If I hadn’t been reading a library book, my life today might yet be quite different. It all came down to a night I went to the gym – I’m a rock climber – took off my shoes, tucked my necklace in my pants pocket, changed my clothes, and headed down to warm up.
Pause. My shoes were my ever-present Birkenstocks, since, despite the rain, I’d lost one half of my pair of Keds (which are no more water resistant than flip-flops anyway), with one half of my pair of orthotics within, to the gods of the TTC about a month before. I’d made the mistake of tying them to my climbing harness, and at an unknown juncture, one half of my footwear abandoned ship and made a break for Never Never Land. This irony was later lost on me.
My necklace was the most expensive thing I had ever owned. It was a graduation gift from the theatre company I belonged to in university, a silver ring too small for a finger and intended for its accompanying silver chain. Both were stamped with Tiffany’s & Co. in tiny writing. I didn’t like it as much as those of graduates’ years past, but I had worn it every single day for the four months since receiving it. I tend to fall in love with things I don’t find perfect on first glance.
Unpause. You can’t wear jewelry climbing – that’s just stupid. It’s like a carpenter wearing rings. I happen to like not being strangled, nor breaking my things, so I take off valuables and avoid wearing hairpins that could stab me in the skull.
Climbing is like human Tetris. You fit yourself into nooks and crannies and find methods of leverage that expend the least amount of energy possible to get to the top. It’s really a question of balance and friction, more than strength. You wouldn’t know that to look at the gym though.
Ropey forearms and wide shoulders are an inevitable outcome of enough climbing, whether you use a more truck hauling or a tiptoes dancing method, so if you like looking at Hulks with a hippie-ish couture, a climbing gym is for you. But almost no climbers have helium balloons of muscle sticking out of their skin. We’re compact, and frequently lanky – too much weight means it’s harder to get up. And if you look closer, you’ll notice that our calves are as developed as our hands, our abs sturdy and taught – climbing gives you a full body workout.
I love climbing. I never loved any sport until I found climbing. The puzzle of each climb, the mental fortitude required, and the fact that I can often climb as well as someone three times my size, means I feel at home. Plus everyone is super nice. It’s a big family.
It’s because of all this that, when my brain shut down the next day, I ended up at the gym with little memory of how I got there.
It was still raining when I left, so I repacked my bag, wrapping my library book inside my jeans, to keep it dry. I had a long way to go, back to the Junction, and I experimented with a new route up Ossington. At the subway station, I could unwrap my book and settle into the end of the story.
The Brothers K by David James Duncan. At one point in the book one of the characters is sent to a mental institution where they try to electrocute his war trauma out of him. The irony of this was lost on me too. I was reading it for a book club I partook in every summer, fast approaching. My past roommate had borrowed it from the library, and I borrowed it from her for the latter half of her loan period. I was careful to keep good care of it and read it as quickly as possible so no trouble would come upon her library account.
I got home. I crashed into bed next to my boyfriend, who I’d recently moved in with, and slept.
I’m not afraid of crowds. I’m not afraid of bugs or spiders, dogs or rats. I’m not afraid of touching dead things, and I’m not afraid of doing weird things in public. Which is why, two years later, I can remember how out of place it was for me to think, “If I even breathe, I will scream. I will hit that woman next to me. I will break the glass in this TTC shelter. I will whirl around and punch everyone. I will struggle with paramedics if they come, and I will smack anyone who comes near me.”
I thought this standing at the bus stop. I was afraid that I really would do all these things. So I took shallow breaths and didn’t move a muscle. My shoulders were so tight and high that I probably looked like I was trying to conceal a hickie, or shield myself from birthday beats.
Some unknown amount of time earlier, I had taken my clothes out of my backpack to get dressed for the day. Glasses, watch… I looked for my necklace to put it on, and came up with an empty chain.
It must just be at the bottom somewhere.
Maybe the fabric has folded over somehow.
Did I put it in a different pocket?
Maybe it’s in my jeans.
Maybe it’s in my climbing gear, somehow…
Let’s try the backpack again.
