Jim Croce and the 6 Train

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© Angela McMichael

Panic attacks suck. Sorry if prefer a more hygienic description, but there isn’t one in my experience. If you’ve had or have them, I don’t need to qualify my statement. If you haven’t had one, I can’t qualify it. As such, I stand with my opening statement then, since it basically covers all the bases.

I’ve suffered with PA’s for years, so it’s nothing new. I have also ridden trains for years, so that is also nothing new. But a few months ago, I started having PA’s on trains. That is new.

And most unwelcome.

Part of what makes panic attacks so bloody difficult to navigate is that you don’t often get a warning (hello, the operative word is ATTACKS).

No warning, no prep. No prep, no victory.

There is a complex system at work when a person has a panic attack, and I’ll not go into it now, but if you don’t suffer from them, you need to understand that it’s not a simple matter of thinking or not thinking certain thoughts. Neither is getting out of one once you’re in it. It’s like having someone pull out in front of you in high-speed traffic. Having a panic attack is like getting thrown into a fan that’s on its highest setting. You really just hope to find all the pieces of yourself again on the other side of the what-seems-like-eighty-seven fan blades. It’s no joke. Someone in the brain pulls the fire alarm like that kid in 9th grade who causes the entire school to have to evacuate just so he can get out of gym class.

I’m on my train(s) weekly, for the most part, and I’ve been having these attacks consistently. When they hit varies, but not if. First week it was at 50th St. Actually, the second week, too. The next it started a stop earlier, and the next it started before I ever got on the subway – a few stops shy of Penn Station on the regional rail. That was extra troublesome because – not that it matters a fig, but – it wasn’t underground, it was sunny, I was by the window, I was enjoying both my ride and my book (A Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl). But again, there’s no rhyme or reason for panic attacks. Especially not reason. (Well, there are reasons they happen. I mean that their sudden appearance is often not logical.)

The battle has continued. Each week, I assume it won’t happen again – that I’ve gotten whatever bug it was out of my system, and the glitch is managed. Each week, so far, I’ve been wrong again. I go with a plan, I do what I can to both avoid and manage an attack – and it all goes right out the (immovable) window when one hits.

I have complex PTSD, and as such, I don’t like having my earbuds in in many situations; I don’t like not being able to hear everything that’s going on around me. It’s an unfortunate side effect of hyper vigilance, and overriding it is counterproductive. Even so, this week I decided to try turning up the volume and letting my eyes work as my ears. It bothered me for a bit, but it also seemed to help a little. I still got hit with a PA, but I made it several stops farther before it hit. Progress, I think.

On my way back downtown, I decided I needed to try the loud music approach from the beginning. I stood on the downtown platform of the 6 train, anxious about just the thought of plugging my ears. And then I reasoned that the alternative was yet another PA on a train, and so I decided to try. You seldom get different results by doing the same (unsuccessful) thing. Buds in, volume up, the train came barreling in to the station, and “Alabama Rain” started playing. My first impulse was to hit Shuffle to get a different tune. Jim Croce is one of my all-time favorites, but it hardly seemed the right vibe for my current situation. And then I realized it was actually the perfect one.

“Okay, Jim,” I thought to myself, stepping into the crowded car, “let’s you and me take a ride on the 6 and see what transpires.”

My dad and I were out of sync in plenty of ways when I was growing up, but music gave us a common language. When I was little, he introduced me to many of his favorites, and this has proven to be a Trojan horse of the best kind. He’d get out the big bulky headphones – honestly, in preschool, they felt about like a football helmet, he’d plug those suckers in to the shiny silver-fronted stereo system, fire up a vinyl, and I would get lost in the world being piped into my little ears. I was enveloped by the pluck of guitar strings, the group hug of harmonies, and the whispery echoes of notes held for a full four count. Time in a Bottle was one of my most-requested albums, and – it turns out – became a safe haven of sorts for me.

I didn’t know until after the first few bars that Jim’s voice and the soundtrack of my early childhood would be the thing that would tame the wild beast inside for the train. Maybe I should’ve known, I guess, but I’ve never really experienced anything from my younger years as being comforting or soothing. I didn’t realize what a safe space his music had been for me as a kid until its old, familiar notes strummed their way to the Off switch of my anxiety on my way out of East Harlem. At this time in my life when I’ve been sifting through rubble, I found a gift that, in a way, I haven’t opened until now. I’ve listened to a lot of that earlier music all my life and it’s on my iPod to this day (though, I never did add The Carpenters, Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson. Sorry, Dad). The unopened gift isn’t the music, per se, but the safe space within it. It’s the realization that I have had a Quiet Room inside me all along, I just never knew it – never knew it was there or that I actually had the keys – until that moment. Yes, I have used music to help me mentally shift gears zillions of times (why else even have an iPod or music library?). I’m talking about a different kind of space, and a different type of help.

(And to my Christian friends whose fingers are twitching at your keyboards to tell me the virtues of worship music, etc, that is a different post for a different day and I promise it will come. For now, rest in knowing I do know. It is well, I promise.)

I think there are (almost) always treasures to be found in rubble, if we’re willing to face and sort through it. I get why we sometimes aren’t. Sometimes, you come out of that tornado cellar, see the flattened landscape – your dreams wrapped around the tree a mile away – and it’s just too much. The best you can do is take a breath, walk away, and build a new life from the basement up – preferably in a part of the country that doesn’t invite natural disasters. But sometimes, even with your life scattered across three thousand acres, you want – need, maybe – to dig through the ruin and find the salvageable, tangible proof that your life before this moment wasn’t nothing. That it isn’t nothing now.

I don’t know when I’ll have a normal train ride again. Honestly, I have one in a few hours and I’m already anxious because this has been so unpleasant for a while. I do know going forward, though, that the uninvited tussle with panic attacks on trains has given me something I wouldn’t trade. I don’t know why it had to come in this way – I’d much prefer it had just come during one of the thousands of times I’ve listened to “Alabama Rain” prior, doing everyday things. Maybe it didn’t come any of those times because I didn’t need it right in any of those moments, I don’t know. It did come in a moment when I needed it badly and didn’t expect it at all, and perhaps that is the greater point.

Personally, I believe in God and I believe that God’s timing is perfect – though I will be the first to tell you that I GREATLY question that “perfect” timing at points (and by “question” I mean that I shake my fists, or sob, or swear about it. Sorry if that offends – just keepin’ it real). Dad’s gift of the safe space of Jim Croce – no, the safe space my dad had created for me as a little girl via headphones and pleasant music – came at exactly the moment when I needed it most and was, apparently, most ready to receive and utilize it.

Maybe God even planted the Jim Croce seeds in me as a preschooler for that moment I stepped onto the 6 train at age 47. I can’t know either way, but I do know God threw me a lifeline and it came through my earbuds. Maybe “Alabama Rain” is my magic feather (a la Dumbo) for now – I don’t care. I can tell you that I have a new playlist just for the train, and that “Alabama Rain” is the first song on it.

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