I used to go into my sister’s room and dig through her bookcase. She also had an overflow book storage area that was the top few drawers of a bureau. I’d dig through there, too. She always had something I could borrow and read at least a couple pages. Most of the time, though, whatever she had was too cerebral for me, so I’d paw through stuff and read the synopsis on back covers to see if there was anything about horses in the book, and if not, I’d usually discard it.
I would read literally anything about horses*. Especially if it was written by Marguerite Henry, who wrote about those big ol dumb ponies in a way that made me believe in pony magic, for real. It also made me cut up my horse calendar every year and tape the pages to my wall until there wasn’t room for anything else. I had a boyfriend in junior high for about a week and when I showed him my room, full of horse books and horse statues and horse pictures, he said, “So you like horses, huh?” and I shout-screamed YES. So excited was I to answer the question that I practically barked it at him and he took a step back and handed me a little Valentine bear and rolled away on his skateboard and never came over again. (I buried the bear in the yard and smashed a piece of dog shit into the dirt on top of it with a garden spade, but not until years later and after lots of crying into its synthetic fur. My stepdad was like WHY IS THERE DOG SHIT ON MY SPADE and of course I had no idea. Maybe the dog?)
I loved horses so much that I would beg my mother to buy me Horse Illustrated when I saw copies of it at the grocery store, and when she did cave and buy me one, I’d wear out the glossy pages by flipping through it constantly and reading every article and studying the diagrams of hoof injuries. There was a feature article once about a revolutionary technique to fix broken legs, and I remember being enthralled by the news, as if it would really change everything about the world and my life in general, and I ran downstairs and yelled “MOMMY THEY CAN FIX HORSES’ BROKEN LEGS NOW!”† No one was as excited about this as I was. “Think of all the horses that will live now! All for me to riiiiide!”
My sister did not have a lot of horse books, but I checked just in case. I was digging around in there one day during the summer after fourth grade when I found a book called Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas DeQuincey. The front of the book had a skeezy looking guy draped over a bed in some kind of bad shape. I had no idea what opium was but just in case it had something to do with horses I thought I should read the entire back of the book. So I did, and this lead to my very first panic attack!
Thomas De Quincey, it seems, was born in 1785 and died in 1859. Between those years, lots of stuff happened to him, like, uhh, being English, and also ships were invented, and he smoked some of that sweet sticky opey yum yums. Then he wrote a book about it. But what stuck out to me was that he was born in the 1780s. Which was the same decade of a different century in which I was born. The year of his birth within that decade was only three years from the year I was born in my century. So if he died in 1859, I would most likely die three years sooner in 2056. Which would mean I only had a FEW YEARS LEFT TO LIVE OH GOD I WILL DIE SOMEDAY
I spent the rest of the day trying to ignore the terrible realization. This was probably the first day of many days I spent trying to ignore terrible realizations! Nothing’s so bad as long as it’s daylight and you’ve got stuff to play with and people to talk to. At night, though, everyone goes to bed and you’re expected to stop talking and thinking and just go to sleep. Up until that night, this was easy, but the night I realized I would die, I just sat up in bed for hours, shaking and crying and turning lights off and on. I closed the toilet lid and stood on the toilet so I could watch my face swell and contort while I cried into the bathroom mirror, washed with dull yellow from the night light. I was too young and dumb to realize that just because an opium addict in the 18th century didn’t live for more than 74 years, it didn’t mean that I would be resigned to the exact same life span. I was also too scared to realize that 74 years is nothin’ to sneeze at. I was more obsessed with the whole “this is about the span of a normal human life and that’s because death exists.” So I stayed up, night after night, thinking about dying. I remember the house as being empty and creaky, of smelling different and feeling cavernous and lonely.
I can barely remember resisting sleep as a child and not knowing why, or thinking of bedtime as a sad time, something to be avoided as long as possible. But also, being awake after everyone else seemed very sad, too. As an adult who understands more about how a child’s brain works, I’ve spent some time thinking about what was probably going on with me during those first trips to Panic City. First, my family had just moved into a new house. We hadn’t been there for an entire month before I had my first panic attack. I had gone from sharing a room with my sister, our twin beds 4-feet apart, to being in my own huge bedroom, all by myself. Moving is fucking stressful! Sure, I didn’t have all the responsibilities that adults have, but adjusting to something like that is difficult for a child. Second, everyone was busy unpacking and working and I was running around like a crazy person because if anxiety makes me a slobbery mess at night, anxiety and lack of sleep make me a terrifying cokehead during the day. So basically, the response to my behavior during daylight and my inability to cope at nighttime was GO TO YOUR ROOM AND STOP TRYING TO MAKE EVERYONE CRY. YOU CAN COME BACK WHEN YOU ARE DIFFERENT. Everyone was annoyed with me and tired and grouchy and I was dealing with feelings that were way over my head, so my brain thought oh hey, seems like a good time to think about the concept of your IMMINENT AND UNAVOIDABLE DEATH?
I don’t know a lot of kids these days but I certainly don’t know many of them who are obsessed with illnesses. I read books about Hiroshima victims dying of leukemia, and then I had leukemia. I watched part of And the Band Played On and then I had somehow contracted AIDS from a toilet seat or a tiny cut on my hand or from being in the girls’ locker room at a rival school during an away basketball game. Because of a certain camp counselor, I was convinced for fucking years that the sharp pain I often got in my right leg was leg cancer‡ and that I was definitely dying. I’d lie in bed at night, sweating and crying and thinking about how to tell my mom I was going to die of AIDSkemia because sometimes I got dizzy or had weird pains or felt pukey. If they’d had WebMD back then, I’d have straight up died from anxiety.
