Panic Room

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
—T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

* * * *
Any room with me in it is a panic room.

“Take my advice—I’m not using it.” I can tell you to keep calm. At my worst, I might insist that you keep calm. But as someone who can introduce stress into the least stressful, sweetly innocuous, and even some of the more pleasant experiences in life, when I am confronted with the parts of life that others find truly stressful, I hunker down and find the effort deep inside myself to make them yet more stressful.

In one of my lesser achievements in the field of stress management, I gave myself a black eye while tying my shoes. These were boots with leather laces (I am not a cowboy) and such laces can take a little effort to yank into position. While securing my “half-knot” on my right shoe, the length of lace in my left hand broke and I clocked myself in the right eye. At the time, I was 34 years old, not 11.

One of my co-workers asked, “I’m not sure I ought to say anything, but are you okay?”

“With what?”

“You look like you were in a fight or something.”

“Heh. Funny story, I did this to myself this morning. Heh.” Embarrassed, I mumbled a series of words that had no real connections between them in order to sound like I was speaking a sentence or two: (Mumbling.) “New laces. Not leather ones. Store tonight. Need some.” (I attempted a grin to communicate something like, “We’ve all been there, right?”) Because I lived alone at the time and was nominally an adult, my friend did not call child protective services against me on my behalf.

But I was perpetually stressed out by that job, a completely stress-less employment (technical writer) in a stressful environment (it was a job, and thus all jobs can be stressful). I was a contract employee who had been taught that, for us contractors at least, “The last one hired is the first one fired,” and I was the last one hired in this office. Twice, a contractor was hired in my department (making this person the “New Guy”), which afforded me the brief comfort of being the Not Last One Hired, but both times, the individual quit within days, which restored me to my place as Most Worried. Further, the head of the department who had gone on the hiring spree that had led directly to my employment was herself fired in front of us less than a year after I moved to the job. Under these circumstances, in which every week at work was “grueling,” you’d give yourself a black eye tying your boots, too.

In RealityLand, also known as HereandNow, it is usually the employee who can not relax who finds him or herself let go. It amazes me how much one can accomplish with almost no confidence in oneself. I held that job for more than four years, but it felt just like more than four years.

In those years, I believe I was addicted to being in perpetual and slight fear all the time, because I had a method for relieving stress that I trusted above all others, which presented a feeling of relief that sat on the pleasant side of the scale far more heavily than any stress sat on its side of the scale. The method is called vodka, and has not been a part of my world for more than six years.

I have friends who were police officers and friends who were firefighters, friends who served in the military and even fought in hand-to-hand combat to the death with enemies (it still happens), and they report that when a person leaps from one serotonin-soaked event to another, one acquires an either/or outlook on life. They describe post-war life as one in which the soldier will either perceive everyone as an enemy, including the guy taking too long pouring himself coffee at the Qwik-Stop-‘n’-Go, or one in which he loves everyone and sees every human being as a fellow traveler on this big blue marble of ours. That’s the vet who hands the half-and-half to you at the coffee counter and then lets you step in front of him or her at the register.

So I am a stress-filled person, certainly not a soldier returning from a war zone, except, perhaps, the one in myself, but life presents me with obstacles and challenges like work, life, relationships, life, long journeys, life, ongoing tests, life. And life. Life is the one situation we never come back from.

I am, as I am with much else in life, an uneasy flyer. I am the airline passenger across the aisle from you with white knuckles and a clenched jaw. The only plane trips that have been not stressful for me have been the ones in which I struck up a conversation with my seat mate. The ones I remember most fondly are those in which I made a temporary best friend: A flight to Chicago in which my seat was switched on the plane from a seat surrounded by a family with three kids (making me the fourth) to a seat next to a woman who was also doing a crossword puzzle. A flight after 9/11 in which the entire plane got involved in a conversation about coming home to upstate New York and what we missed about living there. This approach to life works well on planes, in waiting rooms, on the coffee line. This approach to life works well in life.

When I remember I am a human being, I do not need to do anything to unwind or remind myself that I am human or to feel human. When I don’t, life is a grueling week of work spent on a plane flying me to a final exam that I have not studied for. It’s one broken shoelace after another.

* * * *
Much of this appeared in a column from 2014, “Stress” and in 2015.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 24 asks us to reflect on the word, “Panic.”

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  1. Martha Kennedy · September 24, 2016

    It’s interesting how people are. My friend with whom I traveled to Europe this past spring, is definitely either/or. Not a calm bone in her body and she’s certain she’s not going to get what she wants unless she directs the circus. I was driving us to Interlaken from which we’d take a train to the Eigerwand (on her bucket list). We were rerouted from a freeway to a highway. We were fine. All that needed to happen was a look at the map. She can’t read a map (I can) so she panicked. That’s contagious and suddenly we were parking at a train station and buying $500 (each!) worth of train tickets and spending 3 hours on a 1/2 hour journey. I’ve thought about that a lot since. My mom was also a panic person and it seems that such people have the power to realize (make real) their worst fears. It’s as if they KNOW it’s going to be a lot more complicated than they think, so they make it that way. I think sometimes it’s tied to “worst case scenario” (last hired, first fired) and “fear of the unknown.” But it all makes me sick to my stomach.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Keep Calm & I Don’t Remember the Rest | The Gad About Town

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