OK, breathe, don’t cry, don’t cry, STOP IT, don’t cry. Call the gym. My climbing partner Kyle said he was going back again today.
“Hey, can you do me a big favour?”
“Ya, what’s wrong? Are you OK?”
“Ya, it’s nothing. I just, I think I lost my necklace. Could you check the lost and found for me? …Not there? What about at the lockers? I used the fourth one over and the third one up. …Not on the ground? Bathrooms? …Stairs? Anything? Is George cleaning today? Can you ask him?”
“I’m sorry, Christina, I can’t find it. I’m so sorry. Are you ok?” – Click. I hung up. Ignored a call back.
Check the bag again. The floor. The living room. Coat. Shoes. Everything again. Retrace my steps. Think. Think. STOP CRYING. Think think think…
When it dawned on me that I’d put the necklace in my jeans, and wrapped the book in the jeans, and then unwrapped the book from the jeans, that I took no heed of my open pockets, there wasn’t much hesitation. I packed all my things back in my backpack and shopping bag I walked to the bus. There were no other thoughts in my mind.
At Ossington station, I knew where I’d stood on the platform. But when I got there, it had been cleaned.
I don’t know how long I searched. I turned into a bag lady, right then, right there. A bag lady – including a shopping bag and muddy pants – and a howling banshee.
I now have full faith in the ability of the Toronto Transit riders to ignore everything around them. My sobs were bouncing off the walls. I was on my hands and knees, literally sweeping the floor with my hands, craning my head into any nook or cranny, and attempting to open locked doors. I leaned my entire upper body out over the tracks, searching below for the ring. TTC riders are amazing. They have practiced the Non-Gaze and eye-avoiding strategies and they’ve stuffed their ears with rehearsed indifference.
One parent actually ushered their children away from my end of the platform. I was surprised that security didn’t come to get me. But being in a state of total panic, a) I was completely self-absorbed in my own world of terror and assumed everyone else saw how wild-eyed I was, b) I had no accurate perception of the passage of time and c) Virus Me and Wimpy Me were both standing in a corner staring at Panic Me going, “No seriously, girl, what the fuck?”
Red eyed, I went up to the ticket booth. I told him my plight and asked if he had found anything.
“No, it was cleaned last night. If they find anything they send it off to the main lost and found at Bay.”
“BUT I HAVE TO FIND IT. I’VE LOST IT. PLEASE, PLEASE HELP ME.” No seriously, I actually burst into more sobbing and moans.
Terrified, the TTC Man said, “Ok, ok, there’s a couple of pieces here that haven’t gone out yet. Are any of them yours?”
“Then you’ll have to call this number. I’m sorry.”
Does anyone else look like they have measles when they cry? In order, as I get more and more upset, and cry longer, I acquire: red eyes, red mouth, red nose, spots around my mouth, spots on my forehead, white rimmed eyes with bloodshot eyeballs, a purple nose, a purple mouth, purple spots around my mouth and cheeks. It’s nice to know I can still see what I would have looked like with smallpox.
Because of this little problem, people’s indifference began to become interest. They started glancing at me. People tried to console me. I think one woman thought I was going to jump in front of the subway and wouldn’t let me get out of conversation with her until the subway opened its doors and I ran away from her into another car.
I’m not positive how I made decisions on where to go. I tried to call Kyle and he didn’t pick up. I left a blathering message. Other people gave me tentative smiles, now that I wasn’t actively crying, which was very sweet of them.
When I ended up at King and Bathurst, very close to the climbing gym, I called my boyfriend.
“I don’t know how I got here!”
“What? What’s going on? Are you ok?”
“I lost it!”
“What is, what happened?”
“Why am I at the climbing gym? If I go in they’re going to stare at me! I can’t see Kyle like this!”
“You should go to the gym. You should talk to Kyle. Where are you?”
“At King and Bathurst.”
“Ok, so go to the gym and I’ll try to get out of work.”
“No! You can’t do that!”
“You don’t understand! You don’t know what’s going on? You don’t know if I’m crazy!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
“Why did I come here?”
“I don’t know.”
