Memories Like Velvet: Fear and Panic in Childhood

By Claire Lynch 05/21/19

Knowing that it’s “an emotional thing” doesn’t help much when I’m going through the anxiety and the terror and the fear in me, wondering if it will ever go away.

Young woman lying on grass with eyes closed, relief from anxiety, panic attacks in childhood
Sometimes I think that the world is nice and sometimes I wonder what it’s all about. I can’t take it when people scream, or when pans crash to the floor. Photo by Sarah Comeau on Unsplash

I listen to the radio mornings while I’m getting breakfast and I hear all of this bad news. I don’t like it. It’s too much. Too sad, too violent. Not my thing.

All I can say is I’m glad these things don’t happen around me. Then people would really be sorry.

I mean, the other day I had a dentist appointment. I was scared and jittery and I’d thought about calling the whole thing off. Of course my dentist is a man. He could have started right in, slipping his hand along my legs, up around my thighs and that would have been that.

And Saturday I had to go shopping. Needed some shampoo and conditioner and things like that. I was sixth on line and there was only one cashier so it was taking forever. I felt the sweat build up then drip down my face in little droplets but I don’t think anyone noticed.

The skinny lady ahead of me turned sideways once but I think that was to see the price on these furry little doggies hanging down that the store was trying to get rid of fast. I don’t think she was too impressed because it didn’t take her long to read the tag and turn forward again. To wait, bored, wait her turn.

Meantime I kept shifting from foot to foot and back again but so did everyone else so I felt like part of the crowd.

As I kept hopping around I kept praying that no one ahead of me would get grumpy and start a fight with the cashier because, slow as she was, it was one of my days and I would have burst right out crying. I can’t help it. People say “stop it” and they think that’s so easy to do but it ain’t. Just being around people fighting and cussin’ gets me going and once that starts there’s no telling what’ll happen next. It’s what I call unpredictable.

It’s one of those emotional problems, that’s what they call it. All I know is when things are calm, I’m okay. But once people get to fussing, it touches off something inside — sort of a frightened part — and I get hysterical.

Like the time Jessica and I were playing some music. Things were good — we had raided the refrigerator and gotten pretzels and Diet Cokes and everything we wanted when all of a sudden her parents burst in the front door yelling at the top of their lungs. It was a fight between them, I knew that, but that didn’t stop the upset that started rising.

I tried telling myself that it was nothing, that it wasn’t my fault or Jessica’s but sure enough I felt the lump in my throat grow bigger and bigger and lodge itself right smack where I didn’t want it. My hands grew clammy and I got up and walked around.

Jessica could tell that something was going on, something was definitely brewing. She asked, “What’s up?” but when I tried to respond the words just didn’t come out right. Sounded like I was talking backwards.

Meantime they kept at it and I got frantic. Did they always fucking talk this way? They glanced over at us girls and I thought they knew something was wrong, thought they could tell I wasn’t right, but I guess since I didn’t show any outward sign, they couldn’t tell. They weren’t perceptive.

They just kept going so Jessica called them to come quick and then — then — they knew that something was up so they stopped yelling at each other’s foolishness and insanity and concentrated on me and kept holding my hands asking what was wrong. I couldn’t even begin to explain.

After a while of no yelling and peace and quiet, I came back to reality. I calmed down. My distress sure scared the hell out of them and out of me. Knowing that it’s “an emotional thing” doesn’t help much when I’m going through the anxiety and the terror and the fear in me, wondering if it will ever go away. Then wondering if this thing is a keeper. I don’t want it to be a keeper. Go away, I say to myself and sometimes out loud. Go away and don’t come back again. It’s a nice sentiment but the reality is that the peace, quiet, and calm don’t last. They never do.

Last year and the year before that I thought drinking some beers would help the anxiety — so I drank myself senseless — but the beers didn’t help at all. The high just made me feel paranoid and during the lows I’d feel even more depressed than before I started drinking. So that was that. No more beers, I said to myself. It was a horror giving it up and going through the feelings. Going through the terror.

