As kids, we used to play a game every summer. We would grab all the sinker toys we had, and throw them in the pool, one at a time. The first one we’d throw way down in the deep end, the next would be dropped right next to the edge of the wall at the shallow end, the third would be somewhere in the middle, the fourth would be back towards the shallow end, the fifth would be back in the deep end, and on and on it went. We were trying to drop them in the most difficult order we could, for the other person to try and jump in and pick them all up in one breath. We were so competitive, we’d swim and swim and hold our breath until our chests ached, risking drowning at times, too stubborn to come up for air and lose the game.
I remember that ache in my chest. My lungs felt like they were collapsing in on themselves. I’d start exhaling a little at a time, so that all my breath would be gone by the time I reached the surface of the water, all the sinker toys in my hands, and I could gasp for air; my lungs would immediately fill with air, and without missing a beat, I’d start throwing the sinker toys to opposite ends of the pool for the next person to try.
I remember that ache in my chest. I felt it from the moment I woke up for work this morning. But I wasn’t under water, I wasn’t holding my breath, I wasn’t playing a game.
I’ve only had the wind knocked out of me once. I was walking down the stairs holding an overflowing basket of laundry. I couldn’t see where I was going, missed a step, slid down on my back, and landed hard on the tile floor. As I hit the floor, all of the air in my lungs left my body in the form of a yell. My parents came running at the sound. I tried to tell them what happened, but I had no breath in me to push out any words. I tried to fill them again, but it was like my lungs forgot how to work. I inhaled, and inhaled, and somehow my lungs never felt full. It felt like the air reached the top part of my lungs, but couldn’t reach deeper into the rest of them; it was like they were blocked off, airtight. Slowly, that barricade felt like it was being pushed back, and slowly I was able to fill my lungs again.
I still have that barricade in my lungs.
I woke up today with an ache in my chest, with a barricade in my lungs.
I’ve become somewhat used to that barricade. It’s an unwanted visitor that overstays their welcome and disrupts the normal flow of my life. If I take a deep breath, that barricade stops the air from reaching the bottom corners of my lungs; stops me from feeling like I can take a deep breath. But I don’t have to take a deep breath all the time, so for the most part I can ignore it.
The ache in my chest is harder to ignore. It pulls my focus, and says, “Hey, don’t forget about that barricade in your lungs. Don’t forget you can’t breathe all the way”. That ache doesn’t care if I’m driving my car, in the middle of a project at work, laughing at a joke, teaching a class, watching a great movie, trying to meet a deadline, trying to sleep, trying to eat… it doesn’t care.
It’s very, very easy to give into the fear that comes with that: with feeling like you can’t breathe. It’s so incredibly easy to start freaking out, and to start trying over and over again to fill my lungs. Experience has taught me that freaking out about it won’t make it go away. Freaking out about it turns it from manageable anxiety, to an anxiety attack.
Most days, I accept the barricade in my lungs. Instead of being upset that it’s there and making it worse, I assign a number to it. On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is it today? I focus on that number. I tell myself that I can manage that, and I don’t let the number get any higher. Instead of paying attention to the ache in my chest, I write that number down, then I draw it, then I write it over and over in a pattern. I focus on that number. For the most part, it helps. But sometimes, that ache in my chest decides it’s tired of being ignored.
I’ll be in the middle of a task at work, or have my eyes glued to the tv screen stuck on a show or movie, or talking to someone in the elevator on my way up from break at work, perfectly content, not even noticing that ache in my chest, and out of nowhere with no warning, I start having an anxiety attack.
For me, the start of an anxiety attack is like having the wind knocked out of me without warning. Fear takes over, the barricade jumps back to the top of my lungs. Then my hands shake and tingle like they fell asleep, my heart pounds so hard in my chest I can see it moving, my body temperature switches back and forth between rising and I feel too hot to chills where feel like I’m freezing, my legs feel empty and weak, I get dizzy, the ache in my chest gets worse and worse, my stomach knots up, and I start sweating.
Occasionally, when I reach this point, I can stop it before I have a full on attack. I can focus on my number, exhale all my breath and hold it like that, like I did as a kid playing that game in the pool. I just have to hold it like that, and be uncomfortable for a little bit, and then take a huge breath and let the air fill all the way to the bottom of my lungs. Sometimes I have to do that over and over again, until it works. When it does, I can go back to my normal annoying ache in my chest.
