According to This, You're Already Dead
As a film buff, it pains me when I see how rarely certain aspects of my own life experience are represented onscreen, or at least, represented accurately. I've given up on seeing middle aged women portrayed as anything other than sexless shrews, or, on the flip side, pathetic, oversexed hags who are painfully unaware that their "sell by" date expired years ago. Because the actual real life of a writer is pretty boring, involving a lot of refreshing Facebook and talking to yourself, we're stuck with the tiresome cliche of the hard drinking, hard living suffering artiste who can't produce great work unless he's making someone miserable. I remain pleasantly surprised whenever a movie treats mental illness as something that can't be treated with a dance contest or the love of a good woman.
Though I will be charitable and say that there have been some incremental improvements in how mental illness is portrayed in film, more often than not the easy way of miracle cures and happy, hopeful endings is taken. I've clung ferociously to the ones that got it right (to my perception, at least), even if it may not have been intentional. One of these is 1990's Jacob's Ladder, a movie that has nothing at all to do with mental illness, and yet captures the terror of feeling like you're losing your mind, in an increasingly hostile and unfamiliar world.
For the benefit of those of you who haven't seen this nearly 30 year-old masterpiece of psychological horror (and, honestly, you should just stop reading this and watch it right now), Jacob's Ladder is about Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins, in a grueling performance that was shamefully overlooked at awards season), a Vietnam vet turned mailman living in Brooklyn. Injured in a brutal attack on his platoon, and mourning the accidental death of his young son (and the subsequent loss of his wife and other children), Jacob is adrift in the world, grounded only by his girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), who is alternately both loving and impatient with his inability to get out of his own head once in a while.
Already plagued with nightmares both about his experiences in Vietnam, and the loss of his son, Jacob begins to experience terrifying hallucinations in his waking life as well, of defomred faces leering at him from subway windows, and cars that seem intent on running him down. Emotionally fragile at the best of times, and with his nerves stretched so tightly you could pluck the opening notes to "Blowin' in the Wind" on them, he has his first real breakdown at a party.
We don't know where the party is, or who's throwing it, and while Jezzie is enjoying herself, it's apparent just from his body language that this isn't really Jacob's scene. He doesn't seem to know anybody there. A flirtatious palm reader (played by Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkerson) tells him that his life line has abruptly ended, and while Jacob laughs at this, it's with some level of unease. Jezzie tries to get him to relax and enjoy himself, but he opts to wander around the party instead, perhaps killing time until he gets to leave. Even though he's tall, Jacob comes off as meek and harmless as a kitten. Like a lot of big men, he overcorrects, and tries to take up as little space as possible.
The other party guests seem to be converging on each other, writhing and thumping together to James Brown's "My Thang." Jacob's growing discomfort is palpable as he tries to extricate himself from the crowd, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that he's struck with a series of increasingly frightening visions--large, predatory birds flying around unnoticed by everyone else, monstrous, gore covered teeth snapping at him, a woman shrieking with laughter, her face cruel and distorted, a man glowering at Jacob across the room before his face blurs in that "shaky cam" effect that's long been a cliche in horror movies, but still holds up well here. And God bless brave Jacob, he's trying real hard to hold it together. You can almost hear him thinking if I can just get outside for some fresh air, if I can just get outside, if I can just GET OUT.
He temporarily loses his glasses, but gets them back just in time to see...well, what is happening to Jezzie? When last we see her she's dancing suggestively with another man, but, to Jacob's utter befuddlement, the man has turned into some sort of demonic creature with a face we can't see, but the quick cuts of its wings and its gnarled, clawed hands are more than enough. As for Jezzie, she's not afraid of this monster--quite the opposite, she's enjoying its desecration of her, exposing herself and moaning with pleasure as it bloodies her skin and violates her with its tail, tentacle, it doesn't matter. Jacob watches, unable to react in any way other than incomprehensible panic, until a horn bursts out of Jezzie's mouth. That image is too much for Jacob's brain to process, and he collapses to the floor, screaming in terror, as the other party guests look down at him with mild curiosity, like a bug under a magnifying glass.
I remember exactly where I was the first time I had a panic attack. I was in the parking lot of a strip mall in Las Vegas. I was crossing the lot, and it occurred to me that I couldn't take a full breath. It didn't feel like I had been exerting myself, but more like my lungs had gotten smaller, and the rest of my body hadn't adjusted to it yet. The more focused I was on the fact that my breathing didn't feel "right," the less right it felt. My skin prickled with heat and cold somehow at the same time, and I began to sweat, an unpleasant, greasy sort of sweat that left me desperately wanting a shower the rest of the day. Every story I had ever heard about an otherwise healthy adult dying suddenly of a previously undiagnosed heart ailment sprang to mind, a scrapbook of horrors illustrating how quickly your own body could turn on you without warning.
