“You say you’re ‘depressed’ – all i see is resilience. You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective – it just means you’re human.”
I won’t sit here and try to eloquently put an anxiety attack in poetic terms. They just suck. Plain and simple. Suffering from one drains the life out of you. It leave you feeling weak, and vulnerable, and bat shit crazy. Especially after the first few times you suffer an episode. The worse part is that, at least in my case, it seemed to come out of nowhere. One moment I am cool like the other side of the pillow, and the next thing I know I am doing my best Fred Sanford impersonation, yelling out “ This is the BIG ONE!” I’m overtaken by a sense of fear. I can’t breath, I turn pale. Sometimes I feel a bit faint. But mostly what I feel is afraid. That initial fear can’t be controlled, it can’t be reasoned with. You can’t guide the son of a bitch like some pissed off bull. All you can do is wait until it runs you over, backs up, and run you over again. Only then does the fear subside.
On Wednesday June 12, 2013, I suffered the worst anxiety attack in 2 years. The day started off the way most of my days do, feeling groggy from not getting the doctor recommended 8 hours of sleep. I was downstairs in the basement, downloading some DLC on my XBOX 360. Little Dory, my 4-year-old Black Lab/ Pit mix, apparently got tired of me giving all my attention to my game system, and was letting me in on her displeasure. She planted herself right in front of me, to make sure I could not miss her annoyed gaze. “What’s wrong mama?” I ask my four-legged shadow. She wagged her tail and with her nose she pushes away the hand that was holding the Xbox controller. That was her way of letting me know, that she wanted me to drop whatever dumb human stuff I was working on so I could do something fun, like pet her or chase after her. From the looks of her, all too human eyes, I could tell she definitely wanted me to give chase. So I got up from the sofa, got in my giant monster pose, and told her in my best, big bad giant voice, that I was going to eat her. She takes off only to come right back at me. Let me tell you, this little girl is impossibly quick, but I do my best to give her a good chase. She ran circles around me, and I persist to go after her tail. Well after about 3 to 4 minutes of this, we both find ourselves being a little out of breath. I kneel down before her and pet her on the head. I tell her what a good little girl she is. Dory, pleased by my affection, rolls on her back and exposes her belly, for the prerequisite tummy rub. I oblige the little runt and rub her on the belly and neck. I got the idea to go upstairs for some reason, I can’t quite remember for what. However looking at Dory’s face I could see that she still had a bit of play in her left. So I stand real still at the bottom of the steps. She hops back up from the floor. She knows that at any second I am going to take off at a full sprint up the stairs. I know that Dory is getting ready to give chase. We stand motionless, staring each other down like a couple of gunslingers about to have a showdown. Each one waiting for the other to flinch. I hold my position, letting the tension build up. The instance I see her relax ever so slightly, I take off up the stairs, like if I was being chased by a 700 pound saber-tooth tiger, and not the 50 pound, puppy like, lab\pit mix that is now sprinting at full speed behind me. Off course i’m no match for a natural sprinter like Dory. But I do try to give her a run for her money. She gallops past me and makes it to the top of the stairs before I’ve reached the halfway point. Her tail wags in approval as she waits me. Once I get there, I pet her on the head and congratulate her on a well run race.
Naturally speaking, I was feeling a bit winded. Granted it was nothing out of the ordinary. I’ve found myself sucking wind much harder after a heavy workout or roughhousing with the wifey. No, this was just a bit of heavy breathing as my lungs tried to pull in the oxygen my muscles were asking for. Unfortunately for me, this time, I was aware that I was a bit out of breath and stayed focused on that feeling. I wondered to myself, what if this was the beginning of a heart attack. That’s all it took. Just that one random thought crossed my mind’s eye for an instant, and next thing I know I was going down the rabbit hole. Although my lungs were taking big, deep breaths, I felt like couldn’t get enough oxygen in them. I could feel the left side of my chest tightening, like if someone was pushing down on it slowly, but with increased force. My left arm started to tingle. I could feel the bottom drop out of my stomach, and all the blood rushed out of my head. My legs became weak. I could feel them wobble, and they were having difficulty holding up my big frame. My vision narrowed, and I could feel the world start spin. However as scary as that might sound, what was truly unnerving was the overwhelming tsunami of irrational fear that washes over me. In the midst of an attack, there is no light in the world. Everyone seems to have been transported to another dimension. You are lost, alone, and with no hope of ever being found.
I pictured the wifey coming into the house, and finding me on the dining room floor. My body, cold and stiff. I imagine little Dory sleeping by my side, sad that her dad would not get up. I freaked out, no way in hell I could let that happen. I had to run for help, before I passed out. I remember I took off towards the front door. My hands trembled as I tried to get the deadbolt unlocked. I reasoned that if I passed out outside, someone was bound to see me on the ground and would call for help. I stepped out for a moment and almost took off down the front steps in a panic. But I stopped myself. It was at that moment, that sanity made it’s first attempt to regain control. I became self-aware. I took notice that I was barefoot, wearing one pair of very wrinkly cargo pants, a slightly torn white t-shirt, and my hair probably resembled Jimmy Neutron. No that was not a good look for me. Yeah, at that instant I thought I was better off having the wifey discover my fat bloated corpse than to have the neighbors wondering why the Brooklyn Brawler was running down the block in a panic.
