Reptilian Brain

Zandi Eberstadt

© Copyright 2021 by Zandi Eberstadt

Photo by Dominik Lalic on Unsplash
                                                  Photo by Dominik Lalic on Unsplash

Yeah, so this is the park. Prospect park. Jackson and I would walk the puppies here every day in the winter!”
Oh that’s… nice, yeah...nice.”

You’re doing great, you know.”

Yeah, I’m ok...”

You know, we can go back at any point. You’re doing great.”


Yeah, so there’s a market here sometimes on the weekend.”


This part is the Brooklyn Mus--”

I’m sorry, I can’t do this.”

“Well, we can’t cross the street here. Just a block from the streetlight.”

I’m gonna pass out.”

Even if you faint, I’ll catch you. You got this.”

Yeah I can’t do this I’m... sorry.”

“It’s ok, we’re almost there.”

I can breathe? I can breathe? I can breathe. I think?”

How’s this street?”

A lot better. Ok.”

Awesome, you got this.”

Thanks… ok, yeah I can definitely breathe. Alright… Well, so do you have any friends who live around here?”

Yeah a bunch! Jesse’s two blocks that way on Park Place…”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Upon reflection (literally, in the windows of Konditori coffee shop on Washington Avenue), an epiphany strikes me. Or perhaps a cluster of dust ejected from a passing motorbike. In any case, I unearth my phone notes to add some thoughts, digits lathered in sweat.

Do you know how unnatural all of this is? To walk around between tall buildings? And eat lunch in these open, crowded plazas? That is just opposite to all our human instincts. As a mammalian species, homo sapiens requires the freedom to run around and coexist with other animals and hide amid shelter. Not to be exposed in all these open spaces, away from protection, leaves, caverns. Why do you think that humans prefer sleeping under blankets, even in warm temperatures? And they say I’m the one that needs recalibrating.

I happen upon a giant gated park on St. Mark’s with blue turf, an artificial ocean. Zero small compartments nearby; no awnings to crouch under if my face starts feeling numb. Ah, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yeah, seriously. “This modern world is what invented SSRIs and allowed you to take them!” Well you know what else the modern world did? Give me the stupid panic attacks in the first place. It’s like saying “you need to go to school to get money,” but, in fact, you need money to go to school. Or telling someone,“social media will support you as a victim of bullying” when social media is the platform through which your advisee is being harassed.

Well, this crosswalk feels a bit better.

Seriously, why have folks voluntarily established roots here? Amidst neon lights and hoards of people? Can you imagine? My nervous system perceives all this stimulation and responds, “THREAT, THREAT, THREAT.” And life’s just too short to subject myself to this.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Well, I thought of something that might help you.”


You can go to my massage therapist! I booked you a session!”

Woah, really? Wait, that's so nice.”

Yeah, she’s been really helpful to me.”

Thank you so much.”

She’s very special, you know.”

What time will it be?”

11 tomorrow. I’ll have a voice lesson so I’ll be out of the house anyways.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

5 AM and my eyes jolt open. I heave, out falls a sigh.

I Google Map the appointment distance, street view and all. An eight minute walk. Through the crystal ball (or shall I say, rectangle) of my computer screen, I eye some wide streets that might call for a quasi-child-pose on the sidewalk. Like what happened on 57th the other night. Not a ton of storefronts I can enter en route, either.

I flip through my workbook. Exposure does not mean you won’t feel uncomfortable; rather, you learn to tolerate the discomfort so that it does not affect your life. Your values, not your anxiety, takes the driver's seat.

Where does the time go? I flop down the stairs of the apartment building. Feet meet street.

If I need to fold my appendages like origami into a fetal position, maybe the small convenience shop here could serve as a safe spot?

No, no. Remember. You do not escape. You learn to tolerate. It’s an eight minute walk! That’s the time spent posting two measly ads on Craigslist. Let’s do this.

To my left: an apparent bundle of rubies, like a heart-sized whirlpool. Craning my head upwards, I spot a fire escape that matches -- maybe mocks? -- the flower’s vibrant shade.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Hi, it’s so lovely to meet you.”

“Oh thank you, you too! I’ve heard you do wonders for people.”

“Well, tell me a little about what’s going on.”

“Ever since I was a young teenager, I get these… panic episodes, if that’s what you want to call them.”

“How often?”

“Well, it depends on the period of my life. But this past year, for whatever reason, it’s at least once a day. When I’m in crowded places usually. Or just away from home.”

“Describe one of these moments for me?”

“Uhh well… like when I first got to the city on a train. Penn station.”

“And what happened?”

“I just… Well, I collapsed, and felt my throat closing and I dropped all my luggage in the station. And I started pacing then curled over.”

“Into a protective shell.”

“Yes, exactly.”

“Well, the beauty of time is, it’s all an illusion. So let’s go back to that moment together.”

“Uhhh…. ok , yeah.”

“We’re in that moment now, together. So tell yourself, the self sweating in Penn station, what you want her to know. Because she never left you. She’s still you.”

“Uhh.. I guess I would say. You can stand up. It’s ok. There is no threat.”
Very good.”

Nothing you are experiencing is dangerous. You can stand up tall and still breathe even if it doesn’t feel like it, and you’ll get to where you’re going.”

“Good. And just let me add. Talk to your anxiety.”

There is no imminent danger --”

Really, really, talk to her. And welcome her. Let her sit with you. Don’t just accept her for what she is. Don’t just not push her away. Embrace her. Welcome everything”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Welcome everything. Welcome the physical symptoms and the dread. If Eastern medicine and Western cognitive behavioral therapy overlap in one teaching it would be that axiom: cease resisting that which you do not desire. My weeks spent in Brooklyn have reinforced this principle, if only anecdotally. After all, whenever I Google “apartment prospect heights NOT shared,” the results exclusively display roommate-requiring spaces.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Down Vanderbilt Avenue, a tree-lined midway separates street sides like two cranial hemispheres. In that case, passersby and I serve as neurons. In fact, we each may or may not have consciousness of one another, yet nonetheless we collaborate, interacting to produce a greater aggregate energy. By this analogy, what would be the nervous system? The internet? Surely. It does seem to be a repository of, and network for, the information that we pedestrians accumulate. Brooklyn itself acts as the human body.

A gaggle of cars migrates down the street; spray paint decorates brick storefronts like sunshine and dew; lizard-color chairs bask atop the concrete.

Who was I to deem these surroundings “unnatural”? I can never escape nature, after all. Beavers build dams, ants create mounds, and likewise, I’m experiencing a human environment in the flesh right now.

Even these three-story cubes (windows, doors, and all) display symmetry -- practically screaming “cosmos.” The organization of nature. I can’t say that the same orderliness governs my physical appearance, let alone my prose.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Marching back to the apartment, I pause below a kaleidoscope of glass boxes. Grabbing my phone: Brooklyn motto. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Ah: “Unity Makes Strength.”

Well, it’s true.

Unity makes strength: neurons collectively eliciting a sympathetic nervous system
response in my organs.

Unity makes strength: millions of New Yorkers constituting a powerful consumer

Unity makes strength: a sister and therapist providing moral support as I venture out in public.

And unity makes strength: three million members of the homo sapiens species, constructing a habitat between the Hudson river and Atlantic ocean. A habitat that extends towards the heavens, emitting energy, smoke, and light into the ether.

Unity makes strength.

Zandi Eberstadt is an undergraduate student of Cognitive Science Linguistics at Johns Hopkins University. Her interests include phonology and neurolinguistics. 

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