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The treatment made clear that I did not have a character, I had a condition. A good part of the traits that I had called (or had heard called) intelligence, energy, good weirdness, lack of inhibition in self-expression, which was escalating out of control — this observation was made to me by a Chinese professor at a conference in Edinburgh — all this was gone in a matter of weeks. Just like at the hairdresser, I was left with dead parts of myself scattered all over the floor. The excessive (and false) sense of determination in me and the constant electricity were gone. When I was hyper, I was a radioactive red onion. Now I am quiet and white. Onions come in red and white, just like wine.
The right medicine can change you profoundly, because without an essence, it takes away part of your floating expressions, which is all you have and are. This means that, technically, a medicine could be blamed for a sudden bad action that you do. Society cannot afford this, bad actions occurring caused by factors which are beyond an individual’s control. What keeps me and so many other people from doing bad things is not an enduring positively pink essence within, but my educazione, which in Italian does not mean “education,” but rather “upbringing.” That upbringing is the innermost layer I can think of. Upbringing does not attach itself to the individual, it makes the individual.
Upbringing aside, there is another reason why I am incapable of going against the “hard-won flow of reasonable energies” within my onion. I hold on to this charmed equilibrium because I have caught a glimpse of what’s beyond it. Anyone who has experienced a panic attack has probably taken the same oath, the oath never to shake the boat, knowing how precarious mental health is. We live our lives sitting on a white cotton sofa, sipping red wine, taking for granted that the wine will never be dropped. Madness is not an extreme scenario, it is a daily risk, and the first panic attack is the unsettling (maddening, in fact) experience of seeing a red stain on the white sofa. Sofas come in white, red, and many other colours.
I am prepared to go a long distance to avoid more panic attacks, I want to keep seeing white and drinking red, I do not like to check out, not even for a moment. I do not like to be surprised.
The ways I like to take a break from myself are mainly through crying, doing a very intense and physically demanding kind of yoga, and drinking wine. I love all wine, but the white one has sulphites, which are substances that cut my breath. What I love most about wine is that it knows perfectly well where to go, it follows an established trajectory inside the layers of my onion, until it reaches the centre, where it stays for a warm while, like a liquid essence. I detest beer because it does not know where to go, it stops at my throat, bothering my hard-working thyroid with silly remarks, or at least that’s the feeling.
So far, alcohol has triggered a few panic attacks, two of them ferocious. The first one was a long time ago, 14 years maybe, when I was living in London. I had just returned to live there for the second time, after my divorce. I was not well, and I was working hard at night. I was the receptionist at a night club in Soho. I found this job on the very first day I arrived, without even looking. My best friend Marco’s sister, Erica, was a party organizer and she asked me if I wanted to work as soon as my plane landed. I ended up working in the club for a year. On my first New Year’s Eve there, the first time without my husband of seven years, I invited Nick, whom I had met at the club, to celebrate with my new friends, namely Erica and another girl from work. I was beginning to feel better because there was warmth around me, friendships, a comfortable small apartment. I transferred some of the love I had for Marco on to Erica, and I was grateful, so grateful for this new phase. When Nick did not show up — he must have felt that I was looking to replace my husband with just whomever — I felt abandoned. That minor episode had somehow re-enacted the process of rejection I’d gone through with my separation. I felt humiliated, and I drank too much champagne, the king of sulphite wines.