I’m not prone to panic attacks.
The last few times I’ve gotten panic attacks, it was for a remarkably good reason. Example: I was on the highway, and something was going terribly wrong.
The first time, I was in the center lane of Interstate 4 in Central Florida, and my car instantly died. Just like that, gone. There was a truck to my right, but mercifully it sailed past me and I was able to steer my car into the right lane, then the breakdown lane, without incident. My car was indeed dead. And as I sat there, trying desperately to start it, my heart was pounding furiously, and sweat had soaked my brow. But the crisis was over.
The second panic attack happened on U.S. 17/92 in Orlando. I was heading south in the right hand lane, and traffic was slow, so I moved to get into the center lane. As I did a woman in the left lane suddenly came charging toward me. We came very close to colliding, but I managed to quickly cut back into the right as she zoomed off. Again, nothing happened, but in those few seconds, I panicked.
I consider those pretty normal reactions to a potentially dangerous, even life threatening situation. It’s like being on a plane when it suddenly hits turbulence. We all get jittery, even panic a bit, when the turbulence lasts more than a few minutes. You’d either have to be the calmest cookie in the world, or in a coma, to avoid that kind of reaction.
No, for me, true, genuine panic attacks are different — and rare. They happen when you panic in a situation where, under normal circumstances, you never would; where there’s positively no reason to get scared.
But I did. And it happened in the weirdest place.
I was at the local YMCA, where I exercise every morning. I was in the locker room, wearing just a towel, and I walked into the steam room, for the first time. I sat down, in the sweltering heat … and then it happened.
A big burst of steam came pouring through the vents, blinding me. It blanketed the entire room. And in those few seconds , I had my first non-rational panic attack in a long time.
I jumped up and got out of there as quickly as I could. And I haven’t gone back in there since.
It wasn’t the heat that did it. I enjoy the hot, dry heat in the sauna quite a bit, and go in there daily without feeling the least bit uneasy. No, it was the steam room that got me worked up. And I know this sounds crazy, but I felt like I was locked in a gas chamber.
You’re right, that does sound crazy.
I was born in the early 1960s, two decades late for the Nazi gas chambers; and although I visited Poland two years ago, I never made it to Auschwitz, although there are daily tours that go there from Krakow. So I couldn’t even say I’ve been to a gas chamber and have a visual sense of what one looks like.
But for reasons I can’t even fathom, as I sat there in the steam room and as all that blinding steam poured from the vents, I truly felt scared — like I wouldn’t be able to get out of there, and that steam was going to suffocate me.
I have no idea why.
Maybe it was spurred in part by a subconscious empathy for a group that did experience this Holocaust. I don’t know. Maybe a sense of reincarnation?
When I was growing up — not to change the subject, but …. — I was raised in a non-religious family. Historically Protestant, my parents had no interest in religion and never taught me to pray or brought me to church.
For those conservative “values voters” out there who consider this a form of child abuse, you’ll be happy to know my parents’ values were fairly conservative nonetheless. My parents, father in particular, worshipped capitalism and lived by the philosophy of Keeping Up With The Jones. So I was raised to believe in hard work, getting a good education, selecting a profitable career, then owning a big home and new cars, taking at least two vacations a year to someplace nice. When I told my father at a young age that I wanted to be a writer, he was very positive — positive I’d fail, positive I’d starve all my life. But I’ve done pretty well, and he seems happy with my career choices at this late date.
An odd thing, though: throughout my middle and high school years, this non-religious kid growing up in a heavily Catholic city often got told I was more religious than I pretended to be. My teachers and classmates in particular informed me of this again and again: they told me I was Jewish.
Some of it was humorous, as when they told me my long nose, oval face and Eastern European looks (??) gave me away. But there were moments that were less fanciful and more depressing, including the time as a news reporter that I snuck into a closed union meeting. I was there to cover a vote on a contract calling for a salary cut. The local mill that employed these workers was in serious financial difficulty and the two owners — who were Jewish — insisted that a pay cut was the only way they could stay solvent. Two of the workers recognized me as being a reporter, and they were none too happy to see me; they accused me of being paid off by the mill owners to write negative articles about the union (I wish — I could have used the extra dough) and then told me to “go back to Israel where you belong.” Confronted with this kind of stupidity, I mostly kept silent.
Despite the city’s strain of anti-Semitism, I found myself increasingly drawn to Jewish writers — Franz Kafka, Jerzy Kosinski, Roland Topor, Arthur Miller. I think I related to their dark tales of social alienation — not as a Jew, since I was from a non-religious Protestant family – but, most truthfully, as a shy, withdrawn high school geek who probably had the central photo in the dictionary definition of “introverted.” I understood alienation, and experienced it, even if it was based more on social acceptance than religion. I was also drawn to the works of Jewish filmmakers like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, for similar reasons. I emphathized with the lonely, isolated nomads, outcasts and exiles in Polanski’s cynical films, and loved the neurotic schlemiels that Allen played, like Miles Monroe in “Sleeper,” who is so cowardly he gets beaten up by Quakers.
But for years, religious wasn’t as important to me, so I mostly ignored the subject. That’s changed for me: atheism doesn’t appeal to me, because it’s mostly against something, and not really a belief in anything. But at my age and having been raised with no religious instructions whatsoever, I feel like someone who suddenly decides to sample classical musical, but has no clue what to listen to.
So where do I go from here? That’s hard to say. I have thought about becoming Jewish and wondered, was it destiny all along? Maybe my old classmates and teachers recognized where I was headed, rather than who I was at the time, and just didn’t see the difference back then.
My Jewish friends have offered up some amusing comments when I mention the possibility of converting. Before I could say “Oy ve!” or belt out a line or two of “Hava Nagila,” at least one of them warned me that I’d have to give up eating shellfish. I think I’ll survive.
I haven’t gone down that journey yet, and who knows if I will. I have friends who insist that their Christian church would be perfect for me – particularly since, they insist, their church doesn’t have a political litmus test. If I wanted politics, I’d join one of the major parties; I don’t need to attend a church to get spoon fed my views. (Voltaire had it right when he said God created man in His image, and then man returned the favor).
And what would be my main reason for going down this path? To be a part of an extended family. For someone from a very small family, that’s important to me.
But sometimes I wonder if that gut level panic attack I had in the steam room wasn’t in some ways a psychic, even spiritual, connection, just my way of saying that my high school classmates and teachers may have been right all along, that I hadn’t fully recognized what they were seeing. Time will tell.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..