Panic attacks and Jim Palmer: my first (and almost last) therapist

When I was in seventh grade I began experiencing visceral episodes of self-loathing, panic attacks that revolved around the inescapable horror of being trapped in that particular sliver of time and space. I was both not in my body and also too much within it. Regarding myself in the mirror, I would feel as if I were floating up and away from Earth while my heart jackhammered all around my body because I was trapped in my terrible, awkward meat-self. I kept switching back and forth between fear that I was being assumed heavenward and fear that the mirror was telling me the truth: I was right there, I existed, and I was too ugly to live. 

I could bring myself out of of this loop, I discovered, by clawing at myself. I would curl my hand into a claw shape and drag my nails up and down an area of skin that wasn’t normally exposed: my outer thigh, say, or upper back. This seems like a stupid strategy when you write it down for everyone to read, but when I was trapped in the middle of this both-here-and-not-here feeling, it felt like both a productive method of distraction and an excellent way to express the extent to which I disliked myself. 

This was in the '80s, before anyone had heard of “cutting,” so I like to think of myself as ahead of my time. I’m sure there were plenty of other tortured adolescents before me mauling themselves using a variety of methods—but I had never heard of it, and like everything else about adolescence, I believed that I alone suffered so. 

I never used a knife or any kind of instrument except for my own stubby and fragile nails. I wasn’t out for blood.  I could create a fair bit of bruising, though, and the ache could linger for a week or more afterward. It seemed like a friendly reminder that I was in a terrible place. 

My parents did not see this the same way, nor were they as nonchalant as I pretended to be about my plummeting grades. Thus: the therapist.

Let us call him Dr. X. 

I remember Dr. X this way: late fifties, round, not particularly tall, with a fringe of hair around his temples. The kind of roundness that shows he was well-fed and well cared for. But the fact is he could have been thirty or seventy. To my 13-year-old eye, he was simply Generic Adult. He could have been an unwrapped bar of Ivory soap with a pair of googly eyes pasted on.

The only thing I’m now sure about Dr. X is that his specialty was not dealing with children. He seemed amused by the novelty of my youth. I didn’t appreciate his lighthearted attitude. I wanted my situation to be treated with extreme gravity. 

In my first session with Dr. X he told me that my parents were worried about me. He pulled out a transcript of my grades, and read them out loud while I sat there. “C in science? Your mom tells me you’re usually an A student. Your parents are worried about you. How are we going to reassure them?” 

I shrugged. I thought the session was going to be about me. When I shrugged my shirt caught against the welts I had left across my back earlier that day. 

We spent the rest of the session talking about a plan for how I could get my homework done. I should purchase a day planner, he informed me. It would help me plan. My day. 

For our second session, he asked me what I wanted to talk about, and I didn’t know. We sat there for a while. I told him about a dream I had that I was a tomato. I was a tomato, planted in a garden in my parent’s backyard. “What do tomatoes mean to you?” he asked me. I had hoped he would tell me. “Salad?” I said. He nodded as if I had said something profound. Then he asked me about my homework and whether my grades were improving. 

The day before our third session, I had a panic attack. I was home after school when the anxiety crashed over me, and I paced around the second floor of our house, walking from room to room, trying to find something to distract me. I attacked my right thigh with my nails. I thought I would float up through the chimney and keep going until I reached the sun. 

“What were you doing when it started?” Dr. X asked me, his pen poised over his notebook. 

“I don’t know,” I said. 

“You were in your parents’ room?” 

“Sort of.” 

“What were you doing there?” 

I couldn’t say anything. It was just a location that I had landed in when the attack really kicked in. Saying that I had been pacing seemed too weird. 

“Were you looking through a catalog?” he offered. 

It seemed like he was throwing me a bone. And my mom did often keep catalogs by the side of her bed. Lands End, LL Bean. It seemed like a thing I would do: spy a catalog nearby and pause to thumb through its pages. 

“Maybe,” I said, ready to see where this fake scenario was going. 

“Was it a Sears catalog?” he asked. 

The specificity of his example threw me. Also, the one kind of catalog I couldn’t conjure any memory of was Sears. I mulled this over. 

