You would like to believe that the panic attack you had in Soho had nothing to do with the bridesmaid’s dress you selected moments before. You would like to believe it had nothing to do with the teapot you were trying to pick out at the time. You have had relatively few panic attacks in your life; this was only the second one not brought on by drugs or guilt. You are surprised by how cheesily cinematic it is–the visual and sound effects used to convey the idea of panic in movies and television, are not, as you had thought, a kind of shorthand for a panic attack but accurate representations of the symptoms of a panic attack as they appear to a person who is having one. And yet the panic attack is like a movie or television, in the sense that you are watching it. From the part of you that observes everything, even your greatest ecstasies and most deepest despair, you are watching what is going on in your body and mind with cool remove. At times, you have tried to eradicate this part of you with art and alcohol and drugs and meditation and sometimes even exquisite, contrived pain, so you can have some kind of pure experience, some kind of experience unmediated by consciousness, which you a realize is a paradox since it is through consciousness that we apprehend experience. This creates another paradox since the apprehension of experience, in the sense of the multiple meanings of the word “to apprehend” (1. to take into custody, arrest; 2. to grasp mentally, understand; 3. to become conscious of, as through emotions or senses, perceive) is exactly what you both desire and do not desire. You desire to become conscious of experience, as through emotions or senses, but you do not desire to arrest experience, and yet through trying to grasp mentally and understand experience you cause the first, undesirable effect of apprehension and prevent the desirable third.
You are dimly aware of these contradictions and possibilities, even momentarily distracted by them, as you try to apprehend your apprehension of experience, which has most recently and unexpectedly, in the midst of an aisle of different sized ceramic teapots in Pearl River Mart, ceased to be the normal apprehension of experience and become instead the experience of apprehension (1. Anxious or uneasy anticipation of the future; dread; 2. The act of seizing or capturing, arrest; 3. The ability to apprehend or understand, understanding).
You are feeling the first, but not really the second or the third effect of your apprehension. You feel an anxious and uneasy anticipation of future, both the immediate future in which you will select a teapot, and the later future in which you will make tea in this teapot and continue to live in what at this moment seems will be an unending state of anxiety. You are engaged in the act of seizing or capturing, but it is not you who is doing the seizing. It is you who has been seized.
You are in the midst of some kind of arrest, here among the ceramic teapots. It occurs to you that if you were to crumple to the floor, or perhaps slump to the floor (you actually pause in the midst of your arrest to consider whether you would crumple to the floor or slump to it), you would jostle and perhaps break some of the teapots, and they would crash and clatter and shatter. This, too, would be an appropriately cinematic effect to go along with the rest of this cliched experience. You are disappointed in your panic attack, in its lack of innovation, in its hazy edges and wobbly camera work and vertiginous warping of the simple shapes of the teapots and bowls and plates and other ceramic objects and the slow-motion demonic sound of the tinkling Chinese music in Pearl River Mart (how banal! How unoriginal!) and now—now, you are grasping at the top of your jacket, you are ripping open the snaps at your neck, and the sound is so loud, it is exactly the kind of sound that would be amplified in television or movie post-production, or the post-production of a television movie, the sound of the snaps ripping open as the character who is having the panic attack gulps for air and grows dizzy and sweats profusely and perhaps even spins around and–how do these attacks even end? They usually pass out, and come to later in a comical fade-in that leads to a revelatory denouement within the hour.
