My Fight with Panic Disorder Part II: Gwin and Marijuana

From the essay, “Stuck in the Middle,” by Cindy Zelman

Look, you even get your own handbook.
If only I’d had a handbook on how to keep out of trouble when I was 15.

When I was thirteen I met Gwin, new to town, and we spent a lovely year bonding as we entered the eighth grade at junior high. We walked to and from the bus stop each day, chatting about our young lives, and yet feeling so mature.

 “Those seventh graders still act like children,” she might say, and I’d answer, “Yes, they do, Gwin, like babies.”

Already, she was interested in junior and senior boys in high school. I thought this made her very grown up. Although we didn’t share many classes at school, we hurried to each other every afternoon when we caught the school bus home. We babysat together, and spent all waking moments keeping each other company. We shared secrets. Her father drank too much. So did my mom. Her mother was mentally unstable. So was my dad. She was a virgin but she wanted to have sex. I was a virgin and I wanted to learn to play the guitar. We ate Swiss Rolls (chemically produced cake with chemically manufactured whip cream) and drank Diet Pepsi (with fake sweetener to give you brain tumors, someday, long down the road, we imagined.) We laughed so much. That was the thing: I’d never been so happy, as I was with Gwin.

She had cat-green eyes and a reddish-blonde afro, a hairstyle popular in the 1970s, no matter your skin color. When she smiled at me, all other reality collapsed. I had fallen secretly in love with her – the secret was on me, and it would take me years to understand these feelings. I would have done anything to please her, and I did.

Before panic attacks exploded as a regular part of my life, I agreed, at the end of our freshmen year in high school, to try marijuana. By age fifteen, Gwin enjoyed smoking pot. She thought it was her right that I should smoke with her.

“What are best friends for? I want you to get high with me. That’s what best friends do together.” She demanded it, her tone chastising.

I had done a little drinking since entering high school, but I never got drunk. I hated the taste of booze, truly, and thought of my mother every time I felt even a little tipsy. My mother was a big nighttime drunk. As a child, I’d suffered through her episodic inebriated jags, always as she came home from a night out partying, fumbling with her house key, noisy and incompetent. Such memories made me afraid of the idea of pot—the potential loss of control—but I did not know how to articulate such a fear to Gwin or to myself.

Too late!

As we departed the woods, I stumbled down a three-foot embankment and blacked out. I could not remember climbing down the embankment. I was at the top of it, and then I was staggering at the bottom of it. I couldn’t remember the two seconds in between. A terror ignited inside me, extinguished, lit again and extinguished, like brush fires ravage through the woods on a windy day. Somehow I managed to reach Ellen’s patio, which served as an open and pretty backyard to the condo she lived in with her mother and sister.

Ellen had laid out a feast for the stoned: potato chips, onion dip, little meatballs on a stick, chili, Doritos, candy, cake, and Diet Pepsi. My getting high for the first time signified an occasion. I sat down in a patio chair. Ellen turned on music. We were seventies rockers. We listened to The Who, Rod Stewart, and Queen. One of my favorite songs of the era was “Stuck in the Middle,” featuring a now obscure band called Stealers Wheel. The song played out of Ellen’s stereo speakers. Ellen and Gwin were giggling ecstatically, but I sat with a mortified expression, feeling stiff and paralyzed and other-worldly.

“Are you having fun?” one of them asked.

“I don’t know.” I managed to say.

“What’s the matter?” Giggles.

“Nothing. Just let me feel the music.”

“Just let me feel the music!” They mocked with more uncontrollable giggles.

That was a line I never lived down with those girls. Yet how appropriate some of the lines of the song: Well, I don’t know why I came here tonight/I got the feeling that something ain’t right /Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right/Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

I was stuck in the middle of a drug experience. I was stuck in the middle of my first full-fledged  panic attack. I was in a state of marijuana hallucination. I stared at the red brick wall of the back of Ellen’s condo. The brick wall existed and did not exist. I viewed everything through a warped visual haze that apparently my friends either did not experience or did not experience as terrifying. I saw a hand crumbling Ruffles Potato Chips to my lower right, understanding that this was my hand, but this wasn’t my hand. I had no reference point for reality, and my perceptions floated un-tethered and petrified, as a hand, mine, not mine, crumbled Ruffles.

My throat was parched. The table with the refreshments rested just feet away, but it seemed miles. There is a table but there is no table. I couldn’t imagine how I would get out of my seat to pour a drink, and I could no longer speak to ask for one. I could see my friends laughing and munching Doritos, but I couldn’t figure out if they were there or not. Gwin, Ellen? There, not there. I would die from thirst. My tongue was huge and leathery in my mouth.

I was pouring myself a Diet Pepsi over ice cubes. How did I get to the table? I did not remember rising from my chair. How will I get back to my chair?

 I am paralyzed.

 I will fall and die.

 I am back at my chair.

The hand continued to crumble potato chips. It’s my hand. It’s not my hand.

 I couldn’t lift the glass to my lips to relieve my enormous tongue that no longer fit in my mouth. It is my tongue. It is not my tongue.

