Chapter One

      September 2006

     Air rushed my lungs, an involuntary inhale born from shock.  Despite the chest-seizing gasp, my eyes refused to avert from the provocative picture splayed before me.

     My breathing rate spiked.  After each exhale, impatient lungs suctioned a refill.  Necessity decoupled me from the magnetising screen and overcame the resistance of laggard legs.  Propelled towards the kitchen area, I ignored the knock-over of a half-empty margarita and consequential prattle of spilled ice, caught my foot on the mid-step between levels, and stumbled onward.

     In the kitchen, a utility drawer storing foil, wraps, and various packaging items screeched open on my yank, a hurried hunt for a paper lunch bag.  Found and clutched, it deployed with a hard shake.  Placed over my mouth and nose, I self-coached a steady breathing rhythm.

     Breathe in, breathe out…breathe in and breathe out…slower, slower.  Good, good…relax.  Relax.

      Regular breaths eased tension, a first step toward recovery.  The sound of bag-amplified respiration blossomed into awareness and provided real-time feedback.  Each exhale lowered lung pressure and inflated the crackling bag until the airflow reversed, a tidal cycle except on a faster time scale.  In the inhalation phase, recycled, warmed, and soothing air streamed through my nostrils and gaping mouth.  The stream repressurised and massaged my lungs while vacating air deflated the noisy bag.

       Not my first panic attack, I knew how to cope with the onset of one.  Three years before, work pressures peaked and usurped the majority of my time.  The diverted attention created relationship problems with my then partner, and we separated.  A few nights later, suppressed emotions erupted and triggered anxiety.  My physician recommended use of a paper lunch bag if I experienced another attack.  She claimed it eased symptoms.  It helped me cope with more than one panic attack thereafter.

     The maintained rhythm of breaths slowed my heart rate, calmed me, and re-established a physical comfort insufficient in motivation to attempt bag free.  Minutes passed whilst I scratched together my second need, enough courage to try breathing without the artificial crutch.

     Ready for a trial run, I removed the bag.  Inhalation of fresh, cooler air flooded my lungs with a new surge of relief and furthered my ease, except the remedial exercise did nothing to alleviate the root source of the anxiety spawned spasmodic episode.  The manipulative thrall of the instigating image loomed.  Avoiding it meant a continued potential for renewed hyperventilation.  Worse, it fed a predisposition to idiosyncratic behaviour, a mode of living of no interest to me.  The realisation inspired further resistance.

     Armed with the twin tools of cleaning sponge for the spillage and paper bag in case of anxiety relapse, I walked toward the living area with tentativeness, as if each footfall tested floor solidity.  My heart rate jumped on the descent into the lower section, but determination pushed me through the trepidation.

     The bluish-white glow from the television illuminated the lower room, the eerie radiance spectral.  In proximity to its display, the same crazy panic impulses gnawed at my control.  Tightened muscles threatened relapse.  Pre-emptive use of the bag maintained normal breathing.

     Annoyed with my wimpiness, I flung the bag at the floor and sneered at the troublesome television image, my unspoken declaration of its falsity.  Inert and unaffected by my roller coaster emotional ride, the projection stood mute, as if it claimed squatters’ rights to the television.  In reality, the image projected benignity, and I fumbled the handling on first sight.

     In the seconds before the attack, I froze the screen, a mistaken action in hindsight.  Its apparent implications blew through safeguards and attacked me in vulnerable places.  Post attack, becalmed if uneasy, curiosity gained sway and conjured questions requiring a rational search for answers.

     A change of tactics conceded defeat and declared victory.  On this new tack, reality won.  Self-control restored.  The sponge dropped into the margarita-splattered mess on the coffee table glass, there for doing if not quite ready to do.  My ass sank into the sofa.  From the sectional, I worked the new tangent.  Embrace of the image replaced fear of it.  Reality and surreality merged, congealed, and hardened into disparate pieces of a puzzle to investigate and assemble from controlled interest, rather than panic-driven necessity.

     The change disarmed the image as an instigant.  Cleansed of its folly, some strange giddiness overwrote the panic imprint, and I giggled.  It evolved into an enticing more-than-curio and launched a mini-quest for an explanation.  Potential possibilities sprouted, each theory centred on the smiling and dual thumbs-up waving victor in the Vermont Democratic primary for U.S. Senator.

     The reason for our identical looks eluded me.  My search for answers began… there.