But you are not going to pass out. Nor does it feel like a revelation is on the horizon. You are wide awake and beginning to realize that you will be neither selecting nor fainting upon a teapot in Pearl River Mart today. You will get some air, and maybe this will apprehend the apprehension, the anxiety and dread you are feeling about your future of anxiety and dread. You have looked up the symptoms of panic attack on the internet and you know that fear of a permanent state of madness is one of the symptoms. “The fear that I feel of a permanent state of madness is only a symptom,” you tell yourself, “and if I can accept this fear as a temporary symptom of–” and then you are stuck. A symptom of what? Why would you fear a permanent state of madness and anxiety if it were not a real possibility? And why wouldn’t you have reason to fear a permanent state of madness and anxiety if madness and anxiety were not the defining features of the current moment, which like all current moments, seems quite eternal? “Everything passes,” you remind yourself. “We are all just passing through time and it is passing through us.” This thought, which you normally find quite comforting and interesting, which occupies you for blocks and blocks on long walks through the city and comforts you when your anxiety and dread and painful excitement at the fact that you are alive is at more manageable levels than it is right now, is, in your state of apprehension, terrifying. It is not unlike the first moment as a small child that you consciously realize that you are going to die. But this is more visceral. Because now you have moved into second and third actions of the verb “to apprehend,” you both comprehend as an idea and are having as an experience the notion, the possibility, the fact, the reality of death, your own and that of all your loved ones, which if it is not happening right now, or hasn’t happened without your knowledge, will happen, sometime sooner or later, and it there is no good way to be ready for it, all the death, and the acute fear of it you will live in until it comes for you and everyone you love, none of whom can save you from this fear.
And yet “fear” and “death” don’t enter into the vocabulary of the detached narration that is describing this movie to its sole director, actor and spectator. As you walk up Broadway, “getting some air,” which you realize has not had the desired effect of arresting your apprehension but instead has simply lowered by several degrees the temperature of your panicked organism, you are not thinking about fear and death. You are thinking instead of how odd it is that you never noticed before how loud and frightening the horns and sirens of New York City are, how mean and scary the faces of the people are, how grotesque the headless mannequins in every store window are. You pass by a store whose mannequins aren’t completely headless, but rather have heads that are severed at various angles, so one mannequin has a mouth and one eye and another a flat round cross-section right above the nose, and you remark to yourself what an unfortunate set of mannequins that is for a person having a panic attack to come upon.
You sense that the subway might not be the best place for a person in the throes of a panic experience. It is underground and claustrophobic and loud and full of rush-hour commuters. On the other hand, you think rationally, it’s warm and safe and a little more sensory-deprived then the overwhelming street. The subway will take you to 14th Street, and it’s always good to be on 14th Street because then you are nearly home. (One of your theories on New York City is that the subway line you live on is an extension of your concept of your neighborhood, so that if you ride the L train, really all of 14th Street is your neighborhood.) The subway, you think rationally, really isn’t safe, you are always a little afraid of terrorism on the subway, it seems inevitable and the fact that they keep warning everyone about it and yet it hasn’t happened yet makes it seem particularly ominous and inevitable, but right now, in the midst of severe and unnamable terror, a terror that comes from within you and encompasses everything, you are able to see that the terror of terrorism is a mere diversion from the terrors that lie within us, coiled like snakes and waiting to strike in the middle of the teapot aisle.
You go down the subway stairs and wait for the train. You sit on the bench, quivering with the terrible secret of your madness. Is this what it’s like for the mentally ill, of which you are temporarily one, all the time? Do they sit on the subway bench and feel not alienated or cynical or smug or late or angry or left out or bummed out but simply in a constant state of apprehending the horror of life and its impending end and all the time that lies between now and then in this state of awareness of that end? How terrible for them. You would feel empathy for them if you were not so currently worried about becoming one of them.
You notice more symptoms of panic. Tingling, numbness, nausea, heartbeat. You take your pulse and it is very fast. Is it tachycardic? Does tachy mean fast? You think it means fast. “My pulse is tachy,” you say to yourself. “I am a textbook case of whatever I am having.”
You know what this is. There are words for it. And suddenly you feel a feeling you haven’t felt in the last half hour–comfort. You are beginning to pendulate out of it. Pendulation is a neurological term you know. It means that what goes up must come down.
