The Adventures of Skylar Grey

Chapter 15: Diagnosing Skylar’s Pit Bull Pillow Panic Syndrome

Skylar isn’t afraid of couch pillows, chair pillows or decorative pillows — just bed pillows photo: susan dyer reynolds

I know you’re an emotional girl
It took a lot for you to not lose your faith in this world
I can’t offer you proof
But you’re going to face a moment of truth
It’s hard when you’re always afraid
You just recover when another belief is betrayed
So break my heart if you must
It’s a matter of trust
— “A Matter of Trust” by Billy Joel

The exact moment my battle with anxiety began is clear as day. I was freelancing at Pacific Bell and a group of us went to lunch at a Japanese restaurant nearby. I ordered unagi donburi — barbecued eel over rice — and one of the feathery bones went down the wrong way and felt like it was stuck in my throat. My dining companions reassured me that it probably just scratched it a bit on the way down, but I felt an overwhelming sense of panic: My heart started racing, I felt dizzy, my ears plugged, I was sweating profusely. My doctor’s office was a few blocks away, and fortunately he had time to see me. After a short exam, he began writing a prescription. “I’m giving you some Valium,” he said, peering at me over his glasses. “There’s no bone stuck in your throat. You’re having a panic attack.”

Over the next few months, my anxiety worsened. I refused to eat anything but soup or pasta for fear I would choke. Though I knew it was irrational, I continued to think the unagi bone was still perched in my windpipe. My doctor finally referred me to an ear, nose, and throat specialist for a barium swallow test. After he looked at the results, the doctor sat down in front of me. “You’re fine,” he said. “Everything is fine … physically. I think this is psychological. You’re having globus hystericus — a sensation that something is stuck in your throat when nothing is there.” He referred me to a psychiatrist.

After just one session, the psychiatrist prescribed an anti-anxiety medication called Paxil. “I’ve never had a panic attack before,” I told him.

“You’re in your mid twenties and that’s an age when anxiety disorder often appears in women,” he said.

Willing to do anything to feel “normal” again, I filled the prescription, and within a few months I was back eating solid food (including unagi). Over the years, we’ve switched up the meds. Some made me gain weight — a lot of weight, which for an athletic person who never had a weight problem caused a whole new anxiety. Because of the weight gain side effects, I’ve tried going off the meds a few times, but the anxiety comes roaring back. Anxiety symptoms, my psychiatrist says, are cyclical, so while the globus hystericus waned, others have appeared and disappeared, and occasionally I still have full-blown panic attacks.

When I started noticing Skylar was afraid of a lot of things, I wondered if she had doggy anxiety. She’s afraid of surly Chihuahuas and rambunctious children (as my friend Marc joked, “Who isn’t”), but she’s also afraid of Chillows, those As Seen on TV pillow inserts to keep you cool at night. Recently, however, I discovered an even bigger demon: Skylar is afraid of bed pillows. Not couch pillows, not chair pillows, not decorative pillows — bed pillows.

I first noticed it when we were visiting my stepmom, Kickie, in San Jose. Sky has always slept in the bedroom with me there, but on this particular night there was an extra pillow on the bed — a big, fluffy pillow in a cotton cover adorned with pink flower petals. At one point I adjusted it for a better view of the television and it accidentally fell on Sky, causing her to tuck her tail between her legs and dash off the bed. She refused to come back, sleeping instead on the floor of Grandma Kickie’s room.

The next night I lured her onto the bed with her favorite nighttime snack of homemade peanut butter-pumpkin frozen yogurt, but as soon as she saw the pillow, her big green eyes bugged out and she once again left the room and refused to return. By the third night, I decided to put the big fluffy pillow in the closet and, lo and behold, she slept peacefully … until I reached my arms behind my head to adjust my pillow — an even bigger square Euro style pillow — which sent her flying out of the room.

“I think Skylar has Pit Bull Pillow Panic Syndrome,” I told Kickie the next morning.

“What is that?” she asked.

“I just made it up,” I said, “but she has it.” Sky was curled up on the sofa next to Kickie, soaking up affection and dehydrated chicken necks.

“Have we turned you into a little pantywaist with all this love and attention, Skylar?” Kickie asked, holding Sky’s face in her hands. Sky wagged her tail and stole a kiss.

Who knows what caused Sky’s Pillow Panic Syndrome. Perhaps, sometime during her first seven weeks of life when she was living with that guy in his car, he threw a pillow at her, or hit her with a pillow, or sat on her with a pillow. Whatever the cause, the fear is real to Skylar, just like the unagi bone was to me. And just like my globus hystericus, I hope Sky’s Pillow Panic Syndrome will pass with time. Meanwhile, she’ll be sleeping with Grandma.

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