I was home for the holidays on New Year's Eve, 1997. I was living in Chicago at the time, but I flew back to Colorado for Christmas with my parents, who live in the formerly small town of Parker, Colo., about 25 miles from Denver.
I decided to spend New Years with an old college friend who had invited me to a bar with a "big ass" group of people. At about 9 or so, I cranked up my mom's 1990 blue Buick LeSabre, which is basically a large, awkward couch on wheels.
When you're used to Chicago, the Colorado prairie is dark. Very dark. As I drove toward the highway, I felt a bit like I was piloting a thickly upholstered spaceship. The only lights I could see anywhere were the moon and stars. The land around me was absolutely black. No streetlights. No houses. I was having trouble seeing and I was groggy from the champagne, so even the highway, when I got to it, seemed too dark.
The bar was in a part of Denver I had never seen before. And it was quiet, still, dead. I had a eerie feeling already from the highway, but seeing city streets absolutely empty on New Year's was much worse. Then I found the bar. It was closed. (Later he told me: They never called to see if it was open. They just didn't imagine that any bar would be closed on New Year's Eve.) So I tried to call my friend and got no answer. I thought about going somewhere else on my own, but it didn't appeal to me anymore. The grogginess, the dark, the quiet I felt weird. I wanted to be home again.
So I got in the car again. Only now, I was feeling lightheaded. The air really is thinner here, I thought. I'm not used to it anymore. And that was a big mistake. I know now that there's a little part of everyone's brain that's still basically reptile, instinctual, frightened. I had just flipped the "on" switch. The more I noticed the air, the harder it was to breathe. My adrenaline kicked in. Breathing got harder. I felt as if I couldn't swallow air. Then my vision clouded and I thought, I could accidentally pull right off the road. I could die here on this highway, right now. And that was it. The reptile took over. I sweated buckets, I hyperventilated, I swerved, I panicked. My frontal lobes took over just long enough to pull over at a gas station.
I ran inside, practically screaming, and got in the clerk's face. Totally incoherent. I was asking for help, but I had no idea what was wrong. Nothing made sense. My heart was pumping so hard that it felt ready to rip free of my veins and arteries all at once. I yelled that I was having a heart attack, but I was jumping up and down.
And then, for no reason, I calmed down. I almost fell to the floor. I realized the clerk was probably two seconds away from calling the police. I got up and bought a bottle of water calmly, as if nothing had happened. But I couldn't drive. The thought of the dark road gave me little surges of adrenaline and panic. I called my parents.
After they drove me home, we flipped through a medical manual, looking for a cause for the attack. Hypoglycemia? Diabetes? Arrhythmia? Nothing was out of the question. (Months later, I was diagnosed with panic disorder.) I stayed up with the book for a while after they went to bed and read all the scary possibilities that might be my future. And, as I headed for bed, I noticed that it was after 1am. God, I thought, it's 1998.
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