In the fall of my senior year of college, there was a rash of unrelated student deaths on my Chicago campus. One girl died of leukemia. Another, a bike accident. Another, an infection that went septic. All of these girls died within a two-week span, and at the end of that span, a strong conviction had rooted itself in my anxious brain, and it was a belief I couldn't shake: I was going to be the next to die.
Earlier that year I had started having panic attacks. What triggered them most was the thought of death or sickness, and especially illnesses that could land you in the hospital. So when I learned about the deaths on campus, I steeled myself, thinking it would surely send me down a panic spiral. Instead, I felt eerily calm, detached. Interested, almost. Why were people dying, all of a sudden? Who were these girls, and why had God taken them?
At the same time, I started avoiding the rickety elevators in my school library. God had obviously taken notice of my university, and I didn't want to press my luck. When I walked to and from class, I shielded my head as I walked under the overpasses, hoping nothing would fall on me. My school was located on the bustling north side of the city, and between traffic and occasional armed robbery it seemed like there were countless ways to die. The only thing that would stave off death, I reasoned, was to be constantly vigilant.
Somehow, I managed to hold it together for a few weeks. Then one day, as I was in the cafeteria buying an egg salad sandwich, my mother called me on my cell phone. "Did I tell you?" she asked, as I waited in line. "Steve is in the hospital. He might have the swine flu." Steve was our neighbor who I had seen only a few days prior, and at the time, he had been in perfect health. I had taken a swig of his beer. My mother's voice ringing in my ears, I placed my egg salad sandwich back in the cafeteria refrigerator, turned on my heels and walked briskly back to my apartment. Suddenly, the stillness I had enjoyed mutated into a brand of anxiety I had not felt before and have not felt since. This is it, I thought. Swine flu. This is how I die.
That night, I made a soft cocoon of pillows and quilts and arranged them in front of the TV in my bedroom. From my research, I knew swine flu had a latency period between one and seven days. After that, the patient would spike a high fever and develop horrific body aches—so bad your hair hurts, the Internet said. I was prepared. I grabbed a box of Cheez-Its from the pantry and loaded the first season of Frasier into the DVD player. Then I pressed “play” and waited for the fever to spike.
Anxiety is tricky. In the midst of it, you become convinced of things that you know, in your right mind, are completely false. And sometimes it’s not until later—four seasons of Frasier and several harrowing days later—that you realize how tightly it’s gripping you and how far from reality you’ve fallen.
I spent the next two days in my cocoon, venturing outside my bedroom only to heat up some microwave pierogies in the kitchen and use the bathroom. So far, the only symptom of swine flu I had was a constant, rapid heart rate (an early sign of organ failure, I figured). Still, I braced myself—a high fever and a swift death was coming, soon.
In the meantime, I watched House Hunters.
House Hunters was quiet, with virtually no conflict. When my roommate woke and turned on the blender for her breakfast smoothie, I would hunker under my covers and watch couples bitch about their linoleum countertops, willing my heart to slow down, willing my roommate to leave so the house could be silent and still again.
In the afternoon, I microwaved more pierogies and watched movies. Until that week, I hadn't realized how many death-related movies I owned, and nearly all of them sent me down a panic spiral. Even shows that normally would have been fine—shows like The Golden Girls and Little House on the Prairie—left me shaking in fear. The Golden Girls were too near death, and I was terrified one of them would suddenly croak or end up in the hospital on whatever mid-season episode I had decided to put on. Surprisingly, Little House on the Prairie was the worst offender of all: The Ingalls family lived in the middle of nowhere, with no reliable healthcare, relying on homemade tinctures and leeches. In one episode, Ma Ingalls almost died from anthrax poisoning and I spent the entire afternoon in the bathroom, unable to control the panic-induced diarrhea that followed. It seemed like Death was everywhere, just biding its time until it came for me.
The only movie that soothed my anxiety was the romantic comedy The Proposal, starring the blissfully benign Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. It helped me pass the time from noon until early evening. I had grabbed it on a whim from the grocery store when I restocked my pierogies, and although it was only mildly funny, I watched it every single day with rapt interest and quickly memorized nearly the entire thing. I parroted the lines back to the screen as it played.
In the evenings, I used wine to calm myself, and a lot of it. Watching The Proposal, I would white-knuckle it until exactly five o'clock and then rush into the kitchen and uncork a bottle of 7-11 booze, trembling with restraint. I had a drink, and then another, and then a third, before I started feeling somewhat like myself again. “I’m fine,” I’d tell my roommate, who would knock on my door occasionally to check if I was still alive. I sent apologetic e-mails to my professors each morning to escape going to class: “I think I’ve got the flu. Well, I’m getting the flu, anyway.”
