It wasn’t long after Ryan moved in that it happened again. This was the sixth home he and I had shared–there were three dorms in college, then two houses off-campus and in the four years that we lived together, we were burglarized four times. Years later, in our shared apartment far away from college, it seemed that either our bad luck had returned, or worse–whoever’d been breaking into our homes had finally come back to finish the job.

I woke to the sound of thrashing outside my bedroom. The doors were locked, of course–they always were. I’d sometimes drag my heavy metal weight bench along the floorboards in front of them. But tonight I hadn’t done that. With enough of a push, the flimsy lock that held the doors together would unlatch right away. And from the sound of it, I was seconds away from three or four burglars blowing those doors down.

Fight or flight kicked in the moment my eyes opened. I flung myself towards the doors, pushing my upper half forward so forcefully that I felt as though my right shoulder popped out of its socket. Wincing in pain, I snared one of the doorknobs and pressed the weight of my whole body against the cheap fiberwood paneling. “What—what th-the fuck is going on?” I yelled.

My teeth chattered. My chest throbbed. I had night-vision; in the pitch-black room, I could see everything. And as waves of adrenaline coursed through my system, my hand filled up with such strength that I swear I could have torn that knob right off and hurled it through the double doors like a major league pitcher.

Photograph by the author.

Dom Nero

I was having a panic attack. A bad one. It was the sort of episode that makes you feel like you are falling to the Earth. And though it felt as though my body was operating at maximum capacity, with every one of my senses on red alert, my knees were shaking, and I felt as though I might topple over. That’s not to say this feeling was completely new, though. In fact, I’d begun to encounter attacks like this a lot by then.

They came unprompted, at inexplicable times. Once, weeks before this night, my vision narrowed to a tiny keyhole when a client criticized my work as we sat in front of my laptop in an empty coffee shop. About a month prior to that, I lost the capacity to speak when I knocked into a guy at a party by accident in the line for the bathroom, and he flew into a rage.

Even with a lot of therapy, it’s tough to keep track of all the triggers that can cause a panic attack. Months before that night, in the fall, I had an episode after eating ceviché on a date. It was the raw red onions, I think. The taste–that strong, dry odor they put on your lips–it would get my heart racing. Coffee used to trigger me sporadically. Marijuana, too. Even cold weather has sent my head spiraling.

Once, even happiness triggered me. I saw Luke Skywalker again for the first time at a midnight screening of The Force Awakens, and the feeling of excitement launched me out of my own body. The fear of having an anxiety episode would sometimes cause me to have one. And then, the fear of the fear. And so on.

Back in my bedroom, the panic I was feeling wasn’t unprompted. Not at all—this was that dreaded scenario I’d been turning over in my mind on sleepless nights for years now. Every other robbery had happened when I wasn’t home. This time, someone, or from what I could hear, a whole group of burglars, were after me.

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I forced my hand to open up, releasing the door handle from my vice grip. I raised my fingers to my lips and blew warm air down on them. My bedroom, which faced the street with three enormous windows that were almost not insulated at all, was like ice. Every December, I’d glue huge sheets of plastic to the window frames, which would sort of inflate and deflate whenever a gust of wind blew against the building. The plastic kept some of the chill out, but on this night, I swear I could see my breath. And as I quivered there, my ear pressed toward the crack in the double doors, all I could hear was the rustling of the insulation on the windows, like a plastic lung breathing in and out.

The panic had begun to subside, but I felt as though I couldn’t just stay in the bedroom. What if there was someone hiding with a weapon right outside my door? Something could have happened to Ryan. He was like my brother. We’d been through so much. He was the only other person I knew who had experienced so many robberies. And so, despite my limp shoulder, despite my racing thoughts, I committed myself to swinging open those two hollow-core doors to see what the hell had happened out there.

Sure, everything they’d stolen was replaceable, but the room felt different after that. Even before it got robbed again a few weeks later, I began to feel like the place was no longer mine.

I should protect myself, I thought. Hobbling over to the side of my bed, I bent down, and reached deep below my box spring for the butcher knife I’d left down there when I’d moved in. I’d been hiding a knife under my bed since our first break-in, but now, when I finally had a reason to use it, I just couldn’t do it. I put it down and opted for a dinged-up aluminum water bottle.

“I’m—I’m coming out,” I tried to say. It’s not easy to talk during a panic attack, in fact sometimes it feels like it’s not possible at all. “Is anybody there?”

I unlatched the lock on the knob, and swung open the doors. When the shadowy living room sprung to life before my eyes, I recalled the sight of my first burglary all those years before. It’s an image that usually comes to mind whenever I enter darkened homes, always expecting to find the scattered aftermath of yet another break-in.