In college, I went two weeks without sleeping because I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I lost 20 pounds so quickly that it started to hurt to eat food, like my stomach forgot what it was supposed to be doing but had been enjoying its vacation so much it would rather just sit there and churn out gas bubbles and not turn anything into valuable energy. I went to the doctor and she told me I was having panic attacks and severe IBS and that basically all my problems would go away if I would chill out and stop drinking coffee all the time.
Still convinced she was full of shit and that I was dying, I called her every single time I had a heart palpitation. I was really trying to get her to see her error, because while it would have been sweet revenge to die and let her know how wrong she was, I was pretty sure I’d rather be alive to have her apologize for misdiagnosing me. I read internet forums written entirely by people who had been diagnosed with the same thing. They all went like this:
Well just got back form the dr today. He says the heart palps r from diet meds but wants to put me on Lexapro. Are you crazy? I said! If there is one thing I kno its that Lexapro causes stomach cancer!
DO NOT GO ON THE LEXPRO WHATEVER THEY SAY. LEXAPRO IS PROVEN TO CAUSE 5 TYPES OF CANCERS INCLUDING STOMACH COLON BACK AND LIVER. I MADE THE MISTAKE OF GOING ON IT LAST SPRING AND NOW PROBABLY HAVE STOMACH CANCER BC ITS HURTING ALL THE TIME NOW CAN’T EVEN KEEP MOST FOOD DOWN PROBABLY DYING!!!! WAITING TO FIND OUT IF DYING AT NEXT APPT
I have a friend who died from SuperCancer due to similar drugs to lexapro its not a pretty picture. have been off my antianxiety meds for 3 weeks now and definitely feeling more safe from SuperCancer. I am now just dealing with spots on chest that may be some kind of sarcoma or possibly shingles??? Does anyone have pics of shingles they can share thx
And on and on and on, because rational, sane people who have been healed or helped by whatever modern medicine suggested they try don’t go on forums and talk about how awesome life is now. They just go do life. It took me a VERY long time to realize that. A very long and arduous time. It also took me a long time to realize that my doctor was totally right, and she had me figured out, but only because she had tons of other patients who were acting exactly like me. I didn’t really feel too bad for jamming up her voicemail with tons of frantic calls about how I thought maybe I was going to drop dead that afternoon. I only realized that she really knew what she was doing when I called her from a crowded train and had this conversation with her:
Me: I just had a really bad heart palpitation! It was like really fluttery for a few seconds and then it was like BANG like a big gulping feeling!
Her: It’s probably the amount of sugar or caffeine or both that you had today. It’s normal for people with anxiety to have this anyway, but with your diet–
Me: I’ve hardly had any! All I had today was a can of Arizona green tea and that’s just green tea!
Her: Well, if you’re really that concerned, you could come in for an EKG–
Me: OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT? NO!
There was something about the tone of her voice: a little bit exhausted, maybe from dealing with people who were actually sick and then having to return phone calls from crazy people who had been reading too much Internet and drinking too much caffeine and not dealing with their emotional problems. She scared me by mentioning an actual medical test which, when it really came down to it, we both knew I was too chicken shit to commit to. So I decided to at least pretend I was not sick until I either a) died, or b) felt better?§
There was never a time when anyone sat down with me and talked to me about my feelings when I was a kid, so I wasn’t sure that I had them until they had manifested into Something Else. The Something Else has continued for the rest of my life. Figuring out where and why the pattern began has not helped in putting a stop to it: I still lie in bed and think I’m going to die tomorrow, or The Pants is going to stop breathing. I still lie awake in the dark feeling really lonely and sad and the first thought that comes to mind is You probably feel this way because the dog is going to die someday. So I reach down to the floor to make sure he’s still breathing. Really what I should be doing is reaching under the feeling itself to find out what is hurting or howling or really bothering me. I do that sometimes. Other times, it’s just too difficult to catch the frantic 9-year-old on her 500th revolution around the dining room table at top speed and calm her down and find out what is really scaring her. Sometimes I just don’t want to know. I’d rather just think that maybe I’m possibly dying, a little bit, maybe.
I think it would be really nice to die when I’m very old and there’s nothing much left for me to do. I imagine I’d live in a small house on a hill in a little town out in the middle of nowhere, and that I’d know when I was going to die, so I could invite all the neighborhood children in to my horse library, the world’s largest, and say “Take anything you want.”
Would that be scary? I hope that wouldn’t be scary. I mean it’s not like I’d be saying COME GET MY HORSEY BOOKS I DON’T NEED THEM ANYMOOOORE HAHAHHAHAHHAHAH *hacking cough* *dies on porch* *lifeless body rolls down hill into town*
* Also donkeys! Brighty of the Grand Canyon was about a wild donkey who got attacked by a mountain lion, then saved by a cowboy who earned his trust by putting a pair of overalls on his front legs to keep flies out of his wounds. BRIGHTY!
† They cannot.
‡ It was and is sciatic nerve pain that haunts me to this day. (Or possibly leg cancer.)
§ I did not die, I felt better later.