No More Panic Attacks for the Man

Issue 280

A radical activist opens up about her depression and anxiety.

Bina Cristan Jun 15, 2023

Mind racing, chest heaving, I start slipping into black. Breathing becomes irregular. I succumb to the darkness, wailing into a pillow, grasping, digging fingernails in my arm. Punching my thighs, harder. Slight relief. Then the heaving gets out of control again. Another burst of writhing. I search around frantically for a way out but it’s too dark. After a while, I grope around, find the scissors. Then the storm begins to calm, loud sounds reduced to a whimper. 

I clean up, take a shower, exhausted. It’s 2 p.m. I have to finish that thing for work I had been in the middle of before leaving for my second job. But I start scrolling instead. “No. Stop. What are you doing? You don’t have time for this!” I don’t even like what’s on the screen, but I’ve checked my phone at least three times in 10 minutes. There’s a term for it — digital amnesia, I think, and resign to smoking a spliff.

•   •   •

I go over to June’s after work. “I had another panic attack last night,” she tells me. “I finally found a therapist that will take me, but it’s $200 a session.” 

June and I were both seeing therapists through a harm-reduction center in Manhattan until COVID disrupted the program. On Medicaid our options are quite limited. I was able to reconnect with a therapist I’d used in the past who accepts $70 cash per session, which is still a stretch, but June hasn’t been that lucky. Everywhere she calls that takes Medicaid is fully booked with a long waiting list.

Such suffering feels like a collective consciousness that we’re in overdrive, that the current world order is unsustainable. 

Next to promotions for Seamless, online-only banks or online-only doctors, I see subway ads for subscription therapy apps. It feels like they’re taking everything away as we know it, and rebranding it to us in this hyper-time-efficient robot world. 

“I want to have kids,” I tell June, on the defense. “It’s only human!”

•   •   •

I wait almost two hours in the small room for Dr. ­Mansour. From the hall, I hear him talking to an old ­woman, to parents and their kids. Each of us gets 15 ­minutes. “So, how’s the Zoloft going?” he asks. 

Later I’m on the phone with my aunt. “Gina has been getting panic attacks, too,” she says about my 14-year-old cousin. “Call your sister; I think she’s in a funk again,” says my dad. “I think I’m depressed,” says my other sister. “I’ve been taking Valium to sleep since Mimi died,” says my stepmom. “The doctor wants to put me on Welbutrin,” says my boyfriend. “It’s tested,” says my drug dealer. “We got the results of my brother’s autopsy. He just took one Xanax, but it seems like it was laced with Fentanyl,” says my friend, so we go to another Fentanyl funeral. 

•   •   •

Talking to a young unionist, I mention an eviction defense that’s ongoing. “Aw man, getting evicted sucks. I’ve been through that shit,” he says. “You smoke?”

Most of my organizer friends seem to be as reliant as I am on crutches to slow the frequency of burnouts and meltdowns. One smokes blunts constantly. Another, in addition to weed, takes a microdose of mushrooms every morning to calm the nerves. The reality is that people who are down to fight the system have often been fucked over by it. Getting caught in those snarls often results in long-term negative side effects. Plus, whatever personal issues and family history and the grind of working a fulltime job while doing activism that requires us to be constantly aware of the ills of the world. 

For some, being politically active feels like an obvious necessity in response to the current state of affairs. For others, it’s a grounding way to connect to the world, a way of staying still. When we build community groups, we grow roots — entrenched people power that serves as the groundwork for further organizing — an act that in itself is a rebellion against the speed of “progress.”

•   •   •

Anxiety hits like D-Day. It’s gotta be the least natural feeling to experience, a shock to the system. 

The prevalence of anxiety and depression has steadily risen over the past century or so, particularly in the last ­decade — with rapid increases during ­COVID (25% of youth globally experiences depression; anxiety, 21%, found JAMA Pediatrics in 2021). Such suffering feels like a collective consciousness that we’re in overdrive, that the current world order is unsustainable. 

Every day I feel how unnatural life is: eating Costco shrimp from China, locking the elderly in nursing homes, NYPD filming everybody that files out of a Drake concert.

“You used to call me on my cell phone/Late night when you need my love.” I go to make a call but instantly forget and end up scrolling. Inflation, shootings, no more Arctic sea ice, new series out, astrology app ads (things a guy does when he’s not interested in you based on his zodiac sign), killer cops, Tortuguita, rainy winters, Brazil, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Yemen, Nicaragua, Peru, Cuba, Syria, shuttered libraries, Amazon Prime, the Amazon rainforest, seed rights, Khartoum, raves, Ketamine, BBLs, third part-time jobs, rent increases, fossil fuels, ­#StopCopCity, remember the summer pop smoke died?, Republicans, Democrats, a video of a tiny gerbil licking a plastic spoon, #FreePalestine, Black Panther II, endless AI news (eating disorder hotline workers replaced by robots after starting to unionize). This is how we consume information in the modern era. A punch to the head.

“Time used to move more slowly,” my mom wrote in a letter. It’s true. As everything else seems to be moving faster, time becomes more finite, commodified. Less ­spontaneous. Speed-dating used to be a thing; now we swipe through 100 profiles in under five minutes.

I check Instagram again! Another commie shitpost. One of the slides reads: “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Depression and anxiety are perfectly natural responses to a system that has monetized every aspect of our lives.” Share it on my story. A few friends send heart and clapping emojis in response. But sharing things virtually has lost its charm. I want to share IRL. I want someone to break off a piece of bread and pass it to me.

•   •   •

I think about how the modern capitalist world, often via technology, has been successful in dividing and conquering: fracturing movements for change, depoliticizing us and making everyone mentally ill as fuck. 

When there’s constantly something new to protest, it’s hard to stay sane, let alone committed to the furthering of any goal, group, risk. For the fruits of any struggle to be harvested, slowing down and digging in is very necessary, and also — maybe not so coincidentally — an approach I’ve been using to calm my anxiety. When it’s on the rise, I take a moment to pause and look at a tree or a plant. By admiring nature’s geometrical patterns, I force myself into the present. 

“Time used to move more slowly,” my mom wrote in a letter. It’s true. Speed-dating used to be a thing; now we swipe through 100 profiles in under five minutes.

The panic attacks still come, but less frequently. I’m learning what works to manage the constant anxiety ­pulsating in my chest. It feels good to walk through the marshlands in South Brooklyn, to put the damn phone down, read books, listen to a whole album, to indulge in debates deep into the night over how to rebel against time. 

•   •   •

I walk by the abandoned MTA building where the neighborhood stray cats live. There’s a man with a small baby in a stroller stopped in front of it. “They’re his favorite,” says the man. 

“You’re not alone,” I say to the baby; wildfire smoke, the smell of roses, shade’s rustling shadows all floating around us. 

Enjoying the leaf-stained-green morning light on my skin, I think, “A baby — the most pure, precious thing — brought into this damned world. How will it fare?” And then my mind wanders to the children I’ll have someday and how we’ll be in this fight together. 

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