It was a sunny day in Phnom Penh
, a few weeks after I had first decided to stay. I had lunch with a friend at Vieyo Tonle
, a restaurant I would highly recommend despite what happened. I opted for a small pizza
and she had some pasta. We talked
, we laughed
, we went our separate ways
. I started towards my apartment to get changed and ready for another afternoon of explaining the passive voice
to bored teens
As I was walking along Street 178, just past all the art stores, with their giant Buddha heads and dancing apsaras, I started feeling odd. First my knees started to liquefy and my breathing became more labored. As my heart started to pound in my head, my thoughts turned macabre. Dark memories came out of nowhere, spinning around and dancing in my mind’s eye faster than I could control. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed what was happening to me. They clearly had, because everyone was staring at me with a knowing smirk. I heard a woman laugh. She was laughing because of something that I was wearing. I saw a man whisper something to his friend. The secret was something about me. There were shouts in a language I did not understand, yet I knew they were deriding me.
why did I put this shirt on today…it is so ugly…why did I ever buy it…what was I thinking…this shirt isn’t me…who am I trying to fool…everyone is looking at this shirt…why didn’t I wear the blue shirt…it is so much more elegant…do I look like slut…it’s kind of tight….I can’t believe I had the audacity to wear this to class this morning…get a grip on yourself girl…you look fine...well it isn’t really a good color and the Khmer’s are quite conservative…but it’s no tike you have big breasts…
I’m having a panic attack!
I’d never had a panic attack, knew nothing about them, but was certain of my self-diagnosis. The words just sounded right for my condition. I was obviously in a panicky state and it had come on suddenly, attacked me in a way. Those two words resonated with truth to my demented brain at that moment and acceptance brought some comfort. Having no experience with panic attacks, I wasn’t sure what to do, but getting home seemed like a reasonable idea.
I tried to run, but it was almost impossible, since my body had turned to Jell-O, and also because it brought more attention. I walked as fast as I could manage, looking down at my feet.
By the time I reached my apartment, I was a heaving mess. I shut myself in the bedroom and started pacing, wringing my hands trying to control my thoughts. They were like snakes writhing in my head and I couldn’t grab onto one without letting go of another. I took a cold shower. I tried to lie down. I smoked a cigarette. It just kept escalating. At the point that I could feel myself crawling out of my skin, and gave up all attempts at controlling the torrents of emotions racing in my head, I changed my previous diagnosis.
I am having a nervous breakdown
maybe I’ve lost my ability to deal with unknowns and extreme…maybe I am taking on more than I can handle…who am I kidding thinking that I could just move to Cambodia and start a life here…have I ever stopped to consider that teaching might not be for me…do the people at work like me…they know that I’m confused and unsure of myself…my students hate me, they can see right through me….I have to admit, I am in way over my head…I am a terrible teacher…what the hell is the passive voice anyway…and this shirt…teachers don’t wear shirts like this…not here…
Then I started to wonder what it was going to be like for my parents to collect me at the airport in a straight jacket and take me to the asylum. Would they be embarrassed, frightened or ashamed? I needed help, but unfortunately, I didn’t really know anyone in town very well. I eventually decided to call someone I worked with, but it was a long time before I could bring myself to dial his number.
what if he thinks I’m pretending to get out of working today…what if he accuses me of slacking off… he is going to be so sorry that he hired me…I can’t call someone from work, everyone will know…this town’s too small…I’m clearly going to lose my job…of course, I have to be flown home…I wonder when the next flight will be…will the embassy get me first class seats, or is there a special compartment for lunatics like me… what the fuck am I going to do…I can’t teach like this…or can I…I’ll definitely have to wear something else
“Listen, Frank, you have take me to the hospital and then call the embassy. They need to contact my family. I need help. Please come over. And I can’t work this afternoon and I’m afraid of going to the hospital alone. I don’t even know where it is. Shit I don’t have insurance. Oh my god! I’m having a nervous breakdown. Frank, please help me!!! I’ve lost the plot!”
I’d spoken to Frank maybe three times before this incident. Luckily for me, Frank was infinitely patient and understanding. He managed to find my apartment despite my confused directions and was there within minutes. It took him all of 30 seconds to recognize what was really wrong with me.
“Liontamer, you are baked!”
It took him another hour to convince me that I didn’t need institutionalization. Together we worked out that I must have gotten the wrong order at the restaurant where I’d had lunch and that somewhere in the city, there was a very sober person wondering why.
My pizza had been spiked.
Happy pizza is both a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as well as a local menu item. As it’s name hints, the special herbal seasoning on happy pizza is meant to bring one to a state of euphoria and bliss. For those of us who not smoke dope regularly, or at all for that matter, it can pose severe safety risks, and potentially cause, as my story illustrates, mental collapse.
Marijuana has long been a flavoring in Khmer food, and until a few years ago was sold openly in giant bins at the markets. This pot was very cheap, but not very potent and was used by locals to flavor curries, soups and other dishes. With the influx of tourists, especially of the young, backpacker variety, local chefs have taken to exploiting this traditional herb, offering it on pizzas in greater doses. In several restaurants along the riverside, one can order a pizza mildly happy, mostly happy or, should you dare, ecstatic.
I myself, do not smoke pot. Ever. And clearly I shouldn’t. A few years back I engaged in an experiment to get over these side effects; I waged a personal war on this drug. I lost. After a two puffs on the joint, I was consumed by dark thoughts, loneliness and fear. After turning all the lights in the house off, then turning them all on and then off again, I retreated to my bedroom, waving my white pillow case in the air in surrender. Pot and me just aren’t meant to be. So be it.
The restaurant owner, who was to become a close friend, was very apologetic for what had happened. He offered me a free meal. I opted for the fish and it was a long time before I ate pizza again and when I do, I ask:
Is this pizza happy?