Tell us when to panic

sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behavior.

January 23, 2020

Five thousand miles from Wuhan, China, our office is abuzz.

A co-worker has now been home for two days with a mysterious ailment.

She’s upset because her doctor will not prescribe antibiotics until he sees how the illness is progressing. And she feels like warmed over horse dung.

The media, doing its usual job of panic-selling, is couching it’s reports on the latest Coronavirus update in quasi-apocalyptic terms. Twitter is doing its job of amplifying the growing panic and feeding us memes of beer bottles.

Of course, as a person with an anxiety condition and PTSD, I’m consuming a steady diet of panic reporting, trying to remain emotionally detached while mentally calculating if I have enough food and bottled water in the house to wait out a global pandemic.

And as I stare at the photos and memes churning from social media I wonder: who eats bats?

But seriously, listen up — as a dedicated follower of all things climate emergency, I can only worry about one global extinction event at a time, OK?

I think I’m getting swollen glands. I’ve just downed a multi-vitamin. Maybe some hot tea?

Nervously, Twitter scientists tell me that the virus can be spread to each other through coughing. Every damn person up here is coughing.

Look buddy, I’ve seen the movie ‘Outbreak’ as well as ‘Twelve Monkeys’ and ‘Contagious,’ and read ‘The Stand.

It strikes me at that moment: I work in a hospital.

OK, I’m in public affairs but just across the parking lot are sick people. We’re a veritable living stew of reduced resistance.

The world’s attention ricochets sharply from a burning Australia to the far east. In America, we’re distracted from the Kabuki theater of a presidential impeachment. In a world where dystopia is an everyday media experience, everyone suddenly wonders: now what?

In China, they’ve quarantined an entire city of 11 million — no one in or out. Imagine trying that in New York.

If you really want the whole scene in real time, US researchers have created this map. Go on, you know you want to see it. Look at it every 15 minutes for updates on your smart phone.

Sometimes I think America has been so amped up about so many things that we’re just waiting to panic. A few weeks ago, we were going to be at war with Iran until we weren’t. Before that, we were thinking North Korea could launch a nuclear weapon against the West Coast. Events move from one crisis to another and everyone wonders: which one will be the real deal? Which one will be the existential threat?

Again, I must remind myself that each person faces their own fate but so do nations and worlds. At an individual level, I think that by paying constant attention and figuring out the angles, I can avoid catastrophe. I’ve been doing it all my life thanks to a volatile family upbringing.

I know that’s an irrational belief, and yet that’s my coping mechanism and so many others’ as well. We don’t trust anyone, but we read everything. We say we’re comfortable with our fate but want to choose how we’ll meet it. We say we’re not afraid, but deep down inside we are terrified.

And, as if to make us even more frazzled, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists just pushed the hand of the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds from Midnight.

It almost seems as if events are calculated to keep us in continuous agitation. But I’m not paranoid. I think.

My panic clock is still a ways from Midnight

But I can hear the ticking.

A Brief Brush With Mortality

I was taking in a rare movie in a theater (‘1917,’ I highly recommend it) last Saturday and I noticed my vision was starting to get wonky. This isn’t unusual since I get optical migraines but, in this case, I was losing vision in one eye, not both.

In this case, my right eye was reacting as if I had stared directly into a flashbulb. A sort of silver, bluish haze was spreading through my field of vision. I covered that eye – my left was fine. I covered my left eye – nothing but splotch.

After 30 seconds of this, I started to panic – quietly – after all, we were in a movie theater. I told my wife what was happening, and she had suggested we go to the Emergency Room (ER). A few seconds later I noticed the vision in my right eye was clearing up, and, I wanted to see the rest of the movie.

I thought the incident was related to the optical migraines except in this case it affected only one eye – optical migraines affect both.

The next day, Sunday, I decided to Internet search what might have happened, and this was the first thing I found:

Amaurosis fugax is a temporary loss of vision, usually in just one eye, that lasts from seconds to minutes. It is also called episodic blindness. This is a rare problem. If it does happen, it can be treated to prevent a permanent loss of vision. It may also be a warning sign of something more serious, such as a stroke. Sudden blindness in one eye is an emergency.


