My life changed when I had my first panic attack on a one-way flight to Amsterdam from Seattle in the spring of 1993. I wasn’t aware at the time, but my dark plunge into what felt like insanity began my long and sometimes difficult road to mental health, calm, and better well-being.
I had just left my job at The Off Ramp, a club that had helped the early 90s Seattle music scene rise, explode, and burn out all in a very short period of years. Together with a pack of fantastic long-haired, tattooed, and pierced young miscreants, we partied late into the morning, played music and made art when we came out of the haze, and saw as many bands as humanly possible under the damp, gray skies of the Northwest.
Bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam had become arena rock huge. And the many brilliant musicians of the scene were still performing every night around the city, but record labels were moving on, and Boeing and Microsoft were moving in.
As the scene began to crumble, I booked a flight to The Netherlands, expecting to experience and savor more adventures. More music, women, and cavernous late nights. Buried in my pretentious and naive desires was a fragility that had begun with a series of traumas in my teens and was now cracking apart without me being fully aware.
I had left the Midwest a week after I turned 18, then studied for ten months at the University of Oregon and hated it. Afterward, I went to Alaska and worked on the docks for the summer then made Seattle my home for six months, working at Pike Place Market as a barista. It was a seasonal gig, so when it ended, I arranged to travel to Texas to help a friend close his restaurant in Kerrville. I was only there ten days and ended up in Key West, Florida for the winter learning to bartend.
When I returned to Seattle, it was the night of the Rodney King riots, and downtown was lit on fire. I took LSD and watched from Capitol Hill. Later, I was awakened on the floor of poet Steven Jesse Bernstein’s office by his girlfriend and she asked me to leave because Jesse had committed suicide the previous year. I was sleeping in his well-deserved shrine and immediately left.
Within a week, I procured a job at The Off Ramp, first as a security guard and floor scrubber, then as a bartender. It was a miraculous time of drugs, drink, all forms of music, literature, art, and piles of beautifully bruised young adults looking for their souls within the rhythms and melodies of strummed guitars and battered drums. I was home.
When the scene began to die, I went looking for a new scene across the Atlantic. Untethered by anything except what lurked inside me. I booked a one-way ticket because I had the expectation I would find another gig at a club or bar, hopefully also as a musician. Making my way back to The States would happen one day. I would worry about that later.
A week before my scheduled flight, I had gone mountain biking just outside Seattle with my buddy Bob. We stopped to have monkey fun on a makeshift rope swing that was tied from a branch that hung over a rapidly descending cliff. I decided to give myself an extra boost and swing-out wide, which was a terrible idea. By circling out, my body swung back into the tree, rather than straight out and back.
It happened quickly. I saw that I’d need to collide with the tree or drop to my death down the ravine. When I accepted my fate, I turned my body and let it smash into the giant cedar. My head snapped back into it, knocking me out, and I fell ten feet but luckily slid to a stop quickly on the steep mountainside.
When I regained consciousness, I heard Bob calling, “Gentry, bro! You all right?! You all right, man!?”
I called up weakly, “Yeah, bro. I’m good. Coming up.”
After I gathered my senses and climbed out, we sat down next to each other near the ridge and laughed about my choice to circle-swing. Then, Bob asked, “You excited about your trip to Amsterdam next week?”
I was befuddled and returned, “I’m not going to Amsterdam next week, Bob.”
Then, I went black.
The next two days were a blur between my apartment and the emergency room. I would recall ten minutes at a time saying things like, “I feel like I’m Gilligan,” because I felt like I was on Gilligan’s Island having a dream. And I kept repeating the same frantic questions: “Where’s Bob?”, “Where’s my backpack?”, and “When am I going to Europe?”
After two days, my amnesia lessened, I began to have a continuous string of time, and my concussion was gone. Friends had a going-away party for me where I felt very weird as if I was in a murky dream. It seemed like only moments after the party ended, my girlfriend and roommate were taking me to the SeaTac airport. I boarded and the plane took off for Amsterdam.
The beginning of the domestic part of the flight was fine. It was six hours to Boston, and when I landed I called an old friend in Minneapolis boasting of my rock ’n’ roll adventures and European journey ahead. On the plane again, we took off over the ocean and I began to think.
