I remember the first panic attack I had.
The thing is, I don’t think it was the first panic attack I ever had. I think it was the worst one I’d had at that point. Which meant that as it was happening, as I was crying and heard a high-pitched, frantic gasping for air and realized it was coming from me, I thought, “I hope this is what people call a panic attack. Otherwise, I’m dying.“
I was driving home from work, listening to Howard Stern on satellite radio. I use the word driving loosely. This was New York during rush hour.
I was inching home from work.
The New York market was ripe for someone like him to make it as big as he has. We’re all begging for someone to take us out of our heads for the hours we spend inching along in our cars.
That evening I was listening to the replay from that morning and Robin was doing the news. I was half-listening in that way you do when you’re driving. Sort of like when you arrive somewhere and don’t remember the drive at all. It’s happening, but you’re not truly dialed in. So I knew the story Robin was sharing was about a woman who’d thrown her toddler off a balcony.
I must have heard, in some distracted part of my brain, the part about the mother doing it during a hysterical call to 911.
But my brain didn’t make the connection. Didn’t pay attention in time to figure out that they were playing the recording of the 911 call.
She was screaming. The child’s cries and screams could be heard in the background. Loud at first, then quieter as it was tossed away. Then, still quiet, but closer when the mother, still on the phone with 911 dispatch, went down the stairs to sit beside the child as he cried and whimpered on the ground.
That’s the first panic attack where I pulled over. Full stop. Pulled over because driving was no longer physically possible.
The best class I ever took was a Humanities elective on the Holocaust during college. The professor was amazing. The readings were stunning. It’s the only college class I ever took where I kept all the texts and still revisit them. I still own them among my most cherished books.
During the course of the class, throughout each topic we touched upon, he kept returning our focus to the people of Germany.
When the Jews in that village were rounded up, what did their neighbors do? The night of Kristallnacht, what did non-Jewish business owners do?
These are the questions he asked. Our answers were always the same.
They did nothing.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t heroes scattered here and there. But the majority of people, the majority of those not under direct threat from the Nazis, did nothing.
They looked away.
It wasn’t our final assignment, but somewhere towards the end of the semester he asked us to write an essay telling him what we would have done.
I don’t want to hear what you would do now. The you who sits before me. I want you to transplant yourself into the stories we’ve read. The eyewitness accounts we’ve read. Find yourself in our readings. Do you own a business? Go back and read what the business owners did. Are you a single mother? Go back and read what other mothers did. Maybe you’re just a student right now. We read about college students back then. Find a version of you in what we’ve read and be honest. No matter how difficult your answer is, I want you to be honest when you write to me of what you would have done as a non-Jewish German citizen during the Holocaust.
That’s the answer I put in my essay.
The truth is that, for as many times as we questioned in that class how they could have done nothing, we would have done the same. They were fearful. They felt impotent. They were brainwashed. What happened was a slow, systematic approach to destroying a people that almost succeeded.
Because mostly everyone did nothing.
The big lesson I took from that is that we can’t do nothing if it happens again. History repeats itself. We’re told that pithy little phrase and I think too many of us never truly get to the heart of understanding.
That’s the marrow of the lesson imparted to me in that Holocaust class.
We cannot sit and do nothing the next time.
There will be a next time.
I had a panic attack late last night. I’d been anxious all day. I tried going to bed early. I slept for a bit, but woke and couldn’t get back to sleep. I logged into Facebook and it was the third item in my feed.
One after another of children crying. Blood running down their faces. Eyes, haunted and too large for their tiny faces, set in stony expressions of shock. Cradling other children and weeping.
I had a panic attack on my kitchen floor.
I couldn’t look. I’m so sorry, but I can’t look.
As a mother, it’s the worst thing I can do. Not bear witness. I think of my children, silent and bloody and two-dimensional, in a photo from which people turn away and there’s never a way I’ll forgive myself.
For if it were my children, I’d scream. I’d scream for the world to keep looking. I’d never stop screaming. Until my cold, lifeless body were carted from the Earth, I’d never stop screaming for the world to look at my children.
Don’t you dare look away.
I’d never stop screaming.
But they aren’t my children.
So I cry and I hear the high-pitched gasps for air, frantic and riddled with guilt.
Because I can’t look at the pictures.
Because I’m impotent.
Because I’m doing nothing.
I learned the heart of that lesson, yet still I do nothing.
Except have a panic attack, while history repeats itself.
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