The Walking Panic Attack

GRACE PANETTA

A few weeks ago, Jack Kelly and I went on an exploratory mission to Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, a suburb of Worcester mostly made up of strip malls and liquor stores, to a debate tournament in order to prepare for Harvard. As the days before the Harvard tournament became fewer and fewer, the amount of preparation we had did not increase. Thus, Jack and I, in our never-ending mission to subject ourselves to as much stress and extra work as possible, took it upon ourselves to fact-find for the rest of the team and make ourselves feel more ready. The formidable Max Kelly, who had sacrificed her Saturday to enable our mission, had been able to observe us in our last round. As she was driving us to some post-debate comfort food at Ted’s Montana Grill in the equally scenic town of Framingham, she inquired only in the way both a journalist and a psychology major could,

“Grace, can I ask you a question? And you can totally say, ‘nope, none of your damn business’, if you want, I’ve just been wondering, are you on medication for anxiety?”

“Well, no, but I probably should be.” All three of us laughed, knowing the answer was an irrefutable yes.

A seemingly universally accepted truth is that just taking some time away from the thing that causes stress will reduce it. For some people, stepping into the woods, heating up a mug of tea, or meditating for five minutes brings them into a realm of tranquility where they instantly forget all their problems, all their quotidien stressors, and can after the mug is empty and the five minutes is up, snap right back into the world refreshed with the veil of clarity. I have always found this idea absurd. How can you neglect all outside influences and have a isolated moment of complete introspection that somehow takes away or re-frames the cause of your stress? In ninth grade, we began every health class with meditation. Having to close my eyes and be alone with my thoughts was, and still is, the most anxiety-inducing thing I can imagine. In practice, meditation is synonymous with an invitation for my worries, thoughts, and questions to have a gathering in my mind, where they stay up all night drinking Bourbon and coming up with new ways to trouble me. The silence, the magic of being one with nature that Henry David Thoreau describes in Walden was lost on me every time I ventured into the woods behind Endicott College for a run with the Waring cross country team. With every step and every ragged breath I took in the crisp silence of the forest, my mind was filled, like an overflowing bathtub, with more worries, thoughts, and questions.

It was around the beginning of sophomore year, after I entered an elimination round for the first time, that I realized that debate could offer me more than just an intellectually stimulating weekend hobby and a boost to my college resumé. It could become a place where I could achieve self-actualization, earning approval from others and from myself. Some would presume it would be discovering this new passion, a new and dependable source of confidence and pride that brought me peace. But to get to true peace, I have to immerse myself in as much misery and angst as I possibly can. I like to delude myself by imagining Grace the wonder-debater who can bounce out of bed at 5:30 AM, spend the day debating her heart out and maybe pick up a trophy or two on the way, and then snap back into her everyday life, just how people can snap out of a 5-minute meditation. Yet the reality is that my agonizing quest for peace infiltrates every aspect of my life. I practice rebuttals in my head while waiting in line at the DMV and play out different crossfire scenarios while I’m doing my makeup in the morning. At the risk of it sounding like the ravings of a lunatic to all fellow passengers, I shamelessly time, in a not very subtle whisper, my cases and answers-to while fifteen minutes away from boarding a flight at the airport. I fight schoolwork looming like the predictions of a doomsday cult over my head, taunting me more and more for every second I spend pushing aside homework to read just one article, or make two edits to my case. And I choose to spend most tournaments, as Jack so eloquently puts it, as “Grace the walking panic attack,” swinging violently from catatonic one second to panicking at 500 words a minute the next. Why anyone would inflict this sort of emotional and mental suffering on themselves can be only be explained by what happens once the door to my round closes. Once I press start on my timer, my eyes locked on the judge and my opponent’s eyes locked on me, my fingertips hovering over the first of five or ten pieces of evidence I will read in the next four minutes, the balance I have been striving for weeks in advance is struck.

Judge ready, opponents ready, partner ready? Alright let’s begin. Starting off on my opponent’s first contention I have three main responses…

Those words are that step into the woods, the first sip of hot tea. Some say peace is being able to focus on what matters and forget all of the insignificant things that we allow to trouble us. I only find peace when speaking with an urgency so severe I swear my heart stops, forgetting to breathe and forgetting to blink under the fluorescents with someone’s mom or some college student being the only person to see it. I find peace when there is a minute and five seconds left and I have an entire contention to refute, because in that moment, there are no small worries. The things that constantly taunt me are silenced, pushed aside. It is life or death, only fifty seconds now left to show three logical fallacies and turn two pieces of evidence. If peace is prioritizing what’s important, I have found it, because in that moment, refuting every syllable of my opponent’s case is what I will do, even if it means suffering respiratory collapse.

When people say, “You must love the sound of your own voice,” they usually mean it in a negative sense. But when all I hear are my own words, and all I see are the numbers flashing on my timer, that is what I love the most. Hearing nothing from my mind, nothing from the past or the future, only the urgency and intensity that increases other people’s blood pressure, is what brings me that place of stillness inside, that inner harmony that everyone seeks in some way.

After our double octo-final round at Emory, as Charlotte and I were waiting for the judges to give us their decisions, a series of ambulances went by outside the Emory campus, muffled sirens echoing the same five-note sequence.

“Hey Grace, that’s what you sound like when you speak,” she teased, poking me in the arm.

“Is that a good or a bad thing?” She paused.

“I think its good.”

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