And then, it went away. Like nothing had happened.
I didn't have another one again until several years later, during the aftershock of one of the most stressful, emotionally trying times of my life. I was laying in bed, unable to sleep, and then there it was again, my breath catching somewhere along the way, hitting a firm, ungiving wall. I kept trying to force it, taking deeper and harder breaths, and it wouldn't give. That same hot and cold panic returned--how was I unable to catch my breath just laying in bed? Was I dying? Was it possible to have lung cancer even though I didn't smoke (according to WebMD, yes, it is)? What was wrong with me? I was able to breathe normally again by the next day, but I had what's known as a "panic attack hangover," where I felt tired and out of sorts, as if I would burst into tears if someone looked at me wrong, and there were these strange cold spots all over my body, down my legs and on my face and chest.
Though that's usually how panic attacks present themselves to me, I had the more common perception of a "panic attack" a couple years ago. Due to a power outage at one of the stations on my subway route, several train lines shut down, effectively cutting off any way I had of getting home, unless I wanted to do a mad dash with the other commuters upstairs to get a cab or wait for an Uber. I had no choice, as I was all but carried with the rush hour crowd to the second level of the platform. Hundreds, seemingly thousands of people were on all sides of me, pushing, pressing up against each other, squeezing together to get up the stairs, all of them convinced that they had to get to where they were going faster than everyone else. Goosebumps rose on my skin, my heart pounded, and I began to sweat, convinced that I was going to trip and fall down, and that people would simply walk on me, grinding my head and my hands to mush. I could see it. Hell, I could feel it, that sense of oh shit I'm FALLING, as footsteps thundered on all sides.
Knowing if I felt one more person brush past me, step in front of me, or come up so close behind me we'd qualify as dating that I would completely lose it, I found the nearest pillar and pressed myself up against it as hard as I could. It felt not unlike I was clinging to a piling in the middle of a tsunami, and I began to sob. I didn't know how I was going to get home. I didn't know where I was going, or what I was supposed to do when I got outside. I had been in that train station hundreds of times at that point, and at that moment it felt hostile and unfamiliar, an alien planet full of creatures who looked like me, but would do me harm if I got in their way. The noise level in there was astonishing, an endless rumble of loud, angry voices, footsteps, and announcements explaining just how utterly fucked the nighttime commute was. I turned to face the pillar, weeping into my folded arms like a child. Like Jacob at the party, passersby looked at me with mild curiosity, and nothing more.
When the station looked only crowded, as opposed to like a stampede in progress, I made my way outside, but I couldn't stop crying, and I couldn't get my bearings. Still not knowing how I was going to get home, I wandered around, until I finally started calling and texting people I trusted to help calm me down, and think of a solution. Eventually, I found a bench and sat down to collect myself. It took a long while before it felt "safe" to get up and move again, though, and by the time I got home (hours after I should have), I was drained and exhausted, and went directly to bed. It took days before the world settled back into its right place for me.
Thankfully, I haven't had another panic attack that bad since, although I've come close a number of times. The worst ones hit me when I'm stuck in crowds, which is inconvenient considering I live in the most densely populated city in the United States. There's just something I can't bear about being surrounded by bodies, and the knowledge that if I were to blink out of existence, someone would immediately fill the space I had just occupied, and no one would notice the difference. I tell myself I have some measure of control over them now, I can close my eyes and breath in through my nose, and out of through my mouth, and they pass. Most of the time.
Panic attacks are usually played for laughs in movies and TV shows, represented by someone frantically breathing into a paper bag (a "cure" that doesn't actually work). It's hard to accurately portray a panic attack, though, because even the most common symptoms are internal, and it feels different for everyone. I've at times just wanted to get up, start walking, and never stop. Others, quite the opposite, I've wanted to hide under my covers and tremble and cry myself to sleep. Every once in a while my thoughts turn to darker solutions, like windmilling my arms and punching everyone around me, just so they'll give me some fucking space so I can breathe. Jacob's Ladder is the rare movie that captures a panic attack just right, accurately portraying the rising, inexplicable terror, the deer caught in headlights helplessness. Mostly, like Jacob, I just feel like collapsing to the ground and screaming.