use the turn signal more, maybe I would go to the hospital, or maybe I would tell my dad not to let the cat out today. Or maybe I would have helped others, or helped myself. Maybe I wouldn’t spend over forty minutes every day decompressing. Maybe I wouldn’t need to decompress. Maybe I would develop a better strategy than running away.
Maybe I wouldn’t have cried at It’s a Wonderful Life, or Toy Story 3, or at the main event to “WWE Presents: In Your House Canadian Stampede.”
Maybe I could’ve been a better friend, or a better boyfriend, or the son who didn’t call everyday his freshman year of college.
Maybe I would keep the mask off. For just a day in my life, keep the mask off.
Maybe I can’t change this past. Maybe you can reduce to one, but not to zero.