The subway comes and you not thrilled by its rumbling but you can get on. You are still terribly afraid, but you are not so apprehended in the moment. You are thinking that maybe, when you catch your breath, you can get groceries like you planned, (though not the tea, you won’t be needing the tea). You and everyone you love are going to die but that is once again just an idea, not an all-encompassing reality. You don’t apprehend that idea quite so much anymore, and by consequence it doesn’t apprehend you. That idea is going back to wherever it lies dormant in you when it is not causing panic attacks in the teapot aisle. The you that watches is no longer a leader in exile, watching from a secret location in your consciousness as a demon impostor wreaks havoc your physiology. The you that watches over everything is restored to power, ushered back to her command center. She settles into her leather swivel chair, touches the items on the desk possessively and habitually, she pulls some switch and releases the knots of your muscles. She eases off the tacky special effects and slows your tachy heart.
The last thing you remember thinking about before this all began was how many adjectives went with your bridesmaid’s dress. The bride chose some of them: the color (burnt sienna) the length (knee) the trim (bow band) the color of the trim (pomegranate for you and her sister, the maid and matron of honor, burnt sienna for the rest of the bridesmaids) and you chose the rest: size (6) style (empire waist) neckline (strapless). You were feeling quite pleased with your decisiveness and sentimental about the June wedding. The fear of death had not come for you yet in the fitting room, where you frowned and said “no” to spaghetti straps, nodded “yes” to the empire waist. You smoothed the fabric of the sample dress and eyed your reflection with pleasure. The dress looked nice on you. How nice that you like your body enough to enjoy it, how nice that you grew out of the body hatred that still afflicted so many women out there on the street in Soho, how nice that your body is not grotesque to you, how sad that it ever was. You thought of how you would wear this dress in the pictures, and the pictures would go in the wedding album. Maybe the wedding album would be passed on to the children and grandchildren of this incipient marriage. The camera would click on a moment still in the future, the moment you were buying this dress to create, and it would freeze it in time and maybe in many years you would celebrate this couple’s fiftieth anniversary and you would look at the picture and think how young you were once and how old you were then, and even later some descendent of your engaged friends might see you in the wedding album, flanking the bride, and not even know who you were, but just think, as you sometimes think when you see an unidentified person in an old photograph, how you were once pretty and now you must be long dead. But this thought did not give you vertigo, in the dressing room where you had not yet been apprehended, in fact it gave you pleasure. You were so glad to be here at all, so glad that you were here in the now that would become the then, that you were in the process of buying a dress that would seem hopelessly dated in thirty years and then in a hundred, if the pictures survived, perhaps historic, when now it was the most typical of fancy dresses. You took pleasure in not being able to predict what would eventually seem dated or archaic about it, pleasure in the fact that the opinions on bridesmaid’s dresses of the aughties are yet undecided, pleasure in the frivolity of a pretty dress, pleasure of the absurdity of a soon-to-be lawyer, a summer associate, a magna cum laude Phi Beta Kappa on two different law reviews playing princess and pleasure in cynical feminist you playing her lady-in-waiting and everyone enjoying it. You took pleasure in simply being there, in dressing for the occasion, in being a part of it.
The showroom was full of dresses in every style and color, hung on racks in rainbow order. There dress itself was a concept–a cylinder of silk–and there were only so many permutations on it. How it was sewn, the parts of a woman it displayed and concealed, the geometry of the neckline and the skin it revealed, the difference between translucent fabric and shimmery. Lately you are interested in editing, in how the addition or subtraction of any single detail changes a work of art, and you were mindful of this as you considered the rainbow of dresses hanging on the racks. You observed how each detail changed the dress. You hoped to learn something.
You observed how the dresses posed a math problem, but it could be easily solved. You thought about how you would calculate all the permutations of dresses, how with six types of fabric and ten sizes and four styles and three lengths and four necklines and six trims and twenty-seven colors there was a large but still finite number of possible dresses. But within the choices already made for you, there were eight possible dresses, and you tried them all on. You thought, in the showroom as you made your selection, before you were suddenly apprehended by apprehension, that you were doing very well.