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December 22, 2014

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Breaking through the fog of panic

Sometimes it’s not enough to be focused — sometimes you need to accept help and sometimes you need to be flexible.

Last weekend a ruby-throated hummingbird, which had flown more than 2,000 miles from Central America just to get to our neighborhood, got stuck in our garage. He panicked and couldn’t find his way out.

(Caveat lector: I’m going to anthropomorphize the hell out of this hummingbird. I thought you should be made aware of this the way IMDb makes you aware that certain synopses contain “spoilers.”)

Panic makes you lose your bearings and obliterates any view of your ultimate destination. You retain only a flickering awareness of reality. Feeling trapped and scared makes you as lightheaded as someone breathing ether or drinking ethanol.

When you’re frantic, you’ll do anything just to do something.

The urgency of chaos sends even instinct out the window — or crashes against its glass.

Careening wildly into the walls, the meticulously beautiful creature couldn’t draw on skills that permitted him to fly directly over the Gulf of Mexico or maneuver up, down, backward and forward as he sipped his body weight in sugar-water and nectar every day.

I improvised with a broom, and my husband found a net. With small gestures, we encouraged him to stop hitting his head against the ceiling. Finally the hummingbird’s extraordinarily tiny claws clasped the net and Michael deftly stepped outside. After maybe two seconds of complete stillness, the bird flew off in straight line into the treetops and disappeared.

Although the episode ended happily, I’m sure the hummingbird is telling some tall tales to his avian companions.

You’ll say I’m projecting and you’ll be right. Not only do I sympathize with ingesting my own body weight; I also recognized the bird’s desperation. You see, I’ve spent time, especially in my earlier years, as a subject of panic attacks.

Notice I say “a subject of” and not “subject to”: I felt as if I was their slave and if I lived in an unsteady world over which they — the panic attacks — ruled.

As a child I was afraid to walk over grates (fear of falling through), afraid of subway cars running on parallel tracks (fear they would collide) and of dogs (fear of being torn to pieces).

My most “normal” childhood fear, fear of being abandoned by my parents, was the only one that came true: my mother died when I was still in high school.

I became afraid I hadn’t worried enough. My panic attacks became worse.

I was terrified — not just worried by but terrified of — phone calls or letters that weren’t answered immediately (fear that the person who was meant to respond had died), planes (would I live to return home; would I want to return home?).

I wrecked relationships because I was afraid of ruining them.

I would try to reach people — not only boyfriends, but also relatives and acquaintances — obsessively making contact until I could speak to them. Remember, this was before answering machines and computers; information passed more slowly, although that doesn’t explain my behavior.

There was, for example, a faraway aunt who was one of my mother’s lesser sisters. When, after not speaking to her for months, I couldn’t get her on the phone one day, I was certain she’d died. I went to the library to find the number for my cousin, who lived in a distant city, and called him, weeping. I unnerved him. Of course she was fine. Eventually it turned into one of those funny family stories. Eventually.

When I was in the middle of it, though, I felt like I was smashing against the corners of an unfamiliar room. And I was afraid of people coming for me with a net, even if they looked benevolent.

Would the safety net tighten into a snare?

It’s not surprising that an inexplicably weeping, shivering, frantic girl drove many good-hearted people away. Nevertheless, there were others who persuaded me to accept help. Focused only on fear, I saw only blank walls. They offered their own methods of extraction.

I learned to see clear skies and a way out, grateful to replace the exhausting and compulsive need to flee with an invigorating and resilient passion for flight.

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.

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