You are twenty.
You pay your own bills, “fill” your own fridge. You work a mediocre job that some days when you think about it you feel grateful, and others you feel like you need a life raft.
You have “goals”. You write, you read, you try to educate yourself on the world and how you fit into it, how to understand it.
There are days that are effortless. The ambition and productivity comes naturally. You scribble in your agenda and the inside of your wrist all that you’ve accomplished that day, your to-do list and activities for the next, who you need to call. You think “I am basically invincible. Things are not perfect but everything is temporary and I will always be okay”.
You get home. You’ve just had a the perfect Autumn Sunday – a movie, a drizzly bike ride, mediocre food. Spent 3 hours in bed touching and talking and not moving more than fingers across backs. You departed; finally, dutifully.
Once home you notice the dishes in the sink that you forgot about, the clothes on your bed that you left in a pile when you rushed out the door accepting you wouldn’t look perfect and that was better than being late.
You sigh; take off your pants, say “fuck it, tomorrow” to the dishes, scoop the clothes onto a chair while stepping on something sharp. There is a stale corn chip on your floor, but you don’t remember eating them in here. A little blip makes itself visible in your mind, the radar of recognition, though it’s too faint to see what it is.
Curling up on your bed with the last 15% of your laptop battery you check all that you’ve missed – the Facebook comments, the posts you want to share; the word docs still open from all the notes everyone was drunkenly writing last night as a gaggle of friends had professed their deepest selves reciting poetry, singing, swigging from full bottles because they “did not need glasses to define “full” or “empty”” for them.
You wander, in fatigue and pleasantness from the day. There is a pang in your stomach that was once hunger maybe, but is now nausea. You haven’t noticed it’s been nearly 5 hours since your last meal, but it’s the end of the night. You’ll get a snack in a minute (when you can pull yourself from the glowing grip of your screen.)
You think about this feeling in your stomach. Another blip appears. You scroll, lazily. You think about writing. Another blip. You think about tomorrow, all that you’ve promised yourself you would do: bank, run, get -blip- keys, do dishes, finish laundry. You think about what you said to your mom yesterday when you were angry. Blip blip. You think about the email you sent her. You close your Facebook tab. Blip.
You close your eyes, your stomach saying “so what now?”. You think about work in a couple days; Do you remember how to close? Will it be busy? Blip. You don’t want to go. Blip. You think about your anxiety -blip- and how it has hindered you in the past. “But tomorrow I will be okay. And the day after that as well.” Another promise to yourself. Blip blip.
You start to jiggle your leg, but it’s awkward so you rub your feet together. Compulsively. They are cold, you do this when you’re trying to fall asleep. Blip..
You start to think of all the things you would rather be doing. Blip. You think, with guilt about the dishes in the sink and the stories still open in the dock on your computer, refusing to close them because it feels the same as defeat even though you won’t touch them with intention for another few weeks. Blip. The clutter on your home screen drives you crazy, but you refuse to close the tabs. Blip. It’s not that late, you could probably get in a load of laundry and then shower. Then you can get the dishes done too. Blip. Maybe even a quick sweep. Blip blip.
You notice you’ve started to flex your fingers, that your body is covered in goosebumps. You put on sweatpants and a knit sweater and start walking back and forth across your room -blip- picking up discarded articles of clothing, hanging them up and folding them or putting them in the laundry. Blip. You’ve started the rhythmic counting in your head that you picked up in fourth grade when you started percussion. One, two, blip, four, blip, two, three, four, one, blip, three, four…
You whip your head around. What did you just hear? Was that the front door closing? Is someone home? You realize it was nothing and become aware of the heavy beating in your chest, your shallow breathing. Blip. (Were you doing this before?) It was probably nothing you reassure yourself -blip-, as you pick little pieces of chip and paper off the ground that have collected there since last night. Blip.
