Panic disorder is a very debilitating condition, in many different senses. While it’s not that much physically crippling, it certainly alters and eats up numerous aspects of your personality – your psychological strength, your belief in your own abilities, your self-image and your social life, to name just a few. It builds up a rock solid, invisible prison walls around your existence, cutting you off from so many things ordinary human life consists of.
The stronger the disorder hits, the more your social contacts are doomed to be at risk. There is always a chance for good odds in life, and somewhere among us there are certainly great people who can accept us without question exactly the way we are, but we were not all equally dealt fortunate cards to run into such individuals in this both amazing and horrible life. It’s been almost 7 years since my last, extremely dramatic PD relapse from which I’ve never recovered. Although my condition is much more stable now than it was 7 years ago, there are some consequences that I’ll probably have to deal with for the rest of my life. Lack of human friendship is certainly one of them. Not because all other people are bad or mean or ill-willing, absolutely not. And definitely not because I’m some very bad person myself, but simply because a true friendship needs nurturing, physical presence and tangible support at both good and bad times, a shift of focus from your own feelings to other people and their needs. This seems to imply that one simply needs to be healthy, strong and above all mentally stable in order to be a true friend for others, at least this is my experience.
There are less than 5% of people on this planet who developed this condition to such a bad extent as it happened to me and unfortunately, with all do respect, those who never experienced it will never be truly able to understand how I feel, no matter how hard they might try to do it. It’s almost impossible to explain to a human friend why I, fully physically functional person, can’t go with them to a concert, cinema, restaurant, bars… People don’t understand why I can’t meet them somewhere far enough from my home and why they have to come to visit me instead within the limits of my comfort zone. It’s virtually impossible to give a reason why I can’t travel anywhere, even though I would really love to. People like me deeply suffer when we get mocked because of our inability to drive, attend big family reunions, celebrations, weddings or funerals. Sometimes we even get despised because of not being able to be physically there for others. We do our best to explain, we suffer a lot, fight to please, swallow hurtful words… but at some point, it gets too much. And we simply retreat, so that we don’t have to explain anything anymore. We’ll anyhow either end up being considered totally crazy which we are not, or even worse, lying bastards who just pretend for some reason, because looking from the outside, it usually seems that there is nothing wrong with us. Not good at all either way. However, the moment we retreat, others retreat as well. And this distance inevitably grows with each new day, until we become aware that our phones haven’t rung for several days in a row. Loneliness creeps in slowly but steadily, and loneliness is a very sad and heavy burden for anybody’s soul.
This massive panic attack 7 years ago that turned the course of my life in a completely unpredictable direction wasn’t the first one for me. It didn’t catch me unprepared or ignorant of what was happening. I knew I had to fight, in spite of my body that was rebelling against me in the worst possible way. It was either the fight or sinking down to the bottom of the life pit, and I chose not to give up. I was paying a fortune from my modest savings to taxi drivers, but I continued to move around, trying to pretend that nothing had changed. I forced my rubbery legs to carry me around, even though I had to lean on walls and clench to tables and chairs with sweaty hands in order not to run away and save myself from some seemingly inevitable non-existent doom.
On one beautiful, sunny morning two months after this life changing attack I gave up. I had an appointment with my dentist whose office is less than a mile from my home, and I was literally shaking at the thought of having to drag myself over there. As I was reluctantly waiting for yet another taxi to come and pick me up, there was a sudden growling sound followed by continuous dreadful barking that was coming my way at an incredible speed from behind the angle of my building. I remember shouting: “Hey, what’s the matter with you??!” An enormous, dangerous jaw with revealed teeth stopped at an inch away from my leg and the barking almost instantly turned into whining of recognition, as though the dog wanted to apologize for not recognizing me sooner. It was Žuća, a three-legged yellowish bastard stray dog who lived in our little woods and in our neighborhood. I knew that our neighbor took care of him, he was regularly fed and taken care of every single day, I knew who he was and he knew who I was, yet our roads had never seriously crossed till that unusual, crucial morning. We made peace, I went to the appointment and came back home, never to leave it again till some 18 months later.
