Literary Hub

Finding Small Comfort in the Panic of Shirley Jackson

I didn’t know I had panic disorder until I was twenty, didn’t know such a thing as a panic attack existed; I’d never heard the term. Once I found out, I spent the next several years trying to hide my panic disorder, embarrassed. Until I started my MFA program, I’d never met another person who had panic attacks—or who talked about them. Panic is an individual experience, and often a lonely one.

Mine, I should say, are pretty well-controlled—maybe because I’ve had them all my life. Without knowing what exactly I was experiencing, my three-year-old self managed to find techniques to control panic. I remember hiding under the slide at my preschool, in that dark, quiet, cool triangle of space, breathing slowly as I willed away the panic brought on by a rhythmically-swooshing swing. I can still usually control a panic attack by excusing myself to a dark, quiet space or looking into a mirror. I know others have panic attacks far worse than mine—more intense, longer lasting, harder to control. In so many ways I’m lucky.

Still, panic is an integral part of my identity. The fear is so sudden and intense, the earth seems to tilt and slide away from me, and distance and sound are distorted. Sometimes it feels like I’m underwater. I sometimes have the sense of being flimsy or see-through. Sometimes I feel pixilated. My panic got worse after I had kids. Existing triggers became more intense, and new triggers developed. Slamming doors. Wind in trees. It was hard to go out to dinner because I was worried there would be a ceiling fan, or a banging door. I was scared of feeling scared. I felt more and more frustrated. How could benign aspects of nature and architecture catapult me into waking nightmares?

Shirley Jackson, a writer I’ve felt a deep connection to, was no stranger to anxiety as well. Like me, she lived and wrote in Vermont, and was a mother, simultaneously delighted by the charms and appalled by the indignities of motherhood. And, for a period of time, she couldn’t leave her house to walk to her car without experiencing paralyzing panic.

It makes sense that someone prone to panic would write ghost stories. Shirley Jackson was familiar with all the inexplicable angles of fear, its physical enormity and psychological power. She used supernatural elements in her fiction to explore the irrational forces she was experiencing in real life. In her most famous ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, one exquisite pleasure is that the horror traverses a territory in between psychological and supernatural. The horrors served up by Hill House apparently issue straight from the characters’ deepest fears, and that slipperiness—is the thunderous knocking only in Nell’s head? Is it an actual presence?—is a familiar aspect of my own fear. I know panic is born in my mind, but it manifests in ways that are tangible, physical.

It makes sense that someone prone to panic would write ghost stories.

In ghost stories, and certainly in Hill House, the object of horror is regularly located outside of the characters’ minds. Here is something to be afraid of—this presence with its laughter, its footsteps—something separate from my own complicated psyche. What a fierce relief to be afraid of something outside of my own mind, to escape the whims of my amygdala, to thrill and tremble and shiver at horrors any rational being would fear. Ghosts stories give form or voice or substance or agency to the invisible currents of my panic.

In my novel Goodnight Stranger, I wrote about panic accidentally. I honestly didn’t mean to give Lydia, my main character, panic disorder—I like her too much. Lydia lives on Wolf Island, a fictional place off Cape Cod, and like many of us she adores her home and resents it. When she tries to leave the island, she’s stopped by a panic attack brought on by the sound of tires on a wet street and the thought of being so far from everything, and everyone, she loves.

There are plenty of tangible, external things to fear in Goodnight Stranger: buried secrets, a powerfully charismatic stranger. I never wanted Lydia’s fear to exist inside her. But when her panic showed up, it felt inevitable, the way it always has been for me. My novel needed to explore multiple facets of fear.

After all, the novel is about what haunts us. It’s also about the things that prevent us from growing up. For Lydia panic ended up being one of the many things that kept her suspended in childhood. And it occurs to me now that in many ways the book is about lucid joy as much as it is about fear, and about all the moments when love and fear overlap.

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Jackson also wrote about episodes of intense joy. “Why does Life seem calculated to administer a deadening shock to each new jubilance?” she once remarked in an adolescent diary. Shirley Jackson’s fiction seems designed to counter this thought. Her people go down rabbit holes of terror gleefully. Nell escapes dullness and insignificance in a glorious crescendo of tenderness and connection, exhilaration and fear, moments of such bliss “the very air tastes like wine.” Terror and joy (jubilation, in Shirley’s words) don’t deaden each other, but race on together in parallel.

I’ve wondered if my own moments of elation—so bright and sharp they almost haunt me—exist despite my panic, or because of it. After all terror and exhilaration feel so similar: heartbeat, pulse and caught breath, tight muscles, squeezed ribcage. Don’t misunderstand me; panic disorder is no gift. I’d do almost anything to cut it from my life. It quite literally haunts me, affecting my marriage and friendships, my parenting, my work. I hate it, and I’m afraid of it.

I’ve wondered if my own moments of elation—so bright and sharp they almost haunt me—exist despite my panic, or because of it.

With the panic comes the battle to keep it at bay. My character Lydia has to tame the panic in order to protect the home she loves; she can’t let panic keep her prisoner on Wolf Island. Nell experiences this too in Hill House, a weariness she longs to surrender to. “It is too much,” Eleanor decides of the pressure to dissolve into or become one with Hill House. “I will relinquish my possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly what I never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have.”

How easy it would be to dissolve into panic—the presence inside me, this force of nature, as powerful as a storm, which feels like part of me, but isn’t me. Sometimes the dissolution of self is as appealing as it is horrifying, but we resist that particular siren song. We hold ourselves together, fight against surrender, and are rewarded with a spectrum of response—joy, deep love, and all the rest. For me the taste of panic is metallic—like blood—but in wild happiness the very air tastes like wine. I’ve never known this so clearly as when reading Shirley Jackson’s ghost stories.

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Goodnight Stranger, by Miciah Bay Gault, is available from Park Row.

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