All of the muscles on my body are tense, ready to spring into action at a moments notice. My shoulders rise higher than normal, an attempt to make myself look bigger, a leftover trait from our species’ primal past. The energy courses through my body making the hair on the back of my neck and arms stand on end. My heart pounds in my chest. My breath, normal, feels rapid and uncontrolled. I’m on the edge and I am scared to death of falling off.
“Welcome to Subway, how may I help you sir?”
“A six inch meatball sub please.”
I mumble my reply. My voice, normally booming and filled with confidence, is quiet in my own head. Barely perceptible to those around me.
“What was that sir?”
The worker behind the counter leans forward, hoping that the closer distance will aid him in hearing my stifled words.
“A six inch meatball sub on white please.”
I say it a little louder. He seems to hear me this time, but my voice sounds far away in my own ears. I meet the eye of the man standing behind the counter, but only briefly. The eyes are the window to the soul. I don’t want people looking into my soul right now. I don’t want them to see the anxiety and the fear. My foot begins to tap a quick rhythm as I watch my sandwich being made, a rapid percussive beat on the tile floor. My muscles will not loosen, if anything they tighten further. I will my foot to stop, my shoulders to lower, my body to relax. They obey me for a second, but as soon as my mind moves on to another thought, my shoulders begin to rise again. The fibers of muscles pull taut.
The making of the sandwich is a step by step process. Each step requires a question and an answer. With each answer I feel the need to look at the man behind the counter. I avoid looking him in the eye. I look at his nose, at his ear, at his mouth. Anything to avoid direct contact.
“Black olives, mayonnaise and red wine vinegar”
“Did you say pickles?”
Whenever I don’t have to talk to him I look away. I look at the pictures of food on the wall above him. I look down at his hands preparing the sandwich as I give my directions. I look briefly at the other people in the store. Sometimes my eyes come to rest for brief moments, distracted, but only for a second. Sometimes I stare at those around me, the workers or my fellow customers, letting my eyes watch them at their work. The connection of watching someone is somehow soothing. When they feel me watching and look up, I quickly look away.
As I move forward along the sandwich assembly line I re-tuck my shirt for the fourth time since I’ve walked in. I’m hypersensitive. Every little piece that is out of place must be fixed. A nervous tick. A sign of someone having difficulty. I want to scream. I want to rip off my shirt and run around like an idiot. I feel like I’m about to explode. How can nobody notice this? They have to be able to notice. I can feel my skin literally buzzing with energy.
I reach forward to grab a bag of chips. I finger the packaging on the rack for a second before changing my mind and grabbing a different brand. I can feel people watching my every movement, feel them judging me. Look at that man. What the hell is wrong with him. He looks like a nervous wreck. Settle down fella. Just relax. What a basket case. I’m the only member of the audience for my little drama, but it feels as though all eyes are upon me.
The pace of my heart quickens. I reach up and clutch my chest for a moment like I’m having a heart attack. A silly notion. I’m as healthy as a horse. My mind and body are ready, waiting for the attack, waiting for the lion to leap out of the bushes to maul me. It’s going to leap at any moment, my mind and body are convinced of it. Adrenaline courses through my veins in anticipation. I try to slow my breathing. I only have to survive this social savannah for a bit more.
I get to the register and open my wallet. My hands, normally steady and sure, are clumsy. I try to pull out seven dollars, two ones and a five, but it takes twice as long as normal. It’s as though the hands picking through the wallet aren’t mine. It’s as though I’m controlling a robotic appendage from a distance away, watching via a camera with a long delay. Every command has to be several seconds ahead of the actual movement. I fumble through my wallet and pull out too much money. I use the back of my hand to press my wallet against my chest so I can use all of my fingers to clumsily separate out the extra bills.
The man behind the counter waits patiently. He’s in no hurry. I feel like I’m being rushed. The lion is getting closer. I can sense him hiding somewhere nearby. He’s crouching and ready to spring. I hand the money to the man and he hands me back my change. I grab my sandwich and shove the change in my pocket, a quarter escaping and falling onto the floor. I reach down quickly to grab it, my body shaking and my face red with embarrassment. My first attempt fails, as does my second. I can’t get my fingernails under it. They are ragged and bitten. Please, come on, this is torment. The third attempt does the trick. I stand up and put the quarter in my pocket.
The man behind the counter smiles at me. I look back at the other waiting customers. Some faces are bored. Some are smiling at hidden thoughts. Some are mad and impatient at the added wait. Little worlds separated by space and the inability to communicate. I desperately want one to break through the divide. I desperately want to look one in the eye and feel a connection. I desperately want one to step forward to reassure me, tell me everything is going to be fine. All of the eyes are blank. All of the windows are opaque. I have to tell myself everything will be fine. My only advisor is someone I don’t completely trust right now.
I walk hurriedly from the fast food eatery. My motions feel jerky and unnatural, as though my joints are held together by overly tightened rubber bands. Past the people eating at the tables, some alone and some with company. Some smiling and laughing. Some looking bored and weary. I can feel the hot breath of the lion on my neck. I can feel the wetness of my shirt at the small of my back and in my armpits. I escape out the door to safety. The lion falls behind. It’s safer here. Safer outside. Here the private worlds around me are more spread out.
My furtive motions carry me back to my office. As I cross the bridge over the railroad tracks a quiet little voice tells me to jump over the railing. The logical part of my mind instantly pushes the thought back and for a second a very real fear of falling comes over me. It’s an instant, just an instant. An instant where the tiny little voice had me convinced. I’m not suicidal, I don’t want to die. I want to live. It’s not a want to die that makes me think about jumping over the railing and falling the three stories to the railroad tracks below. It’s only a desperate need to make something happen. It feels like something is going to happen. Waiting for something to happen is driving me insane. Maybe if something happens I won’t feel like this anymore. Something. Anything.
I arrive at my building and get in the elevator with a woman who wears too much perfume. I want to yell at her to stop wearing so much perfume, that she has overdosed on her cure and it has become a poison. I worry that she can see the sheen of sweat across my brow, suspicious on a cold day. She gets off first, but her overpowering scent remains, a companion for the rest of my elevated journey. I breath through my mouth. I get off the elevator and the distraction is gone. My thoughts turn back to myself. A few more steps. Open and close the door. Make a friendly remark to the secretary. Walk into my office. Close the door behind me. Sit down in my chair.
I stare at the wall in front of me. My body is motionless, but my mind is an unstoppable machine of perpetual motion. It’s just an anxiety attack. Just wait. It will pass. This isn’t permanent. Just wait. Don’t worry. Just breathe. My body and subconscious scream at me, calling the soothing voice a liar. You will always be this way. There is no escape. You are insane. You will never feel normal again. It’s only a matter of time. I breathe deep and slow. In and out. I push the negative thoughts away. It’s okay. Your body and brain are lying to you. They are just muscles having knee jerk reactions. These are battles you have fought before. You don’t have to worry. You don’t have to be scared. Just ride it out. You’ll see.
I sit at my desk and shake, breathing deeply, repeating a soothing mantra in my head. This is not who I am, this is only temporary, this is not who I am, this is only temporary. I don’t have to hide. I don’t have to be afraid. The vibrations beneath my skin settle. My breath begins slowing and I feel some of the tension in my muscles ease. I’m not relaxed, but I’m at least looser. I have escaped again. I have made it through again. I unwrap my sandwich and open up a comedy website on my computer. I concentrate on the task at hand, one step at a time. The thoughts that set me off remain, but I ignore them, shoving them back where they are out of the way. It’s over. It’s passed. There’s a voice in the back of my head that I do my best to ignore. For how long?