Creative Nonfiction: My Pretty Panic (A Lesson in Obstacles)

By Hali Morell

“What’s wrong with my face?” I asked my mom, a half a piece of chicken hanging out of my mouth, the rest sitting in my mouth, partially chewed. I didn’t want it in my mouth and was confused how it even got there.
“Well, there’s a hole in it,” she said, standing in the doorway of my house. “At least this happened on my day off!” she joked.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be silly! Hali, I’m your mother!” she said, approaching me and putting her hand on my leg. I recognized her comforting squeeze.
“I know, but I’m an adult now,” I said, replaying all of the moments I’ve needed my mother since I officially became an adult. Most of them usually involved some sort of stomach flu.
I slowly lifted my trembling left hand, covered in dried blood, toward the right side of my face.
“No, don’t touch it, Hali,” she said, a bit panicked yet ending the statement with a smile.
I had no idea what had just happened. Not even fully aware of how my mom got here or how I wound up propped in my husband’s black, leather desk chair out in the family room, or how I got this piece of shredded chicken into my mouth. All I knew was that my carefully planned-out schedule had just gotten screwed up. I had left the rest of the day open to rehearse. I looked down at my green T-shirt, now decorated with bloodstains. Something told me that I was pretty much done for the day. That fucking elliptical.
You see, I had this small elliptical machine that had now become an awkward obstacle in the bedroom that I consistently tripped over to get to the bed every night…a place to pile my clothes. Having used it sparingly, I sold it to a colleague at work and was excited to get it out of the way. Simultaneously, I was honing my first-ever one-woman show, which would open in three days.
It was a simple plan, I thought. Although nothing in my life has really ever been simple. Plagued with constant worry about everything since I was three years old, when I couldn’t stop crying because I’d spilled my plastic cup of milk, I’ve crawled my way through life, trying to dodge obstacles yet creating them at every turn due to a paralyzing fear of making a mistake, and even through the discovery and implementation of Zoloft at the age of twenty-one, I still wake up each day with a moderate pit in my stomach that something will go horribly wrong.
But this elliptical thing was supposed to be easy. I had told my colleague to pull up behind our garage in the alley and I’d simply wheel out the elliptical, and she’d be off. The rest of the day would be set aside for my first run-through of the show, including music cues. I had set my CD player up on the kitchen table and was eager to perform in front of the full-length mirror just off of the kitchen.
This whole writing-my-own-show-about-my-anxiety-disorder-and-then-performing-it had given me… well… a lot of anxiety. I was terrified of failing… publicly. It took six months of weeding through 160 pages of my life story to whittle it down to twenty-three pages. I hadn’t performed on stage in three years, and I was rusty. I couldn’t help but think, Who the fuck cares? Who really cares about my life? Why am I doing this? Who am I doing it for? These thoughts infiltrated my dreams. I’d wake up, having just performed in front of a room full of six-year-olds with their jaws on the floor after each utterance of “fuck.” I had dreams where the audience walked out after the first ten minutes. Dreams where no one showed up at all. It had been a solid month of nightly doses of Klonopin just to get a few hours of rest.
My colleague arrived and parked in the alley and I wheeled the elliptical to her car… easy. Lifting it up and placing it in her car… not so easy. That thing was heavy. Heavier than I had anticipated. And as I struggled to hold it up, something unfamiliar happened. My head felt heavy and snowy, snowy like you’d see on a TV from the eighties when the cable would go out.
“Hold on. I need to sit down for a sec,” I said, leaving her with the thing hanging out of her backseat.
I sat down and leaned up against the garage door. What the hell is going on? Why does everything look weird? Dark? Out of focus? I feel sick. Oh, God, am I gonna throw up? Oh no, please don’t throw up, Hali. Breathe. As I watched her try and finagle this monster, I felt terrible and immediately got up to help. But I felt worse. Everything was dimming and flashing in and out of color. I rubbed my eyes, thinking it would refresh my vision. It didn’t. Sweat coated my skin as if I were sitting in a sauna. My mouth was drained of any saliva.
“Hold on. I’ll be right back,” I said. As I stumbled back to my house, the pathway had never felt so long. Walking into shrubs and trees that lined the way, it was as though I had just downed twenty shots of alcohol. I fell into the camellias and grabbed onto the pink flowers, hugging them. Come on, Hali. Just make it to the front door.
“Hey! Hey! Are you okay? Hey!”
I opened my eyes and I was covered in dirt and blood, leaning against a succulent.
“Can you stand up?”
I recognized the voice. It was our neighbor, Johnny. Part of the “pick-up crew,” a group of guys from the neighborhood who lived there for years and years and hung out every day in fold up chairs by a white pick-up truck.
Desperately trying to wrap my brain around what had just happened, I just kept staring at my hands and arms. The smell of soil reminded me of when I used to make “mud pies” in my mom’s gardens when I was little.
I started to stand up and fell back down. Johnny slipped his flannel-covered arms under my armpits and pulled me up, helping me to my front door. Already an expert at mumbling, I couldn’t understand him, but his deep voice was soothing as I fell in and out of consciousness.
“Do you have your key?”
