It begins as a niggling thought in the back of my mind, something that doesn’t make sense if I were to think clearly but clarity seems unreachable and the thought picks at me, the mental equivalent of a woodpecker at my window while I’m trying to dream. I feel my heart quicken as the muscles around my neck and upper chest begin to tense. The space behind my eyes tightens, my forehead wrinkling into an expression of perpetual worry. I am on the verge of a headache, of crying, of screaming, of sleeping, of dying, of smashing everything in eyesight. I cannot think. I cannot breathe. I cannot see how this can possibly end.
Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down. — Toni Morrison
I haven’t always had anxiety problems. It’s a recent phenomenon, starting around the time D. and I began dating, and it’s been cropping up since we began talking again after our weeks apart. It isn’t anything particular that happens or anything specific that’s said or done. And it’s not jealousy, insecurity, hatred, fear, or any other easily discernible emotion, state of mind, or perception of the world. It’s just plain anxiety, of the generalized sort and often in the form of mild panic attacks at inopportune times throughout the day. Yesterday, I took the only Ativan I had. Today, I’m stuck feeling like my chest is going to explode.
It’s difficult to know how to relieve this sort of uneasiness. There’s a part of me that thinks this is just what I need to learn to live through, the logical consequence of all that’s happened over the past few weeks. Another part of me wants to blame D., since I was a completely normal person until he came into and out of and back into my life. But even when he asks What can I do to help? I don’t have an answer. The feelings, the anxiety, the physical impact — they are all so unfocused and nebulous and reluctant to be pinpointed, it’s nearly impossible to figure out how to make any of them go away. And there’s the guilt, too. The guilt that I can’t be a stronger person, that it’s a bad thing to ask for help, an unconscionable thing to admit I feel like I’m a complete mess and don’t know why. I am reluctant to say anything to anyone, for fear of being labeled weak, knowing too little, asking too much.
On the phone with R. today, I theorize: Maybe this is just the way things will always be with D. Everything has always been so intense, so why should this be the exception?
I don’t know, she says. What do you think?
It makes sense, but it’s not what I want. I don’t know if all the good times are worth it if I feel reduced to taking Ativan to make it through anxious times. But I don’t want to give ANY of it up, not after all that’s happened.
It’s still early, she reminds me. Talk to him. Tell him how you feel.
And therein lies the rub: I feel defective, guilty, responsible. Surely a “normal” person would suck it up and deal with it and move ahead with a sunny and cheerful disposition. Talking with D. seems an imposition, an indulgence, an endeavor itself producing anxiety that I’ll get it all wrong or accidentally blame him or fail to be strong enough for him to want to stay.
I’m trying to decide whether to go to the loft in the village to hear A. play with five other musicians. Earlier today, I e-mailed N. to see if he wanted to join me, but by late afternoon I was unsure. I’m not feeling well, I wrote. Is it okay to let you know later?
No problem, he said, which he always does, since he’s that kind of guy, which has served me well these past few weeks, which is why he’s the one I email when I’m wanting in a half-assed way to do something but can’t make up my mind.
Later, my guilt had caught up with me — what kind of weak asshole am I to let a little anxiety prevent me from going to what will likely be a damn cool performance? — and I sent N. an half-hearted e-mail: I’m broke and A. has the car, so if you want to go, you’ll have to drive and buy the beer. And, oh, any tips on dealing with panic attacks and anxiety?
I’m fine driving and getting the beer, N. replied. But how psyched are you for the party? I’m not sure I’m 100% up to it myself. As for anxiety: breathe. Just breathe and breathe some more and focus on the breathing until your breath is all that’s left. And let me buy you lunch or dinner this weekend.
In my response, I told him I could take or leave the party and to call and let me know when he decides — it will either be the one thing to get me out of this funk or the one thing that forces me deeper into it, and I’m not going to make the decision that moves the invisible hand.
I don’t know how to give up the shit. There is nothing to do but wait for the woodpecker to grow tired.
For now, I’m going to take a bath. And I’m going to breathe.