It first happened in church about 15 years ago. I was sitting there with my family in a crowded pew and I started to get hot and dizzy and all I could think was I have to get the frick out of here right now or else I’m going to faint. I had visions of myself coming to only to find myself slumped over the back of the pew in front of me. I got up and walked out to get air and thankfully after a few minutes, I was still a bit shaken but ok.
The next time it happened, I was on my way to the mall, it was about 4pm and all I had eaten was a breakfast bar (stupid skinny 21-year-old me, I miss you!). I could see the mall just feet beyond the red light I was sitting at, and it came over me like a tidal wave. I white-knuckled the steering wheel suddenly dizzy, disoriented, and I knew I had to pull over before I fainted right there in the middle of traffic behind the wheel. I somehow made it to the parking lot, unsuccessfully attempted to stumble into a Subway to grab food and ended up calling someone to come pick me up because the thought of getting back in the car was terrifying.
A few months later, my dad asked me to drop him off at the airport for a morning flight. As we pulled up to the terminal, I started to feel dizzy, my windpipe felt like it was collapsing and I was short of breath when he started getting out of the car. He saw my face and knew I wasn’t ok. My dad purposely missed his flight for me so he could take me back home. I felt horrible.
I had a few more minor random dizzy spells here and there for the next few months that were nothing to write home about, until one morning when my sister Michelle and I were on our way to cosmetology school. She was driving, I was her passenger, we were a few miles away from school and it happened. My throat started closing up, it felt like a 10-pound brick was sitting on my chest. I tried taking big breaths because I thought I might be having an asthma attack and suddenly my hands and feet went completely numb. I was dizzy, I was scared, I couldn’t breathe. I made Michelle pull over as I stuck my head between my knees and asked her to go flag down the police officer who had someone else pulled over across the street. And then it started to get a little better so I told her to wait. We sat there on the side of the road for a good 20 minutes and soon, I was feeling back to normal, able to breathe, hands still a little numb but it was subsiding. That’s when I decided to find out what the hell was going on and I had her take me to an urgent care clinic down the street that I remembered passing everyday on our way to school.
They took me in, they looked me over, they said I was perfectly fine and had just had an anxiety attack.
Well that had certainly not been on my list of self-prognoses, a list that included things like undiagnosed asthma, heart attack, pregnancy, brain tumor and vertigo.
Knowing that I was officially not dying, I decided to do a whole lot of nothing about it for a while, I could handle a little panic attack here and there, right? But over time, the attacks started happening more and more frequently – sometimes in line at the grocery store, more frequently during class, and always always always in the car. And at 22-years-old, the day I stood in front of my mom in the front hall of my parents’ house with tears streaming down my face at the terrifying thought of getting in the car to go to school was the day I realized I needed help. And found it in the form of a therapist who looked like Jerry Springer as he sat in my passenger seat twice a week while I drove him all around town – highways, bridges, in traffic. And after about 8 months, I was once again comfortable behind the wheel and convinced that if I had a panic attack, I wouldn’t faint and I definitely wouldn’t need a defibrillator.
Without medication, I overcame my anxiety disorder as much as anyone can really overcome an anxiety disorder, which in my world, at least, is never completely. I went years without having a full-blown heart-racing, hyperventilating, can’t breathe, going to faint right now panic attack because I learned ways to recognize and manage the feelings that led up to the extremes. Knowing that they tended to hit me most in situations where I felt claustrophobic or where it seemed like there was no way out, nowhere to go, no escape from where I was at that very moment – traffic, crowded pews at church, red lights, drive thrus, grocery store lines – I learned there was always a way out. And so, to the dismay of any passenger I may have had, I always drove in the right lane no matter how slow the 90-year-old driving in front of me was going, because there was a comfort in knowing I was close to the shoulder that I could pull over on. I always picked the shortest line in stores and once or twice maybe, just maybe, abandoned a shopping cart full of groceries in the checkout lane as I shuffled out the door and back into my car because I was on the verge of a panic attack when I was waiting in line. I avoided highways during rush hour. I always sat in the aisle seat in church. I wore a rubber band around my wrist and flicked myself with it at red lights to distract myself from thinking too much about how long it was going to take for the light to change. I coped. I avoided panic attacks for a long time. I was proud of myself.
And then I had my baby.
And with her arrival I was given an unexpected gift. For the last 2 years, although my anxiety is always there and probably always will be forever whispering behind my ear I’m still here, I’m still here, you’re about to go sit in traffic/a long drive thru line/ a crowded elevator and I’m still here…. it’s….much quieter. More of an empty threat. It’s something that when she’s physically with me whether it’s in the car, in the store, or anywhere in the world, I don’t hear. At all. And when she can’t be by my side, I can grab her spare pacifier I forgot to take out of my pocket or her hair bow I keep in my purse and hold it in my hand while thinking about her squeaky little voice saying yuv yoo! and open? open? open? and more more? it drowns out the I’m still here‘s. And it’s pretty amazing that this little being has wrapped herself so tight around my heart that her presence has turned my ‘what if’s?’ into the ‘so what’s?’, that this little gift is the piece of me I was missing the entire time, the piece I needed to fully fight away my fears.
We sat in a crowded church with my parents this last Easter Sunday 10 rows deep and 2 people in, and when the lady sitting next to me and Summer got up and whispered “I’m not feeling well…” as she stumbled past our knees, it was like the old me in her walking away. I squeezed my little one tight and whispered “thank you, baby bear” in her little ear.
I am strong for her.
I am strong because of her.
I may be her rock.
But she is my peace.