Best Places to Have a Panic Attack Downtown, Ranked
A practical guide for the discerning user.
I went down to the March for Our Lives hoping to feel inspired by passionate people sharing a moment of political catharsis. Instead, an old man collapsed on me on the corner of 8th and Pennsylvania, where the crowd was so tightly packed I had to beg people to move back so he could lie spread-eagle on the asphalt. By virtue of being closest to the incident, I was now In Charge, fielding questions about what to do and should we call someone?? (FUCKING DUH). His wife was confused, smiling apologetically and repeating “honey? honey?” while I sat in this impromptu pieta asking her if he had a medical condition, like I was going to be able to do anything helpful with that information — if he felt like dying he was probably just gonna do it. Eventually a first aid team took over, fed him feeble bites of my granola bar (always, always travel with a snack!!), and hustled him away, leaving me alone in the crowd.
You can feel a panic attack coming from a mile away, so to prepare for it I barreled into the Portrait Gallery where there was some sort of cherry blossom festival in full swing, which meant I swam through Kogod Courtyard in a dissociative haze, panting and sweating past giant inflatable blossoms and pulsing music while greasy tourist dads aimed hot dogs at their mouths.
Anyway, here are my top recommendations for good places to have a panic attack downtown.
#1. Thomas Moran landscape portraits, second floor
There are a few criteria to judge a spot for panic attack suitability: accessibility, environment, solitude.
Ideally, you would experience a panic attack alone in a redwood grove. But we don’t live in an ideal world, baby, so it’s best to aim for an accessible spot where a momentary loss of your physical, mental, and emotional faculties will be witnessed by as few people as possible and might be reasonably ignored. Art museums are ideal for this. Displays of emotion are acceptable and foot traffic is limited. For isolation, look no further than 19th century landscape painting.
I remembered Thomas Moran’s monumental landscapes as just the biggest, dumbest, most delightful paintings, and I remembered correctly. I had a 40-minute panic attack on the bench in front of them, hunched next to two teens on a sweet post-activism date wiping snot on my jeans and waiting for my hands to stop shaking (like they do in the movies! When the camera zooms in as someone uncaps a bottle of pills and spills them everywhere, to alert the viewer that they are Desperate). But these big dumb canyons got me through it!
I find it helpful — once you’ve weathered the worst of a panic attack — to focus on something truly, deeply absurd to drag you you back to earth. Personally, I ending up blasting “One Week” on my headphones, and what is the visual analog to “One Week” if not this dumb beefcake George Washington?
#2. National Building Museum
Really, any museum is a good panic attack location, since they so neatly straddle the line between public and private space. This one isn’t free, but your comfort is worth $10 ($7 for students!) and that also means it’s usually not as crowded as any given Smithsonian. And their House & Home exhibit is an ideal choice for anyone experiencing weakness, chills, chest pains, loss of control and/or deep and overwhelming existential dread, for two reasons.
First, at the end of the exhibit there’s a movie, a loop of six short films depicting daily life in contemporary homes. The subject is comforting andthe soundtrack is the calming music you would hear in a spa or a youtube conspiracy theory video. There is also the advantage of the viewing room — it’s small and dark, which means you might be in close quarters with others, but just a few others, and safe under the cover of darkness.
If this environment doesn’t do it for you — or if you’ve gotten over the worst of the panic attack and want to engage with the world — you can walk through the exhibit itself, a series of domestic settings that are visually stimulating but familiar and reassuring. If you need tactile distraction, lay a hand on the “’please-touch’ walls” made of different construction materials. The adobe is particularly effective.
#3. The lobby of the Willard
The lobby of the Willard ranks high in accessibility and low in isolation — but it earns a top slot for atmosphere. There is something really cinematic about uncontrollably weeping in a nice hotel lobby. It’s just a fact that if you are going to experience tremors and an overwhelming sense of terror that something in you is fundamentally broken and beyond the understanding of anyone around you, it might as well be glamorous! The atmosphere of the Willard lobby is perfect for this. You will feel like Gloria Swanson. Frighten a nice family (are they though? wealth is immoral). Or experience the subtle power of seeing a Business Man get ready to take a call, make eye contact with you, and back away. Flex that power while you can.
#4. The bathroom of Penn Social, if it’s open
No one ever questions someone crying in a bar bathroom. Second best: the bathroom at Jaleo, for privacy and for the absolute lunacy of the floor tile cheer squad, which is absolutely a bathroom-variety Beefcake George Washington so patently absurd it should create a One Week Effect powerful enough to pull you back from the brink.
#5. The World Bank
Honestly, if you can’t make it to a safe space, at least make a statement.