July 20, 2019

An Age of Anxiety

“Authors have many images to describe distorted mental states, but that of a glass enclosure, which warps vision and sound, is among the most common. In his searing essay on the loss of his daughter, Aleksandar Hemon uses the metaphor of an aquarium to describe the detached sensations caused by profound grief. Sylvia Plath’s titular bell jar is her symbol for the airless perceptions of suicidal depression. The intercession of glass between human sight and the world is present even in the New Testament, when, in 1 Corinthians, we are told that earthly life is seen “through a glass, darkly.” In a heavenly future, no glazier’s hand will intercede before the face of God.

Anxiety, too, can have this distorting, glassy quality. When I had my first panic attack, in Russia in the summer of 2010, the entire world shrank to the size of my frantically pulsing aorta. I could feel nothing beyond the hammering in my wrists and neck, the freezing sweat that burst out on my forehead, the swishing thrum in my ears. I called emergency services from my host family’s couch in Kazan. Russian EMTs pronounced that an impromptu EKG had shown me to be in perfect condition, and gave me a decoction of “herbs” to drink. At dawn I nodded into uneasy sleep. For the next week, smoke from forest fires igniting all around Russia descended on the city, and my heart intermittently skittered in my chest like a rat. Each time it did I thought I was going to die, although death, unaccountably, never came.

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.”

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