Four years ago, I woke in the middle of the night unable to breathe. My heart was beating furiously and no amount of thinking could slow it down. Tim Russert had just died and heart attacks, like shark attacks, were everywhere in the news. Instead of immediately calling 911, I did what most men do; I nudged my wife awake and asked her if she thought I should call 911. After a half-hour of sleepy deliberation, and putting aside the thoughts of the shame I would feel if I got the paramedics out of their bunks if I wasn’t actually having a heart attack, I called.
“Sirens on or off?”, the dispatcher politely asked me. Like the old smoking or non.
“Off.”, I said. I didn’t want screaming alarms waking my children.
Then the medics came, silently like Sandberg’s fog, down my street and up the front steps into my living room. Big burly men with shaved heads, wearing thick black boots and blue cargo pants with tape, scissors and purple nitrile gloves stuffed into their leg pockets. I sat on my couch as they bundled around me, strapping the necessary devices to my body. After a few moments of silence, they told me I had a “textbook” heartbeat.
“We could transport you if you wanted us to. Your choice.”, they told me. I declined, but went to my doctor first thing the next day.
Like my heartbeat, I had a textbook case of anxiety. A panic attack had caused my distress. I was given a prescription for lorazepam, to take as needed.
Years later, I don’t need the meds anymore. I have other meds now. That’s a different story. But my anxiety still persists. Not the lightning bursts of fear and paralysis I used to get. More like a slow, dull headache that I can never fully get rid of.
I know my anxiety comes from letting thoughts get the best of me. From my practice of Buddhism, I know that all thoughts are transient and that by attaching myself to them, I’m causing myself great suffering. I know this. But still.
Most of my anxious thoughts come to me when I’m doing something that should be an antidote to anxiety: running.
I wake most weekday mornings at 4:30 am, creep downstairs in the dark, and make coffee. I pull on my running gear and by 5 am I’m on the treadmill at my local YMCA. My thoughts, like my feet, start moving. Soon, I’m going down a David Foster Wallace-style rabbit-hole of doubts and questions, with existential footnotes, that I’ll never be able to answer. For example:
Did I unplug the coffee maker before I left for the gym? Because if I didn’t my house will burn down while I’m in the sauna and my family will die and it will be my fault.
And where are the kids’ lunchboxes? And is the little synthetic ice pack that goes in their lunchboxes that keeps their food cold (and that melts and turns gooey every day) back in the freezer to resolidify for today’s lunches? Because if its not then I can’t pack them any perishable food like the tuna fish I had planned and then they’ll have to buy their lunch at school but they can’t because they don’t have any money on their school lunch accounts and the lunch lady doesn’t take cash like the lunch ladies used to when I was a kid and I don’t have any cash in my wallet anyway and it’s only Tuesday and I don’t get paid until Friday so my kids just won’t eat today.
Is my middle-school daughter’s cell phone charged because if it’s not and it’s raining and she has to walk home from school because basketball practice is cancelled and she forgot her jacket and a car pulls up next to her and then what?
Speaking of cellphones, is my wife’s cell phone charged? Because the gas gauge on her car is broken and it will cost $400 that we don’t have to fix it and sometimes she doesn’t reset the trip mileage on the odometer when she puts gas in like she’s supposed to because that’s the only way we can keep track of how much gas is in the car and she could break down again like the time she did on the highway when the car didn’t gradually slow down but just stopped and luckily there were no kids in the car but there could have been and the forward momentum carried her to the shoulder even though she was going uphill and then she had to call Triple-A but our membership expired for non-payment and we didn’t have enough money in our checking account to renew so she had to call her parents and they put the renewal on their credit card and then Triple-A finally came and put some gas in her car and she was able to get to work without being killed.
And why hasn’t Sallie Mae called me lately? Like a jilted lover, when she gives me the silent treatment I know trouble is brewing. There’s definitely a Customer Service Associate sitting in a cubicle in an air-conditioned building in Mumbai drawing up the legal documents necessary to start garnishing my wages, which means my employer and probably my friends will find out that I’m a defaulter and that will cause me even more shame that I don’t have a boat or a camp or a second home or a big house with a pool in the backyard and I’ll start to feel like a failure even though my kids are healthy and happy and I have a roof over my head and a loving, amazing wife but that still won’t stop me from feeling embarrassed that I don’t have a 42-inch plasma TV hanging on my wall or that my house is too small to invite people over because my mud room and my living room are the same room and even if I did invite people over I probably wouldn’t have anything to serve them because I’m always broke even though I have a college education and a good job and the grocery store where I used to kite checks changed their policy and now they treat checks like a debit and so I don’t invite anyone over, or email, or even call them anymore.
And I’m thinking all these things, thumping along, trying to focus on SportsCenter so I can find out how many points Carmello scored last night, which is what a man should be doing, really. Or thoughts similar to these, depending on the day. And it’s not even 5:10 am.
Lately I’ve been trying to reconcile my pervasive anxiety with my zombie obsession. Like the rest of America, my wife and I are enthralled with, and possibly addicted to, The Walking Dead. Our habit is to put the kids to bed and then snuggle under the down comforter with our MacBook, headphones, and streaming Netflix. I go to sleep thinking of bloody organs being ripped from living flesh and the efficient, lethal beauty of the crossbow. If anything, The Walking Dead has taught me to kill my zombies quietly.
I know the zombies aren’t real, but sometimes I wish they were. Real-world anxiety cripples me, but zombie anxiety I could deal with. Zombies would simplify things, right down to the essentials: food, water, shelter, crossbow. Zombies would force me to make choices. Zombies would give me the opportunity to rise above my station in life. To excel. To become extraordinary. All the running and the rowing and the kettlebell swings and the burpees would finally pay off. All my anxiety would have a diamond-tipped purpose. To survive and not to perish.