What would you give to be happy, fun, anxiety-free? Would you give your soul? This is the question Deirdre Coyle asks in her story “Fun Person,” up at Hobart this week. The story opens with the narrator vomiting on the sidewalk outside of a bar, but not for the obvious reasons one might vomit in such a location. Instead, our nameless narrator has extreme panic attacks. Her friends are inside the bar, having fun, while she usually has to fake it (“I don’t think they ever pretend to have fun—they seem to be genuinely doing it, every time.”), and she is outside leaning against a wall beside a disapproving bouncer while she tries to get through the sickening waves of a panic attack.
This feeling was forever and I couldn’t talk to my friends because it was after midnight on the weekend which meant they were all blackout drunk and part of me still really wanted them to think I was fun, even though it didn’t matter what anyone thought of me because I was going to die on this sidewalk and then I’d be dead but what if I couldn’t die, what if I had to go on living and actually feel this way forever and if I wanted to go to the hospital right now or even if I just wanted someone to walk me home there was no one, I mean no one, who would take me.
Coyle captures the anxiety panic attacks can induce in those who suffer from them, as well as the intense feeling of terror during and the physical exhaustion that hits after. She also addresses something that many people, not just those with panic attacks, can relate to: the unattainable ebullience of the eponymous “fun person.” You know the kind—the one who is at ease in crowds, at home in new places, the one who talks to strangers like friends, who drinks and dances and laughs. To those with panic attacks, anxiety disorders, depression, or just shyness, these “fun” people can seem as if they have access to some secret, some ecstatic level of life, that the rest of us don’t.
Walking home, I checked out everybody on the street—people smoking on curbsides, making out on corners, buying tacos from trucks, carrying each other between bars, and always, always, always laughing, like they’d really figured it out, like they knew the thing, whatever it was, whatever thing made them feel okay about being alive.
Aside from the panic attacks, the narrator of “Fun Person” does not, exactly, have her life together. There are problems with her job. She just broke up with her boyfriend, who now won’t stop sending her suicidal emails. Her friends, although ostensibly “fun,” seem like crap. Some of these things may be tied to her panic attacks; others are not. But it would be tempting, would it not, to be able to trade all that anxiety? To never have another attack? To get ahold of that glimmering beatitude of the “fun person”? When Coyle’s story turns in a delightfully unexpected direction (no spoilers), our narrator may have that chance. “Fun Person” is a darkly humorous look at the cost of anxiety and the cost of being carefree, and the price for the latter may be higher than you think.
Watching me over the rim of his mug, he said, “You still have your soul, right?”
I raised my eyebrows… “I don’t think I ever had one,” I said.
He laughed. “That means you still do.”