I stepped back inside my house to get my phone. Dory and our other four-legged foster kid Pixie, looked on worried and confused. I’m sure they could see the panic and fear in my face, but probably couldn’t understand why, as there were no visible signs of any external forces that they could see, smell or hear that could be triggering my response.
I called the wifey at work and told her what was happening. She’s had to deal with these phone calls before. She knew the drill. She spoke to me in a calm, reassuring voice. She asked me to tell her what I was feeling, what how did it start. This annoyed the living shit out of me. I was panicking. I was nervous, death was coming for me, what the fuck did it sound like what was happening? But you see that line of questioning does a few things for me. One, it forces me to slow down and retrace what exactly lead me to that point. It reminded me that I was playing with Dory, and got a bit winded. And that got me wondering what if what I was feeling was the start of a heart attack?
The second thing that question does is piss me off. But that is a good thing. One of the first superheroes I gravitated too when I started reading comics, was Dr. Bruce Banner, aka the Incredible Hulk. When the good doctor is in his human form, he feels anxious, vulnerable, and he fears that the monster within is his true self. But when he is angry, he turns into the gamma irradiated mountain of rage, “The Incredible Hulk”. Only then does all the fears within him subside. Bruce is no longer in complete control of himself, and there is a part of him that rather likes it. I could relate. Now, my flesh does not turn pine green, and my fat (as much as I wish it did) does not turn into 900 lbs of muscle. But my anger does make me feel stronger. I don’t feel vulnerable when I’m mad. My focus is sharp, I can articulate points in ways that I just can’t do when I am relaxed. The fog of doubt lifts, and I can see as far as the horizon from all directions.
The third thing that our phone conversations does, and the most important thing really, is that it help me realize that I am not alone. Even if I was to drop dead right then and there, the wifey is there with me. What more can we ask in death, than to be seen off by someone who cares about us. To have someone mourn our passing. To be remembered.
It is rather difficult to tell time when suffering an anxiety attack. The seconds feel like minutes, and minutes become hours. I estimated that the physical manifestation of my anxiety attack lasted about 10-20 minutes. The fear aspect of the attack took a bit over two hours to subside. The nervousness of having another episode remained with me for the rest of the day. After talking on the phone with the wifey for about 40 minutes or so, I went up to her job and met her for lunch. I wasn’t feeling all that hungry, but I did have a beer. Nothing takes the edge out of things like a good old fashion depressant. Afterwards I went to work and took it slow. I didn’t talk about it to anyone at the job.I just went about my business like nothing was wrong with me. I’m sure I stuttered a bit more than usual, talking to the angry folks that call the job for technical assistance. But for the most part I think I did a good job at playing it off. I even managed to partake in some small talk with some of the folks at work. That too helped.
Our brains are pretty incredible. Like the Holodeck on the starship Enterprise, the brain gives shape and meaning to everything we see, taste, hear, smell and touch, even if it’s not really there. It creates and interprets the reality that we see all around us. After all was it not my brain that literally got my body to simulate the physical sensation of a heart attack? I was not dying, but I sure as hell was convinced I was. That was all due to that 3 pound organ that sits encased in our skulls. And as infuriating as it might feel sometimes to be at the mercy of a brain that does not always cooperate, I also understand that without this faulty brain of mine, this beautiful world and universe it floats around in, would just be the purest form of nothing.
Thankfully there is one silver lining to this story. You see even though this attack was severe, and it through me for a bit of a loop. I was able to cope with it. I didn’t run down the stairs and made a fool out of myself. I didn’t go to the hospital, and waste a couple of hundred dollars on unnecessary test. I didn’t lose out on a days worth of pay. I went on with my day. I was able to “handle my business” like some of my friends like to say. I didn’t allow this attack to stop me from living my life.
As a child, my anxiousness froze me into inaction. As a teenager, my anxiousness grew into a cancer, and the anger that emerged out of it was more than I was capable of handling. But as an adult, with ever-increasing grays on the top of my head, beard and butt cheeks, I am learning to manage my anxiety in a healthy way. It’s not always easy. Sometimes it can be a bit exhausting dealing with this. But as long as there is a beat in my chest, and blood coursing through my veins, I will keep marching forward.
I would like to finish with a quote that has come to shape the way I deal with things in my life over the past 4 years. It may seem a bit over simplistic. It may be much easier said than done. But in this slightly irregular mind of mine, no words have ever made more sense.
Take it away Charles R. Swindoll:
“The longer I love, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company…a church….a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes.”