Panic with purpose; or, that man is clearly trying to slip me a Quaalude!

Part 3 of… “Being vulnerable in the face of sexual assault (when you’re pretty sure it was your vulnerability that got you assaulted)”

This past Friday, I had what can only be described as a “beneficial panic attack.”

I had to flee a location. That alone was not unusual. Since I confronted the loser who sexually assaulted me this past May, I have fled more rooms than I have entered. Yes, it’s a paradox that violates all rules of space/time. I know that. I’m not here to explain quantum mechanics to anyone, but I live in a constant state of Schrödinger’s Panic Attack. Every room can contain a variable that will trigger me OR it may not. It’s completely random; I can never be sure until I open the box. And I never stop opening boxes.

PTSD messes with your sense of space and time. I’m told it’s the amygdala.

Entering new rooms has pretty much devolved into the same multi-point kabuki of driving around the block, breathing exercises, looking for exits, etc. Over and over again.

Once that is all done. I can how scan the horizon like a meerkat looking for that single point of information that I can extrapolate into a dire threat to my person.

Extrapolating from single points of information is what gives each panic attack it’s own nuances, it’s own notes. When you extrapolate from a single point, you can go anywhere. Literally. That’s how geometry works. Each panic is different, which is why each one imprints itself on the palimpsest of my PTSD brain. “Indelible on the hippocampus,” as the wise woman said.

In replaying each moment of flee, I can discern almost no patterns. All I know is that each seems non-sensical, the inciting incident so trivial, that I question my sanity:

I ran out of an improv show because the performers had seemingly replaced “Yes, and…” with “Fuck you! Why?”

Or that time while out on a Sunday drive, I didn’t get out of the car in Granville because I thought the people involved with a charity bike race —Pelotonia —passing thru town would be “mean” to me.

It goes on and on.

I may have to seriously consider never leaving the house again.

Of course I want to leave the house. I’m not as much of an introvert as those binary Facebook quizzes that were a thing for a hot minute had led me to believe. I actually like being around a proper amount of people who are all doing proper things. What constitutes “proper” is entirely up to me. I’m an extrovert with crippling —and exacting —social anxiety.

I’ve been allowing myself to go to Cavan Irish Pub, a South Columbus gay bar with a nice patio and three exits. I go on Friday happy hours to unwind with a book and vodka soda in a pint glass. I take over the internet jukebox because I am the only person with “proper” taste in music. I let control slip for five seconds and some twit put on “Baby Shark.” With money. They paid money to hear “Baby Shark.”

It’s the only way I can do a gay bar. I can’t go after dark when there are actual people. I would normally go to AWOL even though the music is awful, but I really enjoy watching people dance. I haven’t been all summer. I met the loser at AWOL, and he’s a well-liked regular. I don’t trust how I would behave if I saw him enjoying himself. He lacks the emotional intelligence to feel shame over assaulting me. Two days after I confronted him, he went dancing.

That’s how much I’m worth.

So, baby steps… I’m reading my book on octopus brains. Occasionally people would ask me about cephalopods. I have a ready response: “Their esophagi pass thru the center of their brains. They often find dead octopi who’ve managed to choke on something sharp that pierces their brains.” I am the king of small talk.

“Let’s Go All The Way” by Sly Fox is playing. I look up to see if anyone is bopping along to my amazing musical taste. I can see across the U-shaped bar a man talking to the bartender. He is gesturing in my direction. Clearly, they are talking about me. Right?

Then it hits me… this dude is buying me a drink!

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I clumsily, clankily gather up my octopus book, phone, what’s left of my vodka soda in a pint glass, and knock over my chair. Then I misjudge the push/pull of the door to the main bar. Once in, I run to the bathroom. Cavan Irish Pub has three single-serve bathrooms; two of which are actually relaxing. I do hurried breathing exercises. When I’m satisfied no brain vessels will explode I head for the door that avoids either the main bar or the patio and dumps you out into the alley. But on my way to that door, he’s coming in another door like it’s a fucking Noel Coward play. We make eye contact. I squeak and lunge for the alley door. All marked exits open out.

More breathing exercises in the car: spelling words backwards until I calm down. The music from my phone is set to random. I skip until I get to a song that will get me out of this place. Tonight it’s “Classical Gas.”

It’s hard to be tense with “Classical Gas.”

Normally when I drive away from a fleeing, I beat myself up because the trigger made no sense. I mean, how are improvisors on an off night a threat to my well-being? The fear comes out of a weird lizard place, like I’m choking on a chicken bone lodged in my brain esophagus.

But this night was different. I had fled for a reason. I doubt the guy who wanted to buy me a drink was an actual threat. After all, it was a kind gesture. BUT… my assault came out of the blue from someone who was always “kind.” A kind gesture in gay bar is a direct pre-cursor to pain and shame. If I accept the drink, then I have to talk. Then he might touch me, and we can’t have that. It’s going to be a while before I can trust men again. I know that.

Baby steps.

But I wasn’t mad at myself. I felt akin to how you feel when you’re sad, but you know WHY you’re sad. Being sad for a reason is your brain’s way of telling you that it’s functioning within normal parameters.

As I’ve talked with my therapist about vulnerability, he’s said the key is to allow myself to enter rooms where my lizard brain may not feel especially “safe.” To do so I have to trust my logical brain that no one’s going to whack me upside the head with a 2×4 or touch me against my will. Not everyone is as clueless and predatory as the loser who assaulted me. The vast majority of folks only wish me well. If they think poorly of me, it’s only because they wish they had my jukebox taste.

I felt leaving the bar was right. Maybe I could’ve done it with more grace and finesse and less bumping and squeaking, but I’m in no place to be accepting drinks from people or even chatting them up. I still don’t trust where that could lead. The loser did that to me.

But this experience has allowed me to figure out the difference between annoyance and threat. It’s the first panic attack in the PTSD afterscape that actually makes sense.

Baby steps.

Maybe next time I’ll accept the drink.

Probably not…

Who still buys strangers across the bar drinks? What is this, a fern bar with backgammon tables and brass railings in 1979? I control my own alcohol consumption. I control what I want or do not want.

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