I did. I had my key, but I couldn’t quite get it in the lock. Everything was moving up and down and side-to-side. And then I proceeded to fall again. He took the key and opened the door. Holding me up, he walked me into the bedroom like I was a ragdoll and put me on the bed. It was an awkward moment. Johnny, the man who washes my car on occasion, putting me on my bed. But I was gaining enough of myself back to realize that this man had just saved me. From what exactly, I still didn’t know. I could hear flip-flops clicking down the pathway I had just crashed through.
“Oh my god! Are you okay?” It was my colleague bursting into the bedroom.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I left you with the elliptical,” I said, slurring my words.
“It’s okay! Have you eaten?” she asked.
Have I eaten? What, is she fucking kidding me? There’s no time to eat!
“Not really.”
Now sitting in the living room, completely dazed, I could hear her scrambling in the kitchen.
“Where is your husband?” she said, placing a few pieces of chicken on a paper towel on my husband’s desk.
“At work. He’s far.”
“Should I call your mom? I can call your mom,” she said.
It’s all very vague, how she got my phone, my mom appearing in my doorway, her driving me to St. John’s in Santa Monica. Lying on the white bed, we waited for a plastic surgeon. Yeah. It was bad. The nurse showed me a cup of brown liquid.
“What is that?” I asked.
“It’s your urine. You’re dehydrated,” the nurse responded.
The embarrassment and shame started to register. Had I really just completely fucked myself up by not taking care of myself? Yes, the answer is yes.
My husband showed up, having had to leave work early. For him to ever leave work early simply was not something that happened. Except the time he broke his ribs on set.
“This is like career day at school,” he said to the surgeon as he peered into my face and watched him sew it up.
“Would you mind adjusting that light for me?” the surgeon asked him. It was the perfect job for my photographer husband. The man who had a love and talent for lighting any scene, whether real-life or scripted.
“Are you still going to love me after watching this?” I asked him.
“Of course!” he said.
I looked into the surgeon’s masked, covered face.
“Okay, this is a liiiitttle tricky. I want to make sure that I attach this muscle correctly, so your smile isn’t impacted.”
“Yes, we want to save her smile!” my mom chimed in.
It was odd that the overall feeling in that operating room was somewhat upbeat. Or it could’ve just been the drugs.
“I have to perform,” I said.
“You do? When?” the doctor replied.
“In three days. Will I be able to do it?”
“Well, you may be a little swollen and have some pain.”
“Great. I’ll use it. It’ll help my acting.”
So, my plan to rehearse over the next two days had been slightly derailed. I had no choice but to sit on the sofa and read over my script, while drinking a lot of water. And that’s where I stayed until it was time. Time to perform a show about the struggles of navigating through life with a constant feeling of dread. The feeling that something will always go wrong. And something did go very, very wrong.
With the right side of my face swollen and throbbing, I drove myself to Beyond Baroque in Venice. I had my script, I had my CD player, and I had my icepack.
As I stepped onstage, the thing that always happens, happened. My pain went away. The fear went away. Because I was home. The theater is my home. The place I feel most comfortable and truly myself. Just as I was when I was a kid, grabbing one of the posts off of my canopy bed to use as a microphone, playing music, and performing in front of my full-length mirror. I was still that person.
I looked out into the audience. Full house. Okay, here we go.
“So, thank you all so much for coming. You may notice that I have an icepack here onstage, and that the side of my face looks like it’s stuffed with a softball. Well, what happened is that I was so anxious about this show that I kind of… well… fainted, and… well… had a hole in my face. So, you’re seeing the anxiety manifest in front of you. And now, here we go with ‘My Pretty Panic.’”
I moved to center stage to sit on a chair. I hit play on the remote. As “Under Pressure” began to play, I started my first scene. Having a panic attack while sitting on the toilet.
An hour and two minutes later, I had done it. I had told my life story. I don’t remember much of what happened… which is usually the case when I perform. And even though I had the CD remote upside down for the duration of the music cues so every song was wrong, it was okay. I was okay. After the show, my mom presented me with a wrapped gift. It was my green T-shirt, freshly washed and fluffed. Classic Mom.
Two days ago, Facebook showed a memory from six years ago. It was a picture of the flyer for my show, a turtle flying through the sky. I’ve always been a turtle. It takes me a really long time to get where I want to go… but I get there. I come out of my shell when I’m most comfortable. Onstage, with my husband and two cats, with good friends who’ve known me for a long time. And now I have a scar, next to my mouth. I’ve learned that our scars tell our stories. What happened, why it happened, and what it means. I need to slow down. I need to eat, drink, sleep, and trust that I, as a turtle, can soar.

P.S. Johnny now receives one hundred dollars in cash every December from my husband. He earned it.

Hali Morell is an actress, writer, and teacher living in Santa Monica with her husband and three cats. A member of the Cat Writers’ Association, her work has appeared in Atherton Review, Avalon Literary Review, Broad River Review, Cobalt Review, Evening Street Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Forge Journal, Grub Street, (mac)ro(mic), The Paragon Journal, Pendora Magazine, The Penmen Review, Stonecoast Review, and Tower Journal. When not writing about navigating the world’s anxieties with humor, she teaches and facilitates twelfth-grade Rites of Passage trips each year. Her latest endeavor is an attempt at a master’s degree in Creative Writing/Nonfiction.