At some point during the week, I exhausted my prescribed supply of Xanax, something my doctor had given me for occasional panic attacks. I didn't call her for more. Two beliefs dominated my thought process that week: I was dying of the swine flu, and nobody could help me. I was convinced that the doctor would call me a drug addict, or laugh at me, to my eternal shame. I told nobody I was dying, or that I was sick. I was alone. I would die alone. I knew that with what felt like an absolute certainty.
I saved Frasier for nighttime. Frasier had always been a nighttime show—when I was 12 years old I snuck out of bed almost every night to watch it, long after I was supposed to have been asleep. In my childhood house in the Chicago ‘burbs, as my parents shared cigarettes on the back deck, I would crouch inches away from our glowing TV screen, the volume raised barely above a whisper, and cackle into a pillow whenever Niles would lapse into histrionics. I loved the private thrill of it, sneaking out and becoming a voyeur in an adult world I knew nothing about, where people threw sleek fundraisers and talked openly about sex. I felt calm, burrowed in safety, watching Frasier as a kid, hearing the dishwasher hum downstairs, hearing my parents smoke on the deck.
I loved that it started the same way, every time—the title transposed over the Seattle skyline, the theme music plinking gently—and I could almost forget that I only had a few days to live. I drank one or two bottles of rosé while I watched. Hardly anybody got sick on Frasier, and nobody died.
Four days after my mom's phone call, it started. I woke up at my usual time, shivering so hard I could barely turn on my television. Here we go! I thought, almost elated. Swine flu for real this time. Shaking, I stumbled over to the bathroom and retched. I ached everywhere, and my head pounded. Keep calm, I warned myself. Get to the hospital, and die there. Better to die in a hospital than in my room, where my roommate might not find me for days, or weeks.
I wrapped myself in a blanket and stumbled over to the student health center. “Hi,” I said to the woman at the front desk, almost spitting my words. “I have the swine flu. Should I go straight to the hospital or can you guys call me an ambulance?”
The woman side-eyed me. “Okay,” she said. “Let's slow down. You don't seem like you have the swine flu. Do you have a fever?”
“My thermometer is wrong,” I huffed. “It says 99 degrees, but I'm pretty sure it's broken.”
“Okay,” she said slowly. “Well, if you don't have a fever, you don't have the swine flu.”
"I do," I insisted, and started to cry. "I do have it." I rattled off my symptoms—chills, aches, diarrhea, a rapid heart rate. At one point I started blubbering about Sanjay Gupta being hospitalized from the Swine flu, and she cut me off.
"I can set you up with a nurse practitioner," she said cautiously. "But we've had kids in here with the flu and this doesn't sound like—"
"I PROBABLY HAVE A SLOWER ACTING STRAIN," I screamed. "FUCK." I hated her. Nobody was going to help me. I would die alone, sure—but did it have to be here, at the student health center, with this snotty nurse?
"Honey," she said, lowering her voice. "What you're describing doesn't sound anything like the swine flu." A pause. "Do you have a history of anxiety, by any chance?"
"Um, yeah?" I said, still blubbering. “I get panic attacks sometimes.” Was this bitch going to send an ambulance or what?
The nurse led me to an examination room and motioned for me to sit. She disappeared for a moment and reappeared with a small white bag and an appointment card with a phone number on it—the school psychiatrist's.
“I'd like to set you up with a counselor,” she said quietly, and handed me the bag. Cautiously, I peeled it apart and looked inside.
I knew then: I didn't have the swine flu. Inside the paper bag the nurse had stuffed a small mountain of Halls throat lozenges and a half dozen sample packets of Tylenol and Advil. This was not something you'd give to a person with the swine flu—this was something you'd give a hypochondriac to assuage her panic.
Quickly, hot shame began to bloom up the back of my neck and into my cheeks. I had just barricaded myself in my apartment for days—had missed class, and exams—for no reason at all. Not one good god damned reason, I thought. I deflated like a balloon.
"I'm going to pop next door and see if your counselor is available now, actually," the nurse said, seeing the tears well up in my eyes, my face burning.
In the morning, I would meet with a counselor—a gentle woman named Kristin who would almost immediately diagnose me with a panic disorder and unresolved post-traumatic stress from an emergency surgery I had while studying abroad the previous year. Together, Kristin and I would spend the next several months untangling my panic disorder, and I'd learn that panic attacks can last hours, days, weeks. I learned that a panic disorder was something I'd need time, therapy, and antidepressants to effectively manage. I would learn cognitive-behavioral techniques that would stop me from plummeting down a panic spiral. But in the doctor's office that afternoon, there was only shock. I don't have the swine flu. I never did. I have anxiety.
While I waited for the counselor, I recited lines from The Proposal, a silent rosary. A prayer.
Sarah Watts is a freelance writer and content strategist. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Salon, and others.