I was downing Diet Pepsi and trying to un-parch my tongue. Drink or die. I felt myself swallowing liquid. Drink or die.

I swallow. I cannot swallow. I swallow.

I could not turn in any direction; everything I saw was there but was not. I looked up to the sky (which exists and does not exist) and prayed to God (who exists and does not exist) to get me out of this: Dear God, if you get me out of this, I promise I will never again take another drug.

I saw my father, difficult and frightful, walking toward Ellen’s patio, although he did not know where she lived. I imagined him, with his dark-tanned skin and wounded eyes, demanding that I get up and go with him. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t walk. He would have a tantrum. I can’t get up. My father is not here but he’s coming. No he’s not. Yes he is.

My prayers worked, eventually, because I started, after what seemed like hours, to come down. Reality slowly started to look real again: the brick wall, the table, the glass in my hand. Potato chips were just potato chips. I ate some. I thanked God in my head, and I experienced a deep physical calm and acceptance of all things. I wondered if this was how people felt right before they resigned themselves to drowning at sea. I felt I had drowned, had lost something in silvery waves of fear. Although God (or something) got me out of this horror, I had not been saved: I remained the daughter of a drinker mom and a mental case dad, and now, I would come to find out, I’d triggered a psychiatric disorder and would become a teenager with a wrecked adolescence.

To be continued.

A version of this essay was originally published in Cobalt Review

If you are interested in reading Part I – please click here:

Watch the video: Stuck in the Middle


  1. Hi Cindy! I was shoveling..oy..still tired! As always, enjoyed reading it so much. You captured well the disorientation, loss of control and fogginess that can accompany the use of pot and other drugs. I had a period of drug use that went well beyond marijuana and I have got to say that some of the feelings you captured of being partially removed from reality, loss of control, etc. was exactly what made it all appealing to me. I graduated to pills, other drugs and ultimately to freebasing (if you can believe me doing that!) before I decided to deal with reality. I viewed my drug use in a way as a mini-suicide…taking me away from the world for a while to one where I did not have to be in control, did not have to deal with all the people who made my life unbearable, where everyone (including me) was beautiful and interesting and where I didn’t have to worry about tomorrow. I didn’t generally experience the anxiety you describe but I do recall friends I persuaded to try drugs experiencing similar symptoms to those you have made so real in your writing. My drug goal was generally to become as separated from reality as possible whether that was “comfortably numb” or “energized beyond this world.” Becoming comfortable in those drug induced zones (that was such a source of anxiety for you) become an obsession for me. There are usually grave consequences to most obsessions and that was definitely the case for me. Thanks for the insightful entry and I look forward to reading the “To Be Continued.”


    • Hi Erik, I responded to your other comment. I love the contrasts you make with your experiences versus mine. “Comfortably numb…” We are of the Pink Floyd generation. I like that you understand how the zones for me were terrifying, whereas for you they were a goal. It’s amazing really. Did you see part I of this piece? There will be more parts and thank you for reading! Cindy


  2. Hi Cindy! There was lots of snow to be shovelled! Enjoyed the piece and your description of your experiences were very tangible. It was interesting to me because I had a period of drug use that started with marijuana..progressed to pills and other drugs..utlimately culminating in freebasing (if you can see me freebasing!) before I decided I needed to finally deal with reality. For me, some of the feelings you so acutely described including being out of control, out of reality, out of my skin were exactly what I enjoyed and continually sought out. Drug use was like a “mini-suicide” to me…letting me escape the world to one where I was totally not in control and where everything seemed magical, amazing, twisted, surreal and crazy and where everyone (including me) seemed incredibly interesting and beautiful. Of course, as with most obsessions, that all utlimately came at a tremendous cost which some days I feel like I am stil paying for. Thanks for another insiteful entry and I look forward the next one!


    • Hi Erik,

      Thank you again for reading and commenting on my blog. Most people I’ve met who smoke marijuana enjoy the same experiences that terrified me, indeed, that traumatized me. I’m not surprised that you enjoyed drug use. I would guess you don’t have panic disorder. I’m glad you don’t! I’m also glad you overcame the drug use. Look at who you are today – amazing and beautiful. Truly you are.

      Erik, I’m not getting as many hits (no pun intended) for this piece as I usually get. I wonder if those who enjoy marijuana are keeping quiet. I once openly posted about my dislike of the drug because it hurt me all those years ago and some people were so defensive; it was as if they didn’t want to acknowledge that this drug they loved so much could actually be hurtful to someone. It was the first time in my life I really understood what it meant not to be heard.

      Thank you for always hearing me, Erik.



      • Hi Cindy. I think something weird is/was going on with the site. I only meant to post once but got an error so I repostef but my posting apparently didn’t actually show up to many days later. You may get two versions of this reply too because I again got an error the first time. Enjoy your writing and will check out part 1.


      • Hi Erik,

        I’m sorry the site is giving you trouble. I’m so happy that you keep coming back to read, though. It’s really cool. Thank you, Erik!



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