My Gnarly, Hairy Anxiety Attack

Anxiety sucks. Period.  I’m not entirely sure when it started festering for me, but on July 1st I had my first (and hopefully last) full-blown, call-the-paramedics-I-think-I’m-having-a heart-event anxiety attack.

Except I wasn’t dying…

Not in front of the child, that thought made my heart race even faster.  “I could publish a textbook on what an ideal heart beat looks like,” my doctor said the next day, giving me my EKG results.  She sent me home with a prescription to resume my exercise routine, daily meditation, blood pressure monitoring, and…grief.  Yes, grief.

The “Adjustment Reaction”

I am a professional compartmentalizer.  I package away emotions to deal with them later, a skill which served me well in corporate life.  In the office, I am the even-keeled one, the fire-putter-outer, the voice of reason and calm, the one who preaches response over reaction.  I am my own worst enemy.

The thing about packing away emotions is that you need to remember where you put them and unload them or they erupt like an inflamed boil of pus and infection, like a Vesuvius that offers no warning before exploding and burying everyone and everything in ash.  My neighbor, who like a therapist sat with me after the EMTs left, explained this eruption concept to me:  anxiety attacks are the body’s release mechanism for unacknowledged shit.  In fact, there is even a medical name and diagnostic code for them:  Adjustment Reaction with Anxious Mood.  My neighbor should know, he owns the experience of five anxiety attacks that occurred during a condensed and acutely stressful period in his life.  I remember hearing about the ambulances coming to his house….

June was a good month and a tough month.  Back-to-back repeat visits by my parents and in-laws to our very little home, lots of cooking and entertaining, multiple weekly swim and gymnastics classes for Em, hubby out of town, babysitting neighbors’ kids, pet sitting – all (in hindsight) combined with little rest.  Being a high energy person, easy peasy, I could handle that lack of rest part knowing an end was in sight, right?  NO, I couldn’t handle the load, not when I also failed to take the time to process through all of the stuff and stress that those visits and endless running around kicked up.  But layer on watching my dog, Baxter, weaken and progress rapidly through the dying process and not having the physical space to grieve his impending end, to process those inevitable regrets of lost opportunity, well…turns out, it was too much.

I knew Baxter as long as I knew my husband.  He is synonymous with this house (formerly my husband’s) and all my memories here.  Always in the back of my mind while I was at work or on errands was this thought:  I have to get home by (time) to let Baxter out.  He kept the yard clear of squirrels, rats, mice, rabbits, opossums that could wreak havoc on a garden or compost pile.  He was the perfect running companion, and if you had aspirations of starting a running or walking program, he started the habit for you.  After just one run or walk, he was ready the next day (and the days after) at the appointed time, waiting.  He was my friend, and I had to make the decision to end his pain, agonizing over whether it was too soon and fearing being too late.  Finally, Baxter died in June, the month my sister Leslie passed all those years ago after her own agonizing fight, which, yes, kicked up a grief storm all its own.

Yep, on July 1st (three days after Baxter died) I saw that doggy nose snot on the back storm door, and I. Lost. It.  I needed that snot to stay forever, and then I needed to cry. But even though Em had seen me crying, sobbing already and I explained to her what was happening and how important it was to cry, I didn’t want to spend the week in that state.  So, I stuffed it down after a whimper or two.  Then the heaviness in my chest started.  Then the dizziness started.  Then I made the mistake of taking my blood pressure, and, WHEEEE, I was on my way!!!

On Being Human

In hindsight, I should have remembered how talking through past grief saved me.  I had a similar reaction after Leslie died, except I also had sleeplessness and started losing my hair.  I was working overseas with at-risk kids and lived with people with whom I worked.  A stress crucible.  At home, I stuffed down the grief because my roommates (who’d never lost someone close to them) couldn’t handle it, told me three weeks after Leslie’s death that I needed “to get over it”.  And, I, in turn, stuffed down the urge to punch them in their faces.  I stuffed down the grief during my work day believing I had to be strong in front of the kids.  Except these broken kids sought me out to share their experiences with loss because I had suddenly become vulnerable, accessible.  Those kids saved me from going out of my damn mind and doing irreparable damage to my body.

I should have remembered how in the years after Leslie’s death, I started the shift from stuffing to sharing: talking about my feelings to my family and friends, not giving a shit about how I looked or what they would do with the information.

I should have remembered how my new friend (now husband) demanded that I go deeper in opening up, demanded that I stop trying to be strong or perfect or contained.  He would smile, hug me, and say, “There you are” after I had a decidedly uncontained outburst of anger or snotty tears that I found uncouth, but a relief.  I should have remembered how our early 4- to 6-hour conversations after dance class tripped a switch inside me:  to grow and connect in this life I needed to let go and accept my humanity with all of its failings, messy emotions, mistakes and darkness.  I needed to be honest about what I really felt and experienced in life, love and loss, versus presenting a sanitized version of what I thought I should feel or experience.  Being truthful began the process of finding my authentic voice.

Blessings in Curses

I won’t make an attempt at tying up this post with a warm fuzzy bow.  Addressing the clichés:  yep, it was a wake-up call; yep, it was a learning experience.  But two things have profoundly moved me:

First, I understand what it means to be loved by a community of neighbors, friends, and family, which humbles me.  Being a writer and full-time mom is a lonely existence at times, as was growing up as a military kid.  I am by nature and nurture a loner, but know I am not apart.  I mean, come on, it takes a good neighbor to let you come over and die on their couch 🙂  It takes a good friend to sit by your side just after you have been cut off at the knees, and, without judgment, talk through the stuff that you think is killing you (except it’s not, so relax and breathe).  It takes good friends (and family) to open up with great empathy about their own anxiety experiences.

Second, I have very tangible proof about what happens to my body and mind if I don’t remember to make the space to unpack my emotional or mental baggage.  Making space cannot be in reaction to commitments, it has to be the commitment (oxygen mask on myself first).  Daily guided mediation reduces my anxiety a LOT.  And last night, I discovered the focusing power of a rambling walk.  I struggled with writer’s block for a week or so on my short story, “The Sin Eater”.  Hubby watched kiddo and I just stepped outside into a wall of August heat and walked, wandered all over our neighborhood for a solid hour.  Within that time, all of the structure and character tangles unraveled and I was able to return home, unburdened, with a clear direction.  I am honored by the privilege of writing this short story.

I am honored by the privilege of being human.

2 Replies to “My Gnarly, Hairy Anxiety Attack”

  1. I’m so sorry to hear about Baxter! I still have moments where I cry from missing Auggie and it’ll be a year this September. It’s been 3 years Riley died. This grief is part of me, it has lessened over time and is not as urgent but it still surfaces. There is no such thing as getting over it, at least for me. Baxter was a wonderful companion, just today I told someone the story of how Baxter bothered the groundhog living in our yard enough so he moved elsewhere. Something Auggie hadn’t been able to do. He was much more persistent and quick compared to the big hulk that Auggie was. We will miss him.

    1. Thanks, Ann. We have been blessed by our animal friends, haven’t we? I often wonder if they adopted us because we were the ones in need 🙂

What are your thoughts?