Panic at 30,000 Feet
I had just gotten to the airport in Jacksonville when I felt an overwhelming terror overtake me. In many ways it felt like the standard panic attack that ex-fundies like myself are often heir to: weakness in the legs, tense chest and throat, ultrathumpety heart. But conventional panic attacks rarely last more than a few minutes. This was a longer, more sustained anxiety, like the kind I had the one time I smoked pot and rattled myself to pieces for the next four hours. I found myself sitting outside the gate at Jacksonville International feeling utterly exhausted, yet utterly restless. I couldn’t sleep, felt no urge to eat, and couldn’t seem to focus on anything I tried to read. All I could do was worry, and the worrying was of the worst possible type: the helpless sort of “what if a comet hits the earth and we all die” sort of worry you can do nothing about. Clearly my chief fear was of the future. What the hell did I think I was doing, actually planning an honest-to-God move to New York City? Once I started on this trip, there was no going back. I started wondering how much of most people’s fear of the future isn’t really a form of commitment-phobia.
At any rate, I soldiered on, but I was miserable the entire time. After a three-hour car trip, I shambled through the gate, waited for my flight, and couldn’t read, eat, or concentrate. They called at the gate, I made my way through in a kind of dreadful dream, and sat in the chair and didn’t move and couldn’t concentrate. We took off, and I got even more nervous, then once we leveled off I quieted to earlier level of nervousness. It was like that for eight hours. I don’t know if it was the lack of food, the exhaustion from the road, or some combination of the two coupled with my natural hypochondriac tendencies, but I felt this terror as an actual physical ache throughout my entire body, and it foiled my every attempt to close my eyes and get comfortable.
And then a funny thing happened. The moment I landed in Manhattan, I felt excited instead. When I got off the Q33 bus and onto the subway that would take me to my friend Ryan’s place, I felt my body practically throbbing with energy. I finally made it to Ryan’s apartment in Chelsea and, after we hugged and I threw down my luggage, I said, “What do you want to do?” I should have been dead on my feet, but I couldn’t sit still. And then, as we walked to a nearby eatery, I caught myself looking around me at the thoroughly normal people on all sides and I thought, “I bet I’m smarter and more talented than that guy, and he’s obviously got a job here.” I stood in line for a drink and thought, “That woman in front of me is pretty, but I bet she doesn’t have a Ph.D. or a publication record that includes the Atlantic Monthly.” And there were actual typos in the menu, and at that point I relaxed and said, “Obviously, this town still has room for one more competent writer.”
Then I came back to Ryan’s place and slept for about fourteen hours. But I was no longer scared. I feel silly claiming to have discovered something so banal, but just as Hallmark taught me the painful truth that money can’t buy happiness, so this apartment-shopping trip had already taught me another valuable lesson: the fear is always worse than the reality. To put it another way, if you find you are a nervous, high-strung person, the good news is: you’re wrong most of the time. Practically everything I discovered about New York over the next few days assuaged all my fears and made this overstuffed island feel downright conquerable.