“I’m just thinking,” he said, clearing things up for me, “Maybe you were looking through the Sears catalog. Maybe you saw pictures of men in it.” 

“I wasn’t looking through the Sears catalog,” I said. Even though this was a story we were creating together, I wasn’t about to admit to wasting my time on Sears. All I knew about Sears is that you bought appliances from them. Would the men be installing the appliances in these pictures? No. This would not do. 

“Maybe,” he continued, “You were in the men’s underwear section of the catalog and found photos of men modeling in their underpants. And maybe that made you feel something.” 

Well. Now I was baffled. All I could do was wait for him to complete this narrative for the both of us. 

“Many young people your age can become excited at images of good-looking, partially dressed men. It’s normal in such cases to want to masturbate.” 

Now. 

Let us leave 13-year-old me in that leather armchair, dying a thousand deaths while Dr. X waited for my response. Was I a healthy, curious young lady? My stars, yes. But there could not possibly have been anything less sexually interesting to me at that time than grown men modeling underwear. So in addition to being mortified, I was intensely confused. 

This wasn’t the era of Abercrombie & Fitch, with their glistening, hairless young men slapped against some rocks like sexy seal pups. The catalog men of those days stood around, like, “Here I am. In my underpants.” Sometimes they leaned against stools. Occasionally they lounged, like Jim Palmer in the Jockey ads, and that I guess got adult women all worked up, but it did zero for me. 

No. 

No. 

 

 Male models then sported thick slabs of hair on top of their heads and were 40 if they were a day. And hairy–everywhere you looked (and I tried not to) there was chest and thigh fur. In the long and odd list of things that were titillating to 13-year-old me, never in a million years would “dads in briefs” make an appearance anywhere on that list. 

The idea that a psychotherapist would honestly think I was so uncontrollably turned on by images of adult men wearing briefs that I would go at myself on my mother’s bed—I couldn’t even wait to enjoy the privacy of my room! I had to take myself right then and there!—shocked me into silence.

(I was and am unnerved by the specificity of this choice. He didn’t say “Did p. 148 of the Spring/Summer catalog really get you going” but I feel like he was thinking it.) 

But maybe Sears catalogs were notorious masturbation material for teenagers? I was weird in this regard. My fantasies involved Odd Couple-era Tony Randall going to second base with me in a cab on the way to the Metropolitan Opera. Maybe other young girls were into middle-aged men gazing frankly at the camera in their y-fronts. I asked some female friends what got them going at thirteen. Here’s a representative sample of their responses: 

-“A Hustler I found in the woods” 

-The Thorn Birds 

-Erotic BDSM tableaux of G.I. Joes and Barbies 

-Depeche Mode’s lead singer Dave Gahan

-Cartoon Fox Robin Hood 

Not one of them, for the record, said “male underwear models in Sears catalogs.” The consensus was that hairy men are too much for most young ladies. The older you get, the more hair you can tolerate. 

This is true for me. Now that I’m 47, the sight of smooth-chested men makes me feel maternal. I want to get them a blanket and some hot cocoa and lecture them about how they shouldn’t have to wax for anyone. Hairy Dads are currently where I’m at. When I reach senior citizenhood I’m going to be curling up in bed with Yeti porn. 

I couldn’t tell you if his line of inquiry was a lone inappropriate incident and beyond this moment he was an excellent therapist, because I didn’t return to find out. I had never heard an adult use the word “masturbation” in public, much less directed at me. The moment he said that, I knew I couldn't possibly return. 

“So what are you thinking?” he asked again. “Do you feel any shame about these urges? It’s nothing to be ashamed of, you know. This is all completely normal.” 

I’d like to say that I told him that in addition to being inappropriate and kind of gross, he was completely off-base. That he was driving me away at a time when I could have used all the help I could get. 

I said none of these things. I stared at my corduroy pants and banana-print socks and waited out the rest of the session, wondering how everything had gone so wrong. I walked out of that session when my time was up, refusing to establish eye contact as my final act of rebellion.

I got into my mom’s car and said that I refused to see him again. I never told her why. 

The above is an excerpt from a collection of essays I’m working on, about my early adventures in depression and anxiety.