When we were younger, my little brother used to have panic attacks. They weren’t caused by anything — not being left alone, not darkness, not heights or crowds or closed in spaces — and we could never find anything in particular that triggered them.
We tried everything. My mom took him to body doctors first and they checked his heart, his lungs, his nerves, his reflexes and he was proclaimed to be in perfect health. Then the head doctors examined his mind, his brain, his thoughts, his emotions and he was proclaimed to be in perfect health. Still the panic attacks came.
First he’d pant, then his skin would become sticky and clammy, then he’d clutch at his chest like an actor miming a heart attack. He’d rock back and forth, pull at the collar of his shirt frantically. It was terrifying to watch because no matter how I tried, there was nothing I could do to make them stop.
I couldn’t breathe for him. I couldn’t talk him through it. All I could do was sit there next to him and wait.
He was young then (maybe sixth grade?) but too old for us to be in school together anymore and I wasn’t used to not being able to check in on him any time I wanted — or needed — to. When we were in elementary school together he was just down the hall. I’d stick my head in his kindergarden classroom after music class, I’d find him on the playground a recess, check on him (and steal his snack cakes) when we were in the cafeteria for lunch. And each day after school, we’d meet outside the building and get on the school bus together. I could watch him then. I could take care of him.
As we got older and our age separated us in grades and schools, it unnerved me that my brother wasn’t just down the hall. Was he making friends? Was he being bullied? Was he happy?
Now we aren’t simply in schools across town from each other, we’re in apartments across state lines … with other states in between us. He’s in his junior year at the University of North Carolina, I’ve settled into a job in Nashville. He’s no longer just down the hall — not in school or at home. And it is even more unnerving than before. Is he making friends? Is he being bullied? Is he happy?
I asked him those things last week when he stopped to visit me in my new home on his way south to see some friends in Louisiana. We had gone to dinner and then walked over to a small carnival that was glowing from a parking lot just outside of down town.
It was one of those unbearably hot nights — the air was so thick with heat that not even the evening breeze brought with it any relief. Instead, it felt like a Saint Barnard was breathing on your face.
“You worry too much,” he’d said to me that night, which was comical because my brother worries more than any person on the planet. “Things are good. I’m good. Life is good.”
“The end?” I’d pressed. “You don’t feel like sharing tonight?”
“Tonight?” he said and chuckled a bit as we walked by one of the game booths with large stuffed animals dangling from it’s canopy and people shouting as they threw tiny rings around bottle necks. “When do we ever really share?”
I’d started to animatedly object when I realized … he was right. For all of the years, all of the times my brother and I spent together, we rarely talked about heavy issues. We did when necessary. When the other needed help or advice or had managed to get themselves in trouble so deep they couldn’t manage a rescue alone. We’d always shared stories and laughter, even tears. But did we actually talk about things? Not often.
“Huh,” I’d said, my thoughts drowned out by the whimsical music that floated from the ferris wheel as it circled. “I never realized –”
“Because it wasn’t important,” Brian said, cutting me off. “We never really talk about stuff because we don’t have to. I know when something is wrong with you; you know when something is wrong with me. And we fix it for each other. Or if we can’t fix it, we soften the blow. That’s just how it is with you and me, it doesn’t have to be normal or make sense. Face it, we are rarely either of those things.”
He was right of course and I knew it. My mother always told people we are a odd pair. That we seemed to understand each other without ever speaking out loud. We are so very different, but balance each other’s short comings. Like the Tim Burton version of the Berenstain Bears, minus the overalls and the polka dots. Dark but wholesome. Sweet but odd. Easy but complex. And never what people expected.
A week after our trip to the carnival, I’m sitting in my apartment wondering if this is what a panic attack feels like. My throat is constricting, unshed tears are stinging my eyes, my heart is racing and it feels like there is an elephant taking up residence on top of my chest.
When I moved to Nashville in December I fully embraced living by myself for the first time. No parents, no siblings, no roommates and roommates boyfriends. Just me. If I wanted to cook dinner, I could make whatever I want. If I wanted to let dishes sit in the sink for four days, no one was around to tell me I should wash them. I could watch what I wanted on television, play the music I like as loud as I want … well, within reason. It was paradise.
But living alone means other things too. It means there’s no one around to fix your air conditioner when it breaks. There’s no one around to clean up water when it leaks. There’s no one there to kill the scary bug crawling across your kitchen counter. And sometimes, it’s lonely.
On the brink of my panic attack tonight in the middle of my flooded kitchen, my cell phone rings. It’s Brian. He has a story to tell me. And then another. And another. For two hours we talk. For two hours I don’t think about water or bugs or air conditioners. Instead, I laugh. And two hours later when I hang up the phone and return to deal with the umpteeth Great Flood, all signs of a panic attack are gone.
Some things you just don’t talk about. Some things you do. Some things you show.
You once thought of me
As a white knight on a steed.
Now you know how happy I can be.
Oh, and our good times start and end
Without a dollar one to spend.
But how much, baby, do we really need?