My wife reminded me she had offered to take me to the ER and the offer still stood, but, really, who wants to go to the ER on a Sunday? And the next day was the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. So, I made a computer appointment for the earliest time available with my doctor, which was Jan. 29.

But an office staffer had read what happened and called me, urging me to go to the ER. To make a long story short, I landed up going in late Sunday afternoon after my doctor had added her urging to the growing chorus of people telling me to suck it up and go in.

I hate the ER. Sitting there among people horking up God-knows-what, for hours on end only to have some harried, overworked resident who doesn’t want to be there in the first place, tell you to go home and make a regular appointment with your doctor and wait for the thousand-dollar bill.

Fortunately, that was not my experience. I got in quickly and was wheeled into the CT scan room.

I’ve been to the ER several times in my life and I’ve always left with a clean bill of health. But in this case, I started wondering: what if I have a blood clot? What if I’m close to a stroke? My wife was worried, but being a practicing Stoic, I had to look at it this way: I was 57 and this is about the time your body starts to betray you and one needs to accept that.

It was also about Momento Mori.

Momento Mori (Latin for ‘remember you must die’) is one the key tenets of the philosophy of Stoicism, that states one should always consider their own mortality as a given and use that awareness to live one’s best life in the present. It also is constructed to free one from the fear of death that constrains so much of our will to live. Rather than spending one’s life risk averse, one should boldly go and achieve since none of us knows the hour of our death but knows that every minute of the day carries the possibility.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, on of the great pillars of Stoic thought said: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

For a more modern version, try Mel Gibson’s famous quote in the movie ‘Braveheart:’

“Every man dies, not every man truly lives.”

Leaving the doctor’s office earlier in the day, I had mocked having a stroke which my wife did not appreciate. Sitting under the CT scanner and having an extra scan taken that was not planned, had me thinking that perhaps this is the one time my luck runs out.

And if it did, what then?

I guess part of fighting various mental illnesses for so long as that as one ages with them, you get tired of the fight. At 57 the best parts of life are in the rear-view mirror and the future looks like shit: climate change chaos and a body breaking down. Not to mention a job that pays well but doesn’t challenge me in any way but a job in which I must remain due to the fact my boss and fellow employees have seen me at my worst and still accept me. Another employer may not. Sadly, it seems, the days of further hills to conquer are over. In addition, my body no longer tolerates high impact exercise: the last attempt left me crumpled in a pile clutching my knee while a host of mostly female twenty-somethings looked on in concern. I have, finally, lost the ability to experience joy in anything. Whether it’s the meds I take or the progression of my illness that have caused this, I know not, but that’s the situation I find myself in at this point. The best I get is experiential contentment, a decent night’s sleep and a good cigar.

As someone with an anxiety condition, I have a lot of fears and worries. When it comes to death, I find I have no fear – with some exceptions. If I fly, and the plane hits turbulence, I grip the seat and rediscover childhood prayers. In this case, it’s a question of how I want to die; certainly not plunging to the ground in terror from 30,000 feet. Or in a fire or being eaten by a shark. Dying on an operating table would be maintaining a family tradition.

When I had my first real invasive surgery as an adult – removal of my gall bladder in 2005, my then wife was surprised at how calm I was waiting to be wheeled in. In fact, I was jovial! I remember being wheeled into the operating room and noting the number of screens above me, quoted Kevin Costner from the awful movie ‘The Postman:’ “We have television.” And that’s the last thing I remember.

Why so happy? I was hoping to die to escape a marriage that was strangling my will to live. It’s amazing the things that make us wish for death and perhaps this was unusual, but my feeling on life has always been: if I can’t live life on my terms, I’d rather die. I meant it in 2005 and mean it today.

I remember coming out of the anesthetic haze in recovery and the first word I uttered was “shit!” The nurses who were having a bull session came over and asked if I was alright. I told them I was fine. I wasn’t going to tell them I wished I had died on the table – that would have gotten me a ticket from the recovery room to the local mental ward.

And who needs that?

I suppose Stoicists would argue that one should have the proper perspective of Momento Mori, but I say whatever works. I believe the concept should be part of a daily practice, even if it pisses off your loved ones. I appreciate that my wife wants me around – all I want her to understand is that we all die, and one must face death with the proper perspective. After all, in a life now devoid of a sense of adventure, what comes after death is, for everyone, the last great adventure.