When I came back from Russia to my family’s home in New Jersey, I was a small being hobbled by fear. In the ensuing years I have experienced these moments of pure compression—the universe eaten alive by dread, consisting only of me and my own death—with some frequency. Other passengers on the subway are reduced to shadows, the rattle of the train a faint echo of my own deafening heartbeat, and the glass-haze of terror blots out light.
Explaining a panic attack is a little like explaining an explosion: You can talk about adrenaline, as you can talk about a flurry of reactive particles clashing until they burn. You can talk about the fight-or-flight reaction and the symptoms—sweating, rapid heartbeat, trembling, the overwhelming urge to escape. But you cannot truly convey a swelling balloon of heat, a concussion in the air, the lancing pain of shrapnel, in words. You cannot convey the pure concussive terror of a panic attack in words either, the sense that all your bones are thrumming a bad, insistent chord. I have tried to explain why I must leave the restaurant, why I must have an aisle seat at the show, why sometimes my throat seizes so powerfully I can’t even drink water. Some friends and family members understand; others don’t; and I hide my phobias when I can. The rest of the time, I live within the ringing glass walls of my own panic.