Thursday, September 4, 2014

Panic Attacks

In 1997 I had lived in Dixon, Illinois for ten years. Since I had little in common with anyone there, for my mental health I used to participate in the UC Berkeley summer programs in Europe. That year I spent three weeks in Oxford studying cathedrals and abbeys. It was my second trip to Oxford, having studied Anglo-Saxon archaeology in 1993. In 1997 I met Kimberly there; she was studying historical English journals.

We were both looking for changes in our lives. I was sick of Dixon, and it wasn't a good location for my daughter, who had just finished tenth grade at Dixon High School. Staying there, she might have turned out the way some of her friends later did, becoming a topless dancer or an unwed mother. Kimberly had worked for ten years in the Religious Studies Department at UC Santa Barbara and had recently broken off an engagement.

In the early fall, Kimberly visited us in Dixon. During that trip, she suddenly had a small panic attack. I don't recall what precipitated it, but it was the first of many to follow. Nevertheless, we began to develop a tentative plan to pursue the relationship. I started to look for jobs in the Chicago area, and I planned a trip to see Kimberly in Santa Barbara over the Christmas holidays. As it happened, I got a job offer in Wheeling, Illinois, near Chicago, and accepted it over the phone while I was in Santa Barbara. In January, 1998 my daughter and I moved to Lake Forest, Illinois. Kimberly soon quit her job, moved to Wilmette, Illinois and shortly thereafter found a new job nearby at Northwestern University in Evanston.

The next panic attack that I distinctly remember occurred when Kimberly came over to our apartment in Lake Forest to watch a movie. We watched River's Edge, starring Keanu Reeves, with a humorous cameo by Dennis Hopper. I had seen the film previously and liked it. It is a dark film, but very well done, and an observant study of teenage culture in a small Western town. However, it was too upsetting for Kimberly to watch, and it triggered a panic attack. She couldn't stand watching it, became extremely agitated, and finally asked me if I had ever killed anyone.

The relationship lasted for about three years, and was punctuated by panic attacks, which diminished in intensity over time as she became accustomed to me. One of the things I liked about Kimberly was that she knew herself well and provided specific instructions about what I should do on occasions such as birthdays, Valentine's Day, Christmas, etc. She knew exactly what might upset her and had learned to speak up about it in advance whenever possible. I came to see that she suffered from an anxiety disorder and tended to resolve her issues by being a control freak, but I appreciated having much of the guesswork taken out of the relationship, because women are often far more capricious in their expectations.

Although I attempted to accommodate Kimberly as best I could, it wasn't really possible to save the relationship. My daughter at that time was in the process of stabilizing after a rebellious adolescence during which her mother had in effect kicked her out twice. Kimberly was ill-equipped to deal with children. She was unable to develop rapports with them and was easily disturbed by unruliness. At that time, my son was having difficulties living with my ex-wife, and Kimberly was troubled by him too. Shortly after the Columbine High School massacre, he was visiting in Lake Forest, and the three of us went to a Cubs game. My son's behavior seemed to precipitate a small panic attack roughly based on the idea that he might become a murderer because he played violent video games. By then I was getting a little fed up with Kimberly, who obviously had led a sheltered life and hadn't been challenged much. She had never lived with anyone, never been married and never had children, though in 1999 she was 43. After a bad experience as a schoolteacher, she had avoided demanding jobs and lived like a college student. Although she was very frugal, she was subsidized by her father, who was a retired engineer.

There were other things that Kimberly didn't like about the relationship, but she tended to discuss them with female confidantes, clergymen and psychologists rather than with me. Religion was of considerable interest to her, and she had played at being a Roman Catholic and an Episcopalian. I, on the other hand, have been an atheist continuously since about age 14. Ordinarily this did not produce a conflict, because she only had half-baked religious ideas and was pretty smart; I suspected that at the back of her mind she knew that it was all bunk. As part of her control freak strategy, it suited her to think that God was providing order to the apparent chaos of everyday life.

In August, 2000, during the final build-up to the end of the relationship, we went on a two-week vacation to Switzerland, with side trips to Annecy, France and Tremezzo, Italy. There were things I did that upset her on the trip, but she said nothing at the time. Apparently it bothered her a lot that I had walked ahead of her in the hills around Gruyere when she had a leg cramp. Later, in November, it came to a crescendo. She had thought over the relationship and discussed it with others, and then went through a major anxiety episode, during which she became an insomniac requiring medical attention. Shortly after that, she unilaterally broke off the relationship without discussion.

While I was hurt and saddened by the breakup, I was assuaged by my awareness of her apparent mental illness, and there was in fact little surprise, because there had been clear intermittent warnings of the potential demise of the relationship ever since its inception. However, I misjudged the severity of Kimberly's self-protective regimen that ensued. I mistakenly thought that we would still see each other occasionally and discuss aspects of the relationship in a way that might increase our understanding so that we might each benefit from that knowledge in the future. That was not to be, and I haven't spoken to her since November, 2000. We exchanged a few e-mails, but she no longer replies to mine.

What has stuck with me over the years is Kimberly's unwillingness to communicate. In this context I find it completely unacceptable. How does one honestly erase three years of one's life without any accountability? It is deep hypocrisy to espouse Christian or similar values while blotting out a person who is at odds with your personal mythology. If you've ever read Martin Buber, Kimberly has made me an It.

As far as I know, Kimberly now lives alone in a condominium on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

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