At some point I began to scream at him, very, very loudly. I screamed about how he didn’t understand and how could he know if I’m crazy if he’s not inside my head and he didn’t know anything and more and more and more about crazy this and that because at that point I definitely felt crazy.
I hung up on him too. Nice job, Panic Me.
I like to think of my arrival at the gym from the perspective of the other climbers, particularly those with Kyle. While I hadn’t completely forgotten the impressions of other people I’d passed so far, I hadn’t been able to change my behaviour, even if I wanted to. But by the time I arrived at the gym, my world consisted of pain-walk-goal. Goal was the only thing that made sense. Besides, my vision was so squinty and blurry I couldn’t really see anything in the peripheral field anyway.
The climbers were lounging between climbs. In walks a young bag-lady wannabe (for some reason, after all, I took all my thing’s from Patrick’s house, so I had a backpack, climbing gear and an overflowing cloth grocery bag).
Kyle stood up and cheerfully asked, “What’s up?”
Child bag lady ekes out a high pitched whisper of, “I don’t know where I am, I don’t know why I came here or how I got here and it’s lost and I don’t know-” etc.
Kyle whisked me away into the entryway hall. He grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “Ok, breathe.” I stared at his abs and breathed. “Look at me.” Shook my head. “Just look at me, it’s ok.” I looked at him. “Ok, good. Now tell me what happened.”
Kyle didn’t let me go until I had explained and was breathing again. During this time, we remained no more than 5 inches apart, and any passersby would have thought they were passing a particularly intense moment (as opposed to a blubbering mess).
I later learned that among the group of lounging athletes was someone Kyle wanted to ask out. Kyle is seriously the best.
After getting out the story, Kyle took over (thank goodness). In the span of about ten minuets he:
1) Called Patrick and explained I was safe.
2) Called my parents to explain the same (both as I would have had to see them later for dinner, and so that I couldn’t cop out of telling them).
3) Tidied my enormous quantity of stuff into his locker.
4) Gave the staff a plausible scenario of me just feeling like crud and needing to hang out for a bit without being bugged.
5) Prevented a further 4 hyperventilation episodes.
6) Made me eat an apple.
7) Settled me into a corner couch.
8) Made copious jokes.
9) Started his work shift at the gym.
10) And started taking notes on the events so far.
1) Kept sobbing.
2) Kept starting to panic again.
3) Stared around with scary eyes, as if expecting zombies to come in the windows, or winged death to walk up to me and shake my hand.
4) Ate an apple.
5) Completely denied that I should seek help.
I spent the day at the gym. I wouldn’t go outside. They gave me pizza. I think they started to think of me a bit like a houseplant – which, all things considered, is not so bad, given the alternatives of being under house arrest, being in serious trouble with either the law or thugs, being insane, or being creepily attached to Kyle.
Anyway, having been given nutrients, I helped with some climbing lessons, read my book, daydreamed and stared at the gym and the climbers, bouldered, nervously repelled conversation, and otherwise stalked my corner.
To top off my childish behaviour for the day, when Patrick arrived, I embodied a kid at a sleepover, refusing to go home (or perhaps, from another perspective, before I got to the sleepover – refusing to leave my parents for the night). I cried, I wouldn’t talk to him, and I made every excuse to wait there longer. Chicken Little was so loud in my head that when I was finally convinced to step outside, I actually looked up as if I would be struck by meteors.
This has been a recounting of one of my more major panic attacks to date. Since then, so much has changed, and I’ve gone from just panic attacks to depression, borderline personality disorder, and general anxiety disorder. I’ve been on a skid of medications, cognitive behavioural therapy (successfully treating the panic attacks at least!), practiced mindfulness, and many other things. My family and my partner Patrick have stuck through with me so well. I now live overseas, and I’m starting to learn about how the UK tackles mental illnesses as well. The best medicine of all has been writing, which I have been doing with a blog (ardentmarbles.wordpress.com). When I saw a representative of Patient Commando at the Fringe Festival, I thought I would submit a story. Thank you for your time! I look forward to reading more stories here.