You start to think about the untidiness of your apartment. Blip. The untidiness of your life. When was the last time you worked out? Is anxiety considered a disability? Blip, blip. Can you apply for anxiety disability? Blip. You tell yourself you’re not disabled. You’re having a bad day (bad night at least). It’s been a long month. You just need a good cry, you hold too much in. Blip.
So you let yourself cry. It starts off like a tap that hasn’t been used in a while, spitting out water. Your breathing gets faster again, and a sob builds up in your body as you curl yourself up into a ball. You tell yourself to let it all out and the water turns from cold to hot.
You start to feel dizzy. The weight of exhaustion on you now. You want to stop crying. Your hands are shaking, your nose is running, there’s a wet spot that takes up most of your pillow: saliva, snot, and tears. You get up to walk it off, to signal to your body that it is time to stop. (blip, blip, blip)
This is when you start to hyperventilate. The shudders that rock your body as you try to steady your breathing come in shorter spurts. It feels like your body is being buried under 10 feet of sand and you have an oxygen tank that will only last ten minutes to dig yourself out. You grasp at your arms, a weak attempt at hugging yourself. Or pinching yourself. Something. Your fingers stiffen, and your goose bump covered body is sweating profusely but you don’t feel anything. You can’t think anymore.
You convince yourself that you’re a burden; that no one can help you. They’re going to think you’re doing it for attention. No one calls someone when they’re having a real panic attack. They won’t be able to help you anyway – you’ll always have panic attacks and there’s nothing you can do about it. Just let it go, get up and move on. You thought yourself into this so it’s not even real. These small, mean thoughts circle themselves around your brain. With the rest of the sane energy you have you bat them away. You try to call your mom – no answer. You call her boyfriend – no answer. You call your best friend – no answer. They don’t want to talk to you, they have more important things to be doing. You know you do not have what you need to calm down, and you know they won’t either, but someone needs to know that if you don’t start breathing properly in the next 5 minutes you might not make it. If you don’t hear a voice that isn’t your own, you might not make it.
You stop trying to reassure yourself, stop trying to help and the only thought is “I’m going to die if I don’t start breathing” – but it isn’t even a conscious thought so much as a fact that you’ve come to understand in that moment. You curl into a ball on the ground, rocking yourself back and forth. Drooling onto your knees, fingers clenched into tight fists at the side of your head. You try to yell but choke; your frustration and fear is paramount.
You start crying so hard that you almost gag, and you know you would vomit on yourself because you can’t move to make it to the bathroom, or even the garbage pail across the room.
Your phone starts buzzing. You can barely move an arm to hit the answer button, and you cannot muster a “hello”. Your best friend is on the other side “Hello?! Forest? Are you okay?!” and you sob pitifully and spit onto your screen, managing to moan out a “No”. The next 10 minutes consist of you regaining and losing your breath, and you’ve heard “it’s going to be okay” at least 20 times. When you can finally muster “I’ll be okay”, barely audible through the congestion and sharp intakes and rushing in your ears. You end the call when you realize you can think again.
You whimper, your breathing shudders as you try to gain control again. Your body feels like it is filled with the sand you were being buried under. You peel yourself away from the floor after a year; hanging head, breathing deep, flexing fingers. Hair sticking to your face, sweater sticking to your back.
You laugh sadly and looking the mirror in the bathroom at your red, puffy eyes and face. At the sticky smears of salt water and saliva, the two solid streams of snot that grace your cupids bow and crystallize on your upper lip. It is the face of an oncoming head ache that contradicts the almost-euphoria of being able to breathe again. You think “I hate public displays of anxiety”.
anxiety is not pretty. it is not a few tears on the pillow or clenched fists. it is tremendous, a feat, something that is overcome every time it is experienced. this photo was taken post panic attack to show the reality – bloodshot eyes, swollen face, snot still dripping from nose and coating my upper lip, disheveled hair, wet cheeks, exhaustion. there is nothing glamorous about it. every time you come make it to the other side of a panic attack, it feels like you have narrowly evaded death – and you do not feel like a hero.
Written by Forest Greenwell