Having time to think is both a blessing and a curse. If you have practiced and allowed yourself to spend time being insightful, wandering through your own mind, then it’s a wonderful way to lead a positive and spiritual life. If you don’t practice by giving yourself time to look at your thoughts, memories, and emotions, this can lead to many thoughts and feelings streaming in at one time. Your mind can become a waterfall and then a cursed, raging river.
My thoughts began running through me like dangerous, seething rapids.
My thoughts came in one on top of another without any sense of direction or purpose. A chaotic machine gun of memories and feelings. Women. So many different names and then faces with names I’d forgotten. Hearts smashed. Doctors’ rooms. Tubes. Fire. Pain. Piss. Eviction. Police. Lies. Handcuffs. Death. So many lies. Friendships eradicated. Loss. Screaming and fear.
I had no idea what was going on.
My heart wasn’t racing and my breath wasn’t sped up. I had no typical signs of what I’d learn a panic attack was later. Just thoughts. My mind was a Speed Racer cartoon inside a horror movie watched in an empty, white room while snorting cocaine. Complete insanity. I realized I might be going crazy, so I rang the bell for the flight attendant.
She came over and was very polite to the young man in his black leather motorcycle jacket, Doc Marten boots, long goatee, and pale face that had seen little sun in a year. I may have looked like a silly rock star or I was just playing the part, she didn’t care.
“What can I get you, sir?”
“Wild Turkey, please. May I get two bottles and a 7UP?”
“Absolutely, sir. Right away.”
My drink of choice. Completely free because it was an international flight. Two bottles. Fantastic. This seemed like a logical way to quell my feverish mind, and the attendant had no qualms about giving it to me.
However, throwing back a couple of airplane bottles of 101-proof whiskey did nothing to ease my inner suffering. I ordered two more.
By now, I was frantically looking around the plane wondering what was going on. Eyeing the now sleeping other passengers. Why do they look so calm? Why am I flying to Amsterdam? Why am I leaving people I loved? I answered myself back. Because you can’t go back. You burned too many bridges. You’re a liar, a cheat, a criminal, and a fucking conman.
Then, more memories would swim through my head. Charlotte and Lisa and strippers and pills. Hash browns and Bloody Marys and GG Allin and Rage Against The Machine. A torrent of weirdness blew through my brain.
Ecstasy and music studios and dark bedrooms and blue-water bathtubs with naked women laughing. Port wine and police cars and little people and sirens. Pioneer Square and ice cream cocktails. Crucifixes and Buddhas. Egyptian scarabs and tear gas and Mudhoney and madnesses that doubled over each other.
I came to again, but this time with a headache the size of a small moon. I had managed to throw back at least ten airplane bottles of whiskey in my trip across the sea, finally passing out and waking up at Schiphol airport on the taxiway. Outside the plane, I was met by Ruari, an old British friend who had come over for a holiday to meet me. He had no idea what was going on with me and he wanted to smoke some hash.
We took the train into the city and walked out of the station into the bustle of Amsterdam. It was a city I would later call a home, but not today. Today it was my hell.
The cold and rain bristled my skin and every person I saw drew me in. Animal-shaped faces in a convex lens using languages that grunted out like woodland creatures. The scowl of a homeless man magnetized me and he leered in asking me for money in five different languages all spoken in a row.
Near the homeless man’s corner, we settled into a cafe and ordered some hashish. At first puff, I knew something was wrong; I couldn’t swallow. Drinking beer or water was impossible, and I knew we had to go to the emergency room. My second ER in two countries in one week.
At the Dutch emergency room, the nurses explained I had pneumonia and gave me pills. My next five nights of insomnia and panic mixed with pneumoniac fever and an inability to swallow. This should have sent me home with a one-way ticket back to Seattle but I never bought that ticket.
Having no understanding of what a panic attack was, I made it through those hard, cold nights in Holland and took a ferry with Ruari to Newcastle in Northern England. From there we hitchhiked to Glasgow, Scotland in the April rain.
It was not until I was in Prague several months later that I began to think I was dying and this began the trek to learning and accepting what mental illness was. The long road to becoming mentally healthy and spiritually aware had begun, but I didn’t know it yet.