Subject Appears Anxious (Bonus Tracks)

Late last year my story about panic, “Subject Appears Anxious,” appeared in the Opinionator section of The New York Times.

The editor of that piece cut a couple of scenarios from the original draft. Here they are, restored.


Year: 1985

Location: Astoria, Queens, New York

Participant(s): Subject (F; 20), Bystanders

Environment: Subway (Manhattan-bound R train)

Observed Event(s): Subject boards a very crowded subway train. The temperature outside is approximately 25 degrees (Fahrenheit). Temperature inside the subway car is approximately 80 degrees (Fahrenheit). Subject is observed sweating and attempting to loosen coat and scarf with limited success given crowded confines. When the train enters a tunnel Subject’s breathing becomes shallow and color drains from her face. Subject collapses onto floor of subway car where she remains prone and unconscious for approximately 10 seconds. Bystanders raise Subject’s feet. Subject regains consciousness and is offered a seat. Subject places head between knees for remainder of ride.

Overall Affect: Subject appears anxious.

Conclusions: Subject has not self-reported as claustrophobic, nor is it our opinion that she suffers from a confinement-induced pathology. However, the combination of wide temperature swings, physical restriction, lack of privacy and abruptly imposed “entrapment” (i.e., the tunnel) appears to have created a “perfect storm” for an episode. Subject should look into available bus routes.


Year: 1979

Location: Upper East Side, Manhattan, New York

Participant(s): Subject (F; 14), Receptionist, Spa Worker, Spa Magnate

Environment: Facials Spa

Observed Event(s): Subject enters the Georgette Klinger spa. Subject looks nervous and unhappy.1Subject is greeted by Receptionist and Spa Worker, then led up a long, winding staircase made of chrome and glass2 to a windowless room. Subject changes into a robe and sits in reclining spa chair, where she is observed clutching chair arms in a “death grip” while staring at the closed door. Spa Magnate (Georgette Klinger) enters the room, followed by Spa Worker, and extends a hand toward Subject’s face. Spa Magnate murmurs (in heavily Czech-accented English), “Beautiful. So young. Some acne. That’s too bad.” She adds, “Cleansing Lotion N followed by Polyplant Mask” before exiting the room, followed by Spa Worker. Spa Worker returns carrying a tray of spa items. “You’re sweating,” says Spa Worker. Subject nods in the affirmative and swallows audibly. Spa Worker applies what is presumably a cleansing lotion and then removes it with a steaming washcloth. “This is supposed to be relaxing,” says Spa Worker while covering Subject’s face with green-colored paste. Subject abruptly exits chair, declaring, “I need to leave now.” Spa Worker looks alarmed and, upon seeing Subject begin to remove robe, leaves the room. Subject dresses quickly and is observed running down chrome and glass staircase out of the spa and down to the street. Subject places hand in coat pocket and extracts a wadded tissue, which she uses to wipe at her face frantically while walking south on Madison Avenue in a highly agitated manner.

Overall Affect: Subject appears anxious.

Conclusions: Enforced relaxation may create paradoxical effects, especially when experienced in sensually stimulating and vertiginous surroundings. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in a prior PET scan study. Cf. Increased Amygdala Activity Demonstrated in Anxious Sub-Sets of Over-Privileged Populations in Luxury-Oriented Environments (J.M. Humphries et al., 1975).

1. Subject reports that she did not want to receive treatment at the spa but had been given the appointment as a gift and was expected to report on it that evening and so felt obligated to go.

2. Observers note the staircase because Subject exhibited signs of dizziness while ascending and descending; subject also reported worrying for the safety of the high-heeled Spa Worker.

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