Tonight I went to a play at the Shakespeare Theater with my wife and a friend. We sat in the middle of the theater. I have a severe panic attack and insist on leaving the theater. “Can’t you stay?” “The play hasn’t even started yet!” Disappointment and anger. I remember earlier episodes in movie theaters where I felt intense anxiety just sitting in the theater. They don’t understand, and neither do I … for a while. Then it occurs to me: we’re in a theater and death is right behind us!
A work colleague took me to the emergency room today. I collapsed in my office, barely able to breathe. “Does your family have a history of heart disease,” the doctors ask? “Yes,” I say. “My father died at age 36 of Sudden Death Syndrome.” Stress test. Echocardiogram. Heart X-ray. Blood tests. “Your heart is fine, young man. You’ve had a panic attack.”
Perhaps I need some time away, a rest cure. So, I take a vacation, alone, to the Bahamas. The trip is a disaster. I come home with a great tan but at a great price. Every day I suffer from anxiety, every night I get little sleep. Plus, I lose my wedding ring in the ocean. Understandably, my wife is hurt and angry. Not only do I go away to the Bahamas by myself; I lose the symbol of our union. She assumes it is a disguised attempt to end our marriage. I think it is just carelessness and an excess of tanning oil.
With the rest cure a failure, I finally see a psychiatrist, who offers a choice of either drug therapy or a talking cure. I take both. My primary physician prescribes Xanax, an anti-anxiety medicine. With it I am able to get through the day, and sleep at night. I also begin bi-weekly sessions with a psychotherapist who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. My wife is hurt that I never talk to her about my troubles. But it is a private battle I fight, with my own past and my own mind.
“Talking cure” is a misnomer in my case. We talk very little. Mostly I cry. I cry the tears of the child who lost his father and never properly grieved. I cry for the guilt I felt at being responsible for your death. I cry the tears of the little boy who feels so completely alone, lost with no one to turn to. I cry the tears of the man who fathered a child and agreed to have it aborted. I cry a hundred thousand tears. How could I have done those things? I murdered my father! I killed my very own child! There is much work to do if I am to be healed.
Her name would have been Emma — my aborted child — after Emma Goldman, idol of the anarchist movement. Tough and resourceful, iconoclastic and radical, Goldman was a heroine of our college years. My Emma would have been graduating from college about now. This is, I think, the only regret of my life: the abortion of my child. In my mind and heart, I am pro- choice, an advocate of the right to abortion for those who wish to choose it. But in my soul, I will forever regret our own choice, or, more precisely, my assent to the choice, to have the abortion. My child, my love — you are my second murder. I grieve deeply your loss.
Since my breakdown, my body chemistry has changed. I am easily embarrassed and I cry at the drop of a hat!
The embarrassment is much reduced now, but was fierce for years after the breakdown and often occurred in class when a student would ask a question to which I didn’t know the answer. There were actually occasions, more than just a few, when I had to rush out of class, faking a coughing fit, to escape the intense feeling of exposure. The crying remains and comes less out of hurt or fear than in response to “touching” moments in, for example, the narrative of a book or movie. What is such a moment for me? It is often when a young person shines in front of an admiring audience; when a young gymnast wins the Olympic medal; when the young activist stands up against injustice. These accomplishments often move me to tears and I often wonder why.