Note: In writing this story, I sought to provide some light entertainment while at the same time shedding some light on what is, for some of us, a pervasive threat underlying the physical toll of COVID-19: Anxiety.
We set off en masse to a restaurant nearby called The Carnivore where we have cocktails, then nibble from platters of, so help me, wildebeest, zebra, ostrich, and a few other exotic meats. After dining it’s back to the hotel bar for nightcaps.
It’s a weekday afternoon in 1991. I’m meeting Joani for lunch and stop by her real estate office on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica.
“Hey, hi,” she says when she sees me, “I’ll be ready in just a sec. Check this out.” I glance over her shoulder at her computer screen.
“Africa?” I ask.
“I’m signing up to go on a photo safari in Kenya,” she says.
“I want to go!” I’d recently decided it was time I take care of myself and stop waiting for someone else to complete me, and here was my chance to walk the talk.
“Fabulous! Oh my God, Barbara, we’ll have a ball! All you have to do is send in $50 to save your space.”
And that’s just what I do. I’m going to Africa! But not until we do a little shopping. Joani is a fashionista and I follow her lead. We head to Banana Republic — remember the original Banana Republic with live foliage, a hut, a stream, and a Jeep?! — and buy khaki pants, khaki shorts, khaki jackets with lots of pockets, oh, and pith helmets. And then Joani gets to say, “You know, this pith helmet is really pithing me off.” That’s Joani.
The following February, the day before our departure, I’m at home packing. Oprah is on TV but I’m barely watching. Then a young woman comes on and begins talking about what she calls the Course in Miracles and I find myself paying attention. It’s Marianne Williamson, she’s well spoken, charismatic, and intense, and she’s promoting her newly published book, “A Return to Love.” Could be the perfect reading material for the long flight ahead, so a couple hours later I jump in my car and head up to the nearest bookstore. There’s just one copy left on the shelf (the Oprah factor — instant bestseller!) and I quickly scan the flyleaf. Another woman approaches the shelf, doesn’t find what she’s looking for, sees the book in my hand and asks if I’m going to buy it. I am, and I do. At home I read a page or two, then tuck the book into my carry-on bag.
The next day, on the plane, I pull out the book and show it to Joani. She reads the flyleaf and nods…could be interesting. I put it back in my bag, and we each insert earplugs, don eye masks, and go to sleep.
After an overnight stop in London, we arrive in Nairobi. Our hotel might have been in L.A. There’s a pool, restaurants, all the comforts of home. I head to a little office off the lobby to change my money and notice an attractive stranger. He makes eye contact, smiles, and starts up a conversation. He’s rather dashing, curly salt and pepper hair, full beard. His name is Martin, and he makes small talk easy.
“Say, how about joining me for dinner tonight?” He has a British accent. Of course.
“Sorry, I’m with a friend and we just got here. I wouldn’t want to leave her behind on our first night.”
“No, no, of course not. Please, ask her to join us. I’m with friends as well.” Sounds good, and we make a plan to meet in the lobby at 6:00 p.m.
Joani’s game, but in the meantime, we’re scheduled to go on our first photo safari. Along with the four others in our group, we climb into the combi, an open-air vehicle from which we can shoot without obstruction but are instructed to stay within once we’re out in the wild. Our driver is young and charmingly cocky. He takes us to a shady little ravine where a lion has recently brought home dinner. In the bloody carcass, I can make out the hooves and striped head of a zebra. I’m furiously snapping away—the sun shining through the ribcage, the blood-stained whiskers—surely a once-in-a-lifetime photo op. Then we edge down a little slope and now we’re just a few yards away from the pride. The male has of course noticed us, and after a few moments he slowly gets to his feet and faces us directly. The driver casually throws the combi into reverse and backs up the slope, but the wheels begin to skid in the dirt. “I am going to die. I am going to be eaten by a lion,” I think. My knees are actually rattling against each other. Finally we gain purchase and beat a hasty retreat. I am shaken and stirred.
Back at the hotel, Joani and I dress for dinner, then head to the lobby. There is my new friend, Martin, surrounded by a group of, well, strapping young men. Turns out he’s a geologist on a field trip with 13 fellow geologists.
We set off en masse to a nearby restaurant, The Carnivore, where we have cocktails, then nibble from platters of, so help me, wildebeest, zebra, ostrich, and a few other exotic meats. After dining it’s back to the hotel bar for nightcaps and promises to meet up again in Amboseli, the next stop on our safari. And then it’s late; Joani and I go back to our room. Our wake up call is for 5:30 a.m.
Close to midnight, back in our room, I lie down on my bed, Joani falls fast asleep on hers, and then, wouldn’t you know, I feel the familiar rush of a panic attack coming on. Not surprising, all things considered: jet lag, a scare, meeting a dashing fellow adventurer, lots of strange meat, and maybe one too many drinks. But please, not now, not here! I decide I’ll try to journal my way thru it. After all, I know what it is, and I’m determined to get a grip on it before it gets out of hand. So I go into the bathroom, close the door, lower the toilet lid to use as a desk, take a seat on the floor, and begin writing. I write about how I know it’s a panic attack and that I’ll get thru it, I’m not going to die, but it just keeps accelerating, getting worse and worse until it’s hopeless, it’s out of control, and there I am alone in that tiny bathroom, an emotional, physical, and psychological mess. At around 3:30 a.m. I decide, “That’s it, I’m going home! As soon as the sun comes up I’m heading to the airport to jump on the first plane I can get to LAX where I’ll catch a cab to the emergency room!”