Will this always be with me?

Will “e” always mean “emotional” to me or will there come a time when, someday down the road, when I’m all grown up and working and thinking of other things, will the letter “e” represent anything else to me other than emotional? Will I maybe think of “enterprising” or “entrepreneurial” or even “evergreen”?

Perhaps, but I doubt it. I think that my first thought will be “emotional.” And if you say “what’s an ‘a’ word,” I’ll always say “alcohol.” Hey, it’s the hand I was dealt. It’s the genes I got or maybe, just maybe I was conditioned to be fine-tuned. Sensitive is what some people call it.

Some people react so strangely when they find out what’s wrong. They think it’s either imagined or it isn’t that bad. So they smile or wave or talk condescendingly to me. They use simple words and they try to placate me, and when the waves of panic are still riding over me I look at them like they’re crazy. Can’t they even imagine what sheer terror is like?

In front of Jessica’s parents my anxiety passed eventually. It rode its course. I breathed again, normally, and the clamminess began to subside. They still looked at me funny, like Jessica’s friend here is a bit of an oddball but I looked at them funny, too, because why would they walk into their home yelling and screaming like some fucking idiots? Besides, I know what’s wrong with me. It’s emotional.

Sometimes I think that the world is nice and sometimes I wonder what it’s all about. I can’t take it when people scream, as I already told you, or when pans crash to the floor. Or when a balloon bursts. When several balloons burst at the same time it’s not good. Not good at all.

I hate it when we’re driving along nice and smooth and someone gets too close to our car and we hit the brakes hard, hard, hard; the screech of the tires on the road just gets right under my skin.

Backed up lines on parkways? Traffic stopped on New York bridges? Especially when we’re at the highest point on the bridge — no longer going up and not yet heading down? That damn pinnacle is not my favorite place to be.

I imagine all of us dangling over the side of that metal bridge with each one of us holding on with one hand, holding on for dear life and that sweat breaks out once again as I concentrate so hard to hold on and wait, wait, wait for someone to come along and rescue us. And I know it’s my overactive imagination at work, but why do the pictures it paints have to be so damned vivid?

Walking along from one house to another when suddenly a lawn mower starts up so loudly I jump and cover my ears. Talk about breaking the sound barrier. That’s how it seems to me, anyway. I freeze in my tracks but then realize I’m not getting anywhere at all so I carry on, wondering why it is that a silent lawn mower can’t be made or at least a lawn mower that’s nice and quiet? That would be good. That shouldn’t be too hard to invent.

I like the Fourth of July because everything looks so pretty with the sky all lit up like that with the pyrotechnics going off in various designs but I get so scared when a cherry bomb or something goes off next door. I just have to cry. I can’t help it.

Noises aren’t the only things. Flashing lights set me off, too, like the time we had a school dance on a Friday night and someone hit the ceiling lights and suddenly those strobe lights were flashing, flashing, flashing and I know those disco lights were meant to add a certain ambiance to the party but my head started spinning and I had to just get out of there. Fast.

It’s a weird thing. But the good times are good times. I like looking at flowers out in the backyard so closely, I want to squint to see every inch of them. Velvet they feel like.

I love running around with my dog Penny, spinning and twirling and feeling the grass cool beneath my feet while an airplane flies gently overhead. You could call that one of my good days. It’s peace, quiet, and feeling comfortable. I call it progress. I’ll take it.

I guess for once I feel I’m as free as the birds I see gliding overhead and I know there’s nothing to cry over and nothing to be afraid of anymore.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Claire M. Lynch received her B.A. in English from Hofstra University and her M.A. in English from New York University. A public relations manager in New York for 22 years, Claire M. Lynch has published four ebooks on Amazon and Kindle and has had numerous freelance articles published in The New York Times and Newsday. A native New Yorker, Claire M. Lynch now lives near the Atlantic Ocean in North Carolina. Friend of Bill W.