It's 3 AM. I stare at the ceiling in the dark, nothing more than a black haze. I try to control my breathing as I feel my heartbeat speeding up. The lump in my throat grows, slowly at first but progressively quicker, until it starts to feel like I am being choked. I count to ten meditatively, letting my thoughts go where they will. Then I count to ten again, and again.
The darkness starts to feel foreboding. It jogs memories of the blackest night of my life where death came and stole my loving husband away from this world years ago. The quick beat of my heart starts to feel like palpitations. The space under my breastbone begins to tighten in increasingly painful, unrelenting contractions.
I start to feel afraid of the dark, like a child who is just learning to go to sleep without a nightlight. I turn my bedside lamp on and switch the TV to some terrible reality show that I have already seen for background noise. I hope against hope that this will be enough to quiet the frantic thoughts running through my head to allow me to go back to sleep.
I wonder briefly if I am having a real cardiac event, but the experience has become familiar enough to tell me otherwise. No, this is a good old fashioned panic attack.
Despite feeling quite the contrary, this not going to kill me. It's just going to make me miserable and scared for long enough to temporarily drain all of my energy. You might think after how many of these I have had, once identifying the source of my symptoms I would be able to simply take a deep breath and let it go. As if knowing the rational, fact-based reasons for these sensations would be sufficient to make them dissipate.
Too bad that isn't how it works. As a wise person once said, "Self-knowledge avails us nