I had my first panic attack on a quiet sunny morning in Berlin. It was mid-summer. The city was drowsing, baking, in the grip of a heatwave. The massive chestnut trees were heavy with leaves, the grass on the sides of Karl-Marx-Allee grew dusty and long. Bats flickered like quicksilver through the sultry evenings. Every day I sat working with my feet in a bucket of cold water.
On that particular morning, when I first woke up, I felt as if there were no air in the bedroom. I pulled back the black sheet (we’d never bought curtains), flung open the window, saw the familiar ochre walls of the Babylon cinema across the street. Behind, a blue cloudless sky — which suddenly, inexplicably, felt too low. It was like a lid to the world, pressing down on the trees, on the houses, and especially on me, crushing the breath out of my lungs.
I hung out the window, gasping, feeling as if I were suffocating. For half an hour I stumbled around the apartment trying to breathe: lying on the floor, standing up again, half-crying. What was happening? I had no idea. I only knew I felt close to dying.
My husband had already left for work, gone before 9 a.m., off to his large cluttered studio under the roof in a disused factory building in Kreuzberg. I grabbed my phone and quickly typed a text. Can u call, I need u.
But then, instead of hitting Send, I put down the phone and left it lying by the bed. In the living room I lay flat on the hot sticky floorboards and stared at the spines on the lower bookshelves. Art catalogues, Kunstforum, Frieze, novels, memoirs, The Paris Review: the eclectic mix of our life together. I forced myself to read every name and title, using the orderly letters to pull myself out of the engulfing panic.
You can get through this. . . Then, more emphatically, You can get through this alone.
Gradually the pressure in my chest eased. I took some deep breaths and felt my clenched muscles starting to loosen. Rolling onto my back, I looked at the ceiling: it was normal again, no longer like the lid of a coffin. And when I glanced outside, the sky had also returned to its usual self: friendly, clear, innocuous blue, offering a wide-open day.
But still I lay there. An unwelcome equation was ticking over in my head:
At first, he was my Best Friend.
Then he became my Best Friend and my Husband combined.
Now . . .
Now . . .
Now he is only my Husband.
The sudden realisation that I could no longer rely on him —to comfort me, to save me — pushed me to my feet. I brushed my sweaty hair back and went to run a bath. You’re okay, I reassured myself, sitting on the ceramic edge and holding my hands under the stream of cool water. You’re okay. It’s over now.
I lay in the half-full bath, watching the planes travelling like well-aimed arrows towards Tegel Airport. At night, you could star-watch from our bathroom window, as the Berlin sky is so unpolluted by artificial light. By day, you could see the roof of the gallery, one block away, where my husband and I had first met. Concentrate on the good things. Think about the positives. Your home, your friends, your work. But soon I realised that my face was wet not from water, but from tears.
A Friday evening, some years earlier. The central neighbourhood of Mitte, German for ‘middle’, is humming with art openings. Exhibitions in hole-in-the-wall spaces run by artists, or in glossy commercial galleries. Paintings hung in deserted petrol stations, in temporary showrooms erected hastily and illegally on overgrown parkinglots,orinhugeshabbyapartmentsonTorstrasse.Girlswith tattoos and stilettos. Boys with long hair and slouching attitudes. Art, sex, alcohol. Not just Friday night — every night is party night if you want it to be, at this particular time, in this particular place, in the relaxed, tolerant, dirt-cheap, fringe-creative, mixed-up playground that’s our Berlin.
‘Then I grabbed the mic and sang, “Happy Birthday to Me”! Can you believe it?’ Veronica is telling me about her recent breakdown back home in Los Angeles. ‘My husband took me off stage and straight to hospital. And later he brought me to Berlin.’ She looks at me earnestly with her forget-me-not-blue eyes. ‘He’s my white knight.’
White knight. A phrase to raise feminist hackles — but tonight it just makes me feel wistful and warm. I go inside for drinks. The sculptures are being ignored in favour of social interaction. Sometimes art in Berlin seems like nothing more than the centre of the word pARTy. Everyone’s lounging and chatting on windowsills, drinking copious amounts of tepid beer out of squishy plastic cups.
A large black-clad body collides with me. ‘Entschuldigung, sorry!’ It’s the son of a famous art publishing magnate — and the gallerist to boot. Somewhat strangely, considering his job is appraising art, he’s almost completely blind. ‘Oh, it’s you, Sarah! Do you know—’ He turns, almost knocking over a plinth holding a Chinese vase that’s been deliberately smashed and glued back together, and grabs the arm of a man with glossy brown shoulder-length hair. ‘Do you two know each other? If not, you should.’
I stick out my hand automatically and then retract it again. ‘Sorry! I’ve been in Germany too long!’
The man laughs, revealing a flash of silver tooth. ‘We don’t shake hands back in Sweden. We’re a country of huggers.’
‘Really? So are New Zealanders. We hug on sight. Hugging is like a national OCD.’
He’s wearing a dark-blue T-shirt and has startlingly clear, light- blue eyes. His cheeks are rosy, his forearms tanned. ‘We call this a labourer’s tan,’ he says when I comment on it. He pulls up his sleeve to reveal a much whiter bicep. ‘I was working on a friend’s boat for the past month. Taking a break from making art.’
Friends drift around us, and we float apart and then come together again. The gallerist hoves back into sight. ‘Ah, have you two met?’ He peers vaguely at us. ‘This is Sarah. She’s a writer, she comes from Australia.’
‘Close enough,’ I say. ‘Yes, we’ve met,’ says the almost-stranger, who’s already starting to feel familiar. We escape outside and stand on the curb, watching smoke billowing from the roof of the famous Volksbühne, domain of the infamous East German theatre director Frank Castorf, who presents dry ice, flames, faeces, and full-frontal nudity on stage whenever possible. ‘The first time I saw smoke coming from the theatre, I called them to say their roof was on fire. They called me a philistine.’ He gives a short burst of self-deprecating laughter, which makes me like him even more.
‘Gott sei Dank, fresh air!’ The gallerist lumbers up, his bottletop spectacles reflecting the street light. ‘Do you two know each other?’