The sight of my first robbery was uniquely scary. I can still see it so clearly in my head: a boot print on the door. The chain lock kicked clean out, my desk chair thrown aside, and all the drawers and closets left ajar. It felt as if it had just happened, like when the rain stops, when everything is still dripping. They’d taken my laptop, my Wii, a few of my hard drives, and we had to get the door fixed. Sure, everything they’d stolen was replaceable, but the room felt different after that. Even before it got robbed again a few weeks later, I began to feel like the place was no longer mine.

That’s what scared me the most when I scanned the common room of my ransacked apartment almost ten years later. The TV was tilted, the rug was on a slant, and the edge of the coffee table was kicked toward the couch. As I spilled out of the bedroom into the place a burglar had just wrecked, I felt, a bit melodramatically, I’ll admit, that this had been like a prophecy; that the trauma that’d created the holes in my head would be the same trauma that, years later, would cave the rest of it in.

It felt as if it had just happened, like when the rain stops, when everything is still dripping.

But the front door was locked shut. The game consoles that lined the shelf beneath my TV had not been touched. What happened here? I thought. Why didn’t they take anything?

Since the cadence of time seems to slow–or perhaps stop completely–during a bad panic attack, it’s sometimes hard to remember exactly the sequence of events. But I know I made it to Ryan’s bedroom; I know I must’ve wobbled through the dusty hallway and woken him. “Ryan,” I whispered, “I think we—we—were just robbed again.” He blinked his eyes open, reaching toward the bedside for his glasses.“Did you hear it? Somebody just came into the apartment,” I trembled.

Ryan looked over at me, and for the first time that night, I really beheld the image of myself. There I stood, hunched in the corner of the room, my right arm hanging limp, my stubby knees shaking beneath torn boxer briefs, a water bottle strapped to my left hand like a switchblade in a 1950s gang fight. As I heard the words come out of my mouth, I saw Ryan’s face scrunch up into a mixture of confusion and pity.

“They—they came through the front door—and then they left,” I tried to explain, the dots of the story drifting further and further apart as I tried to connect them. With his torso propped up on his arm, he grumbled, “Somebody came in here just now?” I started to explain, “I heard them. I heard… ” but the look on his face told me that none of this made any sense, that I must have somehow hallucinated the entire thing. And this wasn’t the first time I’d “heard” a break-in. Ryan had become well-aware of my paranoia; I’d been obsessed with every tiny noise in our homes for years now. And so I apologized, making the excuse that I must have been sleepwalking, and I exited the room, embarrassed, limping back toward my side of the apartment with my shoulder in my hand.


Photograph by the author.

Dom Nero

I switched on the light in the living room, and I saw that the furniture—contrary to what I’d observed in the darkness earlier–had not been “ransacked” at all. Yes, the carpet was spun a bit, but between Ryan and I, the cheap stretch of rug almost never stayed in place. The angle of the TV looked strange in the dark, but now I remembered that, when I’d sit on the corner of the couch, I’d sometimes pull one end of the widescreen out a little bit so it’d be parallel to my view. And the coffee table, which was rotated toward the couch, well, it just looked like a coffee table rotated toward a couch now. Perhaps one of us had left it like that after using it as a footrest.

Nothing had happened in here at all.

I turned off the light and slumped back into my bedroom. And then the real terror set in. Because, while being robbed in the middle of the night is scary, what had happened this evening was much worse. Something had stirred me out of sleep. Something had flung me to my bedroom door. Something had pulled my shoulder out. But it hadn’t, really. It was just me. And I felt, after so many years of shrugging it off, that these little episodes, my “generalized anxiety disorder,” were not just a quiet malfunction anymore. They were symptoms of a mental illness. I thought I’d look at the timeline of my life as divided between everything before this night, and everything after it. That I’d finally lost my head. And I would have happily given away my television and all the video game consoles in the world to have it back.

I haven’t had an evening like this for years, thankfully. Though I often wake in the middle of the night to the sound of knocking on my door, or even a voice calling out my name. People who suffer from anxiety know how hard it can be to separate reality from the magical thinking of our all-too active imaginations. We nitpick every nuance of a decision, every possible outcome of our actions, and every lurking shadow in the corner room. For me, the thinking isn’t just magical. More than occasionally, my anxiety sends my imagination into darker territory.

When I was a kid, I woke up in a state of sleep paralysis. I saw a figure in black at the foot of the bed. With some sightless presence, he weighed whether or not it was time to “take me away.” For years I called this presence the Man. He wasn’t quite a ghost, he wasn’t quite a real thing, he was something else.