But most of the time, it happens too suddenly for me to hold it off. All of a sudden I’m gasping for air, thinking over and over again, “I can’t breathe”. I get scared. Even though by now I know exactly what is happening, and that I’ll be okay, I get terrified. On top of everything my body is already going through, my muscles in my neck and shoulders tense up, and tears start pouring from my eyes uncontrollably, and the pain in my chest gets worse and worse. I know I can breathe. I am breathing in, and out, and I have enough air to say the words, “I can’t breathe”. I know air is getting into my lungs, but I can’t catch my breath. Sometimes I get nauseous, and sometimes my vision blurs. I’ve had attacks that last a few minutes, and I’ve had attacks that go on for hours, literally hours. My brother once told me that sometimes people pass out from their anxiety attacks, and it’s like a reset button. I’ve wished over and over again my body would reset itself, but I’ve never been that lucky. I’ve always had to ride my attacks out until they were done.
Sometimes different things can help calm me down, but nothing works every time. Taking as deep a breath as I can, holding it a few seconds and blowing it out fast over and over again sometimes helps. Putting ice or something cold on the back of my neck can sometimes stop the attack immediately. Pushing out all my air and holding it like that as long as I can sometimes helps..
After an anxiety attack, I feel empty. Like all of my insides, and all of my energy, and all of my emotions, and all of my thoughts have been drained out of me. I usually need to lie down and rest, or to sleep. Sometimes I’m able to breathe normally after, but other times that barricade is still in the bottom of my lungs.
I woke up today with an ache in my chest, with a barricade in my lungs.
I didn’t assign a number to my anxiety today. It wasn’t bad enough that I felt I needed to, looking back now, it was at like a 3. Compared to the 5 I had yesterday, and the 8 I had Friday, a 3 was no big deal. I had a pretty good day. I got a lot of work done, I joked around, I didn’t have to be the mean bitchy supervisor to anyone at the office, and I wasn’t worried about that ache in my chest. And then, the workday was almost over. I started to get really warm, but the office is usually warm at the end of the day so I ignored it. My stomach was cramping, but I had some high number days recently, I’m used to my stomach being in knots. And then that ache in my chest got bad, and that barricade in my lungs jumped to the top of my lungs. I got nauseous, and too hot, and my hands were shaking.
I tried so hard to just keep working. I tried to slow everything down, and relax, but it wasn’t working. I tried to go outside and get some fresh air, but I was so dizzy that I just sat down on the top step in the stairwell instead. Then I got the chills and felt like I was freezing cold. I started crying and trying to breathe, but I couldn’t.
I was going to be off work in 15 minutes, and was going to have to rush to the studio because I said I would sub classes today. So I told myself to be done with the attack by the time I had to leave. I told myself that if I let it happen, and quickly, that I could just move on and go on with my day like I’ve done so many times before. But it didn’t work. I thought I got myself together and went back to my desk, but it came right back.
So there I was, at work, in the middle of an anxiety attack, having someone else call my boss at the studio to let them know (last minute, ugh) that I couldn’t come in because I couldn’t talk enough to get out more than a few syllables at a time. It was the worst attack I’ve had in a while, and as usual, I have no idea where it came from.
I wasn’t sulking, or thinking about stressful things, or feeling lonely, or feeling sorry for myself, I wasn’t working myself up; I was actually having a pretty good day. That’s probably one of the most frustrating parts. People don’t understand. They want a reason. They want to know what I’m anxious about, or what triggered it. It gets dismissed as me being too emotional, or as something that’s not a big deal.
During an attack, people try to help. They tell me to breathe, or try to remind me that I am breathing. And I appreciate them trying to help, just having someone there with me saying it’ll be okay does help (not enough to stop it, but it’s less scary than when I’m alone). But telling me to breathe, just reminds me that you have no idea what I’m going through. I am breathing, it’s not enough, it’s not working, it’s not filling my lungs. If it were that simple, I wouldn’t be here freaking out.
But it always stops eventually. The barricade in my lungs is back down to the bottom corners, and the ache in my chest is barely noticeable. I’m tired, and my eyes are raw from crying. I’m tired. I feel embarrassed that I had an attack at work again, and I feel ashamed that I wasn’t able to go into the studio to teach. And I feel like a time bomb, just waiting for the next attack.
It’s almost like a terrifying version of that game I used to play as a kid. Like I’m waiting for the time when the sinker toys are just too many and too spread out for me be able to get them all in one breath; waiting for the time when I can’t go without air long enough to break the surface of the water and fill my lungs. It’s like I’m drowning on dry land.