I have been anxiety-ridden, and I have been panic-stricken. Two very different things. Back in the 1970s, panic disorder hadn’t yet appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (or DSM, for those in the know), and it was actually my therapist who said she thought I was “just” having a nervous breakdown, which was kind of a relief because I was afraid I might be dying, or have brain damage from the recreational drugs I’d taken, or that maybe I was going crazy. Maybe I had crossed that invisible line from sane to insane, who’s to say? And then she, my therapist, said she’d be surprised if I wasn’t having a nervous breakdown considering all I’d been through. But that’s a different story.
People tend to confuse panic attacks with anxiety attacks. They think they’re having a panic attack when in reality they’re just having a really bad day and feeling stressed out. Sometimes panic attacks come out of the blue, unrelated to anything going on that day. Symptoms might include a galloping heartbeat, shortness of breath, and sweating palms, none of which happened to me. My panic attacks were different. Mine always felt like I was coming on to LSD. I know that because that’s exactly how I felt when I WAS coming on to LSD. My very first attack came on so suddenly I thought, “Wait a minute, did I drop a hit of acid and forget all about it?”
I probably had a couple dozen panic attacks over the course of two decades, which works out to about one a month. When they came on, I tended to run outside wherever I happened to be while inexplicably holding onto the top of my head as if to keep my brains in, then pace or run amok until it passed. Or, I would drive to the Cedars Sinai emergency room, park my car nearby and then sit, “just in case.” One time, I actually went inside and made it as far as an examination room where a doctor warned me that he could admit me to a psych ward on a mandatory 72-hour hold, but since I’d left my daughter with a neighbor, there was no way I could submit to that. So instead he gave me an Ativan, a prescription for more, and sent me on my way. I did start taking Ativan, as needed, and that sometimes worked, other times not, for one thing because in my panic I couldn’t remember if I’d taken one, or at the other extreme, how many I’d taken.
This time I’m afraid to take an Ativan because I’ve had so much to drink but eventually I do, then lie down on the bed again to wait for said sun to rise, and: I have a vision. I have a vision of everyone I know, in fact, and impossibly, everyone I’ve ever known — relatives, exes, teachers, coworkers, friends, even the kids of friends — as if we’re skydiving and they‘re all holding hands in a circle around me, and I can feel each of them beaming pure love at me and saying in so many words, without words, “It’s okay, we love you, and we’re not going to let anything happen to you.” And just like that — poof! — my panic attack dissipates.
But something feels very, very different. It’s almost impossible to describe…like a breaking through, what I would imagine it might feel like to awaken from a coma. I feel vibrant with life. My senses are heightened; it’s not that colors are brighter, but I see them. I share the details with Joani when she wakes up. Hey, maybe I experienced a miracle! Because in the opening pages of her book, Marianne Williamson describes a miracle as simply a shift in perception from one of fear to one of love. Apt in this case, certainly, but the word “miracle” embarrasses me, it sounds too — I don’t know — Godly, and I’m not religious; too woo-woo, and I’m not a New Ager. Whatever it was, good friend that she is, Joani just picks right up on my excitement, and we bond even more tightly over having gone thru something so extraordinary together. It’s as if the gods have smiled upon us and we’re surrounded by light. Everywhere we go and everyone we meet seems to glow with the glimmer of freaking fairy dust. Now I don’t want to leave at all; in fact, I want to stay longer.
On our last day, we’re out by the pool killing time before our flight home. I’m lounging on a deck chair and Joani is in the water making her way around the edge of the pool, then paddles over to me.
“Barbara, you won’t believe this! Those two girls over there,” and she points to a couple of young women at the other end of the pool, ”I just overheard them talking, and one of them had a panic attack last night! She called the concierge and they had her breathing into a paper bag and now she’s planning on leaving even though they just got here.”
I make my way over to this stranger and, briefly but emphatically, share my own experience.
”Don’t leave, stick it out, you’ll have a great time,” I say, and I give her an Ativan, Williamson’s book, my address, and ask her to keep in touch. Two weeks later I’m back in L.A. and I get a postcard from her: “Thanks so much for your advice. You were right. I stayed and had the time of my life!”
All in all, kind of miraculous on a couple counts, I think. Not to mention the 36 rolls of film I shot became the basis for a new career. But there’s even more: That was my LAST panic attack. That was 1992, and I have not had another one, not even a hint of one! A relief to be sure, but I can’t help wondering: Where’d they go?
So that was a near vacation from hell, and now fast forward to today, and COVID-19, and this staycation. I’m not anticipating a recurrence of my panic attacks, but I am very nervous. If I listen to too much news, my insides roil and turn to mush, my heart pounds, and I feel sick even though I’m not. So at 11:11 a.m. and 11:11 p.m. — it’s a thing, okay, and yes, I live in LaLa Land — I close my eyes and remember what I learned in Africa: A miracle is a shift from fear to love. It’s not about me; we’re all in this together — with each other and for each other. And then I take my Ativan.
Artist, writer, storyteller, spy. Okay, not a spy…I was just going for the rhythm.
I call myself “an inveterate dabbler.” (And my husband calls me “an invertebrate babbler.”) I just love to create one way or another. My latest passion is telling true stories live, on stage. Because it scares the hell out of me.
As a memoirist, I focus on the undercurrents. Drawing from memory, diaries, notes, letters and photographs, I never ever lie, but I do claim creative license when fleshing out actual events in order to enhance the literary quality, i.e., what I might have been wearing, what might have been on the table, what season it might have been. By virtue of its genre, memoir also adds a patina of introspection and insight that most probably did not exist in real time.