A night of expensive nurses and sticky electrodes

You said you went through a rough patch, Mr. Tennis. So out with it!

Published December 31, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

A few months ago, you mentioned you went through a rough patch but didn't want to talk about that, wanted to hear what was up with us instead. But the thing is, you tell us so much, to not explain the rough patch seems weird. I have no excuse for asking. I'm just nosy (but I'm a writer -- soap operas -- so that's my excuse for being nosy, if not an excuse for actually asking).

So, simple question. Will you tell us what went on?

Just Asking

Dear Just Asking,

I will indeed tell you what went on. It was the Tuesday a week before the election. I was working at home on a cover story for Salon. I had been working on it for days. I was reading about Adolf Hitler and noting certain personality traits in common with George W. Bush. I was reading Jacqueline Rose on Freud's theory of mass psychology ("The lone criminal can be distanced," she writes, "but not the policies of a government that, democratically elected, represents each and every one of us") and thinking about our national narcissism ("What if, in struggling, say, to 'impose democracy', we are in fact servicing an ideal version of ourselves?") and the left's crippling angst at the approaching election and what it would or would not ratify. All this as e-mail after e-mail scrolled down the screen with the subject line "Politics Is Freaking Me Out."

Whether by subterranean neurological pathway or hypnotic suggestion, that mantra "Politics Is Freaking Me Out" had begun to work like a sinister poison into my own fragile sanity and health. But I did not fully appreciate this fact. At the time, all I knew was that a deadline was approaching and I was facing it down with the same white-knuckle desperation with which I had faced down all such deadlines since my first junior high school all-nighter -- minus the No-Doz of that first experience and the methamphetamines of later, more savage and weird episodes in my dangerous and fanatical pursuit of a byline.

Then I got the symptoms: pain in my left arm and shoulder, tingling in the extremities, nausea, sweating, shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness. I hit "send" to get off a draft, and dialed 911. The man on the phone said to walk to the front door and unlock it, and then to sit down and keep him on the line. We made some small talk. He said he'd had his first heart attack at 47. I said, "Wow." He asked me how the pain was. I said it wasn't so bad, it was just scary. I thought I was going to pass out.

Soon men came into my house and yelled my name right in my face just like on TV. They put nitroglycerine under my tongue. I got the oxygen mask. I went to the hospital, wore the robe and did all that I was told to do in a state of helplessness that reminded me for both good and ill of being once again a third-grader. The net result was an $8,000 one-night stay in the strangest hotel you've ever seen, frequently interrupted not only by hotel personnel placing electrodes on my chest (with amazingly powerful adhesives!) but by the startling voices and movements of other guests in apparently much worse shape than I. My wife, whom I had called at work from the ambulance (I said, "Hi, Sweetie, guess where I am? I'm in an ambulance headed to the hospital!"), arrived from Palo Alto with magazines. We played cards in the E.R., and I read People.

It turns out I'm fine, as far as the doctors can tell. All the tests say I never had a heart attack, and there's nothing wrong with me apart from sort-of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. They put me on Metropolol and Lipitor.

Though I'm healthy, it was a "wake-up call." Consider me called. Consider me awake. Consider me totally into stress reduction and long-term survival. Consider me a very lucky guy. Also consider me no longer both copy chief and staff writer, but only staff writer: I have finally relinquished my white-knuckle grip on the reins of the copy desk after a profound and life-changing five years in the center of a brilliant journalistic cyclone.

One more thing -- after this happened, I stayed out of Table Talk. I knew if I went in there I was going to emote in alarmingly extemporaneous ways. I really tend to free-associate in there, as though it were some kind of anonymous therapy session, which it decidedly is not. I figured too much extemporizing on my own mortality might give rise to the wrong kind of rumors. But now that I've gotten this episode off my chest, so to speak, I plan to continue using Table Talk as an anonymous therapy session in defiance of all common sense, and continue to speak freely of my many fears and neuroses whose confused and unresolved state gives them decidedly limited appeal.

Oh, and this: The adjustment to my hours and duties, in addition to giving me a general increase in robustness and cheerfulness of mien, should also allow me to occasionally write some longer pieces, and to do the deeper and more thoughtful research that certain questions cry out for.

Basically I'm fine. I just have to take these little pills.

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