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Lost in the Dark City of a Panic Attack

The anxiety weasel in my chest gets ahold of me and whispers baseless lies in my ears.

“Where the hell am I?” I stop on the sidewalk and look down at Google Maps on my smartphone. The little pulsing blue dot that’s me is all by itself in the middle of a huge grid of white rectangles and gray lines. No thick blue line, no arrow pointing my way. I am in stunned disbelief that my electronic lifeline has failed, and I look up only to be greeted with pure noise. A tidal wave of Manhattan night washes over me—glaring lights, honking roaring traffic, crowds rushing, heads down. They know where they’re going. They won’t be late. I will, if I ever get there at all.

I’m not frantic yet. I take deep 10-count inhales filled with the smell of the East River wind, truck exhaust, Italian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern food, and let it all out with 15- count exhales, and, repeating a prayer to the Google gods that the blue arrow will come back to my phone, I do it again. But the panic attack weasel is awake and scratching hard to get a handhold in my chest. He hisses that every count sequence is another minute I’m going to be late to the only reason I’m in New York at all.

That reason means the world to me. Tonight I’m invited to a pre-opening dinner at a Chelsea gallery installation honoring the artists from all over the country that created a nationally televised ground-breaking secret project of politically controversial conceptual art pieces that were used as props and set decorations, from 1995-’97, on the TV show I ran at the time. In my 18 years in the business, there’s very little that gives me more pride than that two-year clandestine art operation on Melrose Place.

My chest weasel bursts out laughing. “Proud of what, you hack? What did you create? Zero. Nada. So you let them sneak weird junk onto the set of the TV show you ran. So what? You think doormen for soap operas get medals?” By now, he’s gnashed into my chest and pulls it tight around him. My heart beats faster, and I can see he’s right. What am I doing here? I should have stayed home in Georgia with my family who needs me, and the yard that needs raking and the dog that needs walking.

Regret and fear flatten everything in my head to asphalt: memories, plans, ape brain, lizard brain, pea-brain, and all human synapses but the dark impulses bolted back in a dungeon corner straining at the leash with my self-loathing and angry habits. Now they slither free and turn consoling, singing in happy harmony with the chest weasel, “Go home, you silly man. But first, get yourself to a bar. A nice one, you deserve that. Sit down, have a few drinks and forget all this, especially your sobriety crap. That 16 years sober is the reason you, a grown man in his freaking 60s, has nerves so fried he can’t even handle getting a little lost. The doc diagnosed ADHD around then too, right? He put you on all those pills. When all you really needed were people to give you some space, some time to think with a couple of shots of quality vodka on the rocks. Make it three shots; you don’t want to have to call the bartender back too soon. And three olives, free-floating – not pre-skewered with a red cellophane-topped toothpick. A small china dish of cashews on the side would be nice.”

“No! Stop it! Get out of there!” I yell out loud and slap at my chest. Desperate, alone, and forgetting that this whole mess started with the question, “Where the hell am I?” I don’t know or care where I am or that I’m out in public. I repeatedly hit and push hard against my sternum with the heel of my hand and down toward my gut, trying to break the weasel’s hold. And breathe my 25 counts, each silent count in my empty head a prayer to end this particularly vicious panic attack.

Look, I’m not saying that the next time you see some crazy person like me jerking around, yelling at invisible enemies, and hitting himself in the middle of the sidewalk, that you should stop and offer help. Just hold a good nonjudgmental thought for him as you walk by. Chances are, if he’s not a broker having an earpiece cell phone meltdown, he’s just someone who has just realized he forgot to take his afternoon meds and is trying to get his bearings. And he’ll probably get there. I did.

Still breathing on count, I make it back to the F train entrance where I began, and the blue arrow and thick line to the gallery reappear. Fifteen minutes ago I had stepped out from here feeling smart and prepared. Head back and smiling, I had only glanced once at my phone map before I strode off in the completely wrong direction. Now humbled, head bent to the map, I make my way to the Red Bull Studios gallery. When the phone says I’ve arrived, I look up.

They’ve recreated the Melrose Place apartment arch and gate at the front of the gallery. And there is a doorman (the weasel’s right, no medal). They check my name against a list, and the doorman opens the gate to the gallery filled with cheerful hip, smart people, clinking glasses and, oh great, an open bar. I finally made it here, but I’m not sure I can step in.

Next blog: The following day is the official actual opening night of the installation, attended by New York art big shots, tons more hip, smart people, and the press. I drag friends with me for safety, but unfortunately I’m asked to speak.

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