D3 Commentary: Anxiety and Panic

In D3: She Has Arrived the new Zephyr is flung into the Mountain. This causes a quake which breaks both Jay’s knees. His knees quickly right themselves, but the psychological impact dealt is devastating. Like Beatrice says in C4, panicking is the worst option on a psychedelic. On centipede dust, panicking leads to the Teeth that Shriek.

As a writer who grapples with issues like anxiety and depression, I find the conflicts in my stories reflect my mental state. In high school, when I worked 14 hours day to keep up with frankly inhumane homework expectations, I wrote a short story about Hercules fighting a multi-headed hydra. When the hydra died, two more hydras appeared. It turned out their tails were connected to a meta-hydra, and whenever one hydra died, two hydras would grow from the meta-hydra. He had to kill the meta-hydra. But having done so, four more meta-hydras appeared. There was a mountain-sized meta-meta-hydra, whose neck birthed four meta-hydras each having hundreds of hydras. Hercules hung himself. I find that especially depressing in retrospect, as Disney’s Hercules was my childhood hero. Somewhere along the way I lost my faith.

During my next project I was taking antidepressants. I wrote a story about a world where recreational drugs were replaced by arcane rituals which also summoned monsters. Some monsters were harmless, but some monsters were huge, dangerous beasts. The main character was a woman who hated these monsters and the people who made them. She joined a group which fought those largest monsters. Injured in the line of duty, she turned to making monsters herself as painkillers. Soon she was addicted. It turned out these drug-monsters were sent by an extra-dimensional deity called the Skull God, who needed humanity to be addicted so he could infiltrate our universe.

After the first draft, some kid shot a bunch of people near UCSB, where I study math. I felt affected by the shooting and didn’t really have anyone to talk to, so the second draft made oblique references to the event: the Skull God was more needy and pathetic. His lines were drawn from Rodgers’ manifesto, and when the main character decapitated him and beat his skull to dust, he moaned and cried about having been the supreme gentleman.

In college my workload decreased, but the competition between the students increased. I wrote a story about a man who must win a hundred mile footrace against a horse. By the end, both man and horse were bloody and hallucinating, barely able to lurch forward. The horse’s rider was a cruel man who used any tactic to drive his animal on, leading to its collapse just before the finish line. The main character crawled across the finish line with a torn knee.

For a lot of college, I felt lonely and misunderstood. I wrote a story about a minotaur whose experience escaping a labyrinth helped him excel in a game like chess. The surface world made him a political pawn, having him play the game against ambassadors as a demonstration of military superiority. The main character, a woman who used to be the world champion of the game and a respected political figure, initially reared him to be that pawn. But by the end she learned to appreciate him. When he hid in a labyrinth, she came after him. She found him when no one else could, or even tried. With her help the minotaur made a political statement not just for his home country, but also for other groups of mistreated fantasy animals.

Of course, in The Bucket, alcoholic chemist Arnold vomited up extra-dimensional being Trip. Trip needed Arnold to keep drinking and vomiting to take over our universe. I’m not an alcoholic, but when I learned to really drink (in Japan), I saw how alcohol dependence could affect a person. The Bucket shows my interpretation through Arnold’s struggles appeasing the monster he hurled into a bucket. This marks a turning point for me: I didn’t write about alcoholism because I was dealing with it. I chose the theme purposefully. Addiction is powerful and universally understood.

What I’m trying to say is, I think stories which are just about anxiety, or depression, or loneliness, or love, or whatever—those stories are missing the point. There is power in writing to marry the murky objective world to ultimate subjective clarity. Genre is not a backdrop: it is a tool, like a drill. We must select our tools and machine their pieces finely, so our final product has power.

I’ve had panic attacks before. They’re not fun, like the opposite of an orgasm. A great acid reflux of shame and guilt and worthlessness. But just writing that in a book won’t make people understand. To convey the power of panic, I must reach both hands into the wealth of vital human imagery, the realm of the subconscious, where Hercules fights hydras and the minotaur haunts his maze.

This article from NPR shows where we feel emotions. Anxiety is a hot iron ball in our chest. Shame is on our cheeks and in our throat. That’s where Dan and Jay feel the Teeth that Shriek. The words ‘Teeth’ and ‘Shriek’ require a high-pitched whining intonation, which might cause anxiety. To have vulnerable tissues bitten by uncontrollable teeth seems primordially nightmarish, and shrieking would be an appropriate response. This is the symbol which will represent pure, self-destructive panic.

I hope you can agree it’s more powerful and more universally interpret-able than describing a panic attack. Now someone who has never been seized by self-destructive fervor is forced along for the ride.

(Why didn’t Jay panic while falling onto the Mountain? Look back at D2. Jay’s dark humor saves him from losing control. From there he keeps a cool head running through fog from the Mountain’s Heart. When Faith appears he turns maliciously compliant, telling the Mountain’s Heart he had been thrown onto the mountainside. Then he’s solidly assertive. It takes both kneecaps broken to knock him from his high-horse. Jay is clearly a sturdier fellow than Dainty Dan, but he has his limits. Grievous bodily harm would push anyone to panic.)

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