Many mornings, months and years have passed since that day. I got to know Žuća very well and started sharing the best and the worst moments of my life with him and his two little companions, Maza and Laza, mom and son, stray dogs just like him. I got to know the best that there is in dogs’ soul, all that immense, beautiful, magic, unconditional canine love for me in spite of my disorder and being who I am on one side, and the worst that can dwell in human soul when it comes to attitude towards animals on the other side. I learnt about Žuća’s terrible destiny, about how he used to be a normal, four-legged dog until one night when he was shot by mistake by a mad policeman who was chasing a thief in our woods. The policeman though he had shot the thief hiding behind a bush, disappointed to find out that it was “just a dog”. He didn’t even apologize for shooting the dog. On the contrary, he said that he was glad. And that all dogs should be shot. Žuća’s surgery lasted whole night and there was blood all over my neighbor’s flat as the vet was trying to save his life. Žuća made it, but unfortunately lost a leg. That was 8 years ago, when I knew nothing about this drama. I was well and full of energy, oblivious of the fact that it was only a remission and that my no-PD days were counted. I knew nothing of his battle to learn to walk again on three legs, go potty, guard himself from all other now much faster and stronger dogs. It didn’t seem he could survive with his handicap in this ruthless life, but he fought like a true warrior. He grew to become a mascot of our building, an inspiration, a great and even pretty fast dog in spite of what happened to him.
While he continued to fight his personal battles, my agoraphobia grew worse and worse to finally limit me only to the boundaries of my little room. My life lost much of its meaning and there was no purpose why I should resist the dreadful panic to force myself to come out of my flat. My muscles lost their tone, my face lost color, my cheerful nature vanished and got reduced to an occasional, fake smile when I had to mask my “insanity” in front of others. My mother who never understood my condition and who has always been an improper but my only support in all these gloomy years, started making me try to go out to feed Žuća’ s companions Maza and Laza who at the time lived outside as well. It took me so much pain, so many steps forward and backward, so many days of trial and error to reach at first just the front stairs of my building, then the street and finally the woods across the street, carrying little bowls of food and water for Maza and her little puppy Laza. My mother didn’t allow dogs in house and the pressure of imagining them hungry if I don’t go out was stronger even than the mighty panic dread. For me, this was literally the process of relearning how to trust my nerves and move in life from the scratch, as though I was recovering from some sort of serious brain damage that brought me back to the first year of my life when I made my first steps. Slowly, as our routes in the woods expanded with time, Žuća started joining us in our walks, fighting for his portion of food and cuddling and constantly murmuring in his own unique and unforgettable way, trying to tell us some incomprehensible story. As Laza was growing up, Žuća was keeping him company day by day, teaching him all he knew and getting his protection in return because several years ago Laza was absolutely the fastest dog I had ever seen. If he had been born human, I’m almost certain that he would compete side by side with the amazing Usain Bolt.
Years went by, we survived both crises and happy days, Žuća’s and Laza’s illnesses, Laza’s ordeal when he ended up in an animal shelter by mistake where he was kept in completely inhumane conditions, anger of dog haters, me and Laza fighting against dog poisoning in the neighborhood, painful changes of city policies for dogs… Those were the days filled with massive waves of unlimited love of beings to whom I never had to explain anything in order to be accepted, intertwined with immense worry and uncertainty, but nevertheless I wouldn’t change them for anything in the world. I learnt so much about life and all those things I would have continued to take for granted if things had been different.
We did survive a lot, but unfortunately Žuća grew older and older, losing first his eyesight and then hearing as well, depending more and more on constant care and vigilance. Laza and Maza started living in my flat and slowly lost that previous constant touch with Žuća, with occasional exceptions when they would happily great each other in the woods and take walks together as they used to. Žuća fought the best he could in spite of his old age, this year’s winter and ice, lack of time of his caregivers for him, walking courageously on his three legs, surviving against all odds. Until March 12th, 2014.
In my opinion, he could have definitely went on for at least a bit longer, but it was estimated that he should be put to sleep, even though he still wasn’t in a completely bad shape. It was a decision that can be questioned and it is still not comprehensible to me why he had to be prematurely killed, but nothing can reverse time and change the fact that he’s gone forever. The only thing that remains to me now is to say the last goodbye, farewell to my dear, poor, amazing, unique, special and above all extraordinarily brave three-legged friend. I’m very grateful for his company during these dark years of my life. I’ll never forget his constant greetings he had for me whenever he would see me and all those times when I would let him into the building and walk down the stairs leading him to the flat where he lived, mastering at the same time the path of my own recovery.
There is no Žuća anymore, there is only silence and emptiness in the woods. In the meantime my comfort zone has expanded to some 5 miles away from my home and I’m occasionally able to move around that much. Maybe that seems a very little progress in 7 long years, but it means a whole world to me. I’m not sure if I had made it if it weren’t for Žuća, Laza and Maza, and I do hope that I managed to do something good for them and that I’ll continue doing it in return for the good they did to me. It may sound dramatic, but they probably saved my life, because I’m not sure that I would still be here today if I remained closed in my room.
Farewell my dear friend, you who never questioned if I were capable or sane enough to be your friend. Thank you for everything and rest in peace.
Žukice, volimo te i mislimo na tebe…
Ja, Maza i Laza