On the night of this mysterious disturbance, I laid in bed wondering, was it him? Had he followed me to this new apartment, after all those years? Maybe that sound, that disembodied thrashing that’d roused me, maybe it was him. Hey, it was all textbook ghost activity, wasn’t it? But why? Why would a ghost come to torture me?

Wouldn’t my dead relatives protect me from evil spirits? Sure, I’d stopped going to church at the end of high school, and one time when I was working at the liquor store I sold a bottle of vodka to an old woman who got drunk and fell down the stairs and died that same night, but I wasn’t a bad person! I wasn’t sacrilegious, was I?

Ghost stories aren’t even real, I thought. In most hauntings, doesn’t a carbon monoxide leak emerge as the culprit eventually? Is that what’d happened here? I started to wonder. Had my brain been slowly suffocating to death from a carbon monoxide leak? No, the carbon monoxide alarms would be going off.

He’s looming behind the attic door when I sleep at my parents’ house, he’s waiting for me in hotel rooms. I’ve slept with chairs propped beneath door knobs and glass jars arranged in front of doorways as an ersatz alarm system.

The insulated windows, I remembered. What if I’d sucked the air out of the room through my lungs, and in the hours leading up to my arousal from sleep, I’d been inhaling only carbon dioxide? Or, perhaps even more likely, what if I’d been filling the room with noxious gas all night? Yes, as I bounced around in this echo chamber of anxiety, I briefly wondered if I’d almost farted myself to death in that window-sealed room. I’d heard urban legends about people who’d died from inhaling too much flatulence. Could I have deprived myself of the fresh air required to sleep through the night? Could my farts have driven me insane?

No, I thought, no no no no no. Stop it. Stop.

I was so scared. I imagined I’d pick up the phone the next morning, tell my parents what had happened to me, and end up in a psychiatric facility by noon.

We never even got close to finding out who had robbed us in school—and not for lack of trying. The local police were no help (“Sounds like it’s time to move!”). I fought with landlords, set up security alarms. Hell, I even got on the line with the Mayor’s office. There was a sense, when I woke that frightening night, that at least I’d have some closure. I recall a feeling of morbid relief, like my final words before ending up beaten, in the hospital, or worse, would be, “Oh, it was you all along!” But it only ended up leaving me with a sore shoulder and some serious questions about my mental health.

I wish it were cleaner, simpler. Even with medication and years of weekly therapy sessions, my anxiety is still there, my panic attacks happen sporadically, and the phantom presence of my intruder is still something that visits me at night.


Photograph by the author.

Dom Nero

He’s looming behind the attic door when I sleep at my parents’ house, he’s waiting for me in hotel rooms. I’ve slept with chairs propped beneath door knobs and glass jars arranged in front of doorways as an ersatz alarm system. Until only recently, I’d keep my laptop in a clothes hamper, because I thought if he ever broke in again he wouldn’t think to look in there.

Today, Ryan and I no longer live together. I moved out at the end of my lease, leaving that frigid room and all the questions from that night behind. A year or two later, he left too. The whole night has faded into the walls of that bedroom and its long, narrow windows that, even with air-tight plastic glued onto them, would never keep out the cold. It’s been two years now, and neither Ryan, nor I, have had any more burglaries. But the memories–and the questions that always float around them—very much linger.

One night, just after our fourth burglary, an alarm went off in our little house. We were upstairs in our bedrooms fast asleep when the beeping started. I knocked on his door, and he came out, his face, like mine, white with fear. We’d recently installed a security system, and now here it was, sprung to life to protect us from our habitual intruder. Ryan moved toward the stairwell. “We can’t just go down there,” I protested. He hopped back into his room, and then returned to the hallway brandishing a pocket knife. “Let’s go,” he said.

I followed Ryan down our narrow staircase, which squeaked and groaned with every footstep. We crept toward the noise, peering into the darkened living room and kitchen as the beeping became louder and louder. We pawed down the steps to the basement, where the noise was coming from. It was black down there too.

I pulled it off the ceiling and took the batteries out. It was the smoke alarm. We looked at each other, the combined trauma of all the past robberies, the lost sense of security that would never fully come back, the panic, all of it filling up in the air between us. And Ryan just closed his knife, shrugging his shoulders. “Must be out of battery,” he mumbled. I put the alarm down on the windowsill, then noticed something as a frozen chill ran up my back.

I grabbed Ryan’s shoulder. He angled back toward the window, and we both stood there and stared at the opening in the window frame that was staring back at us. It wasn’t a full-sized window, but with a little effort, a person could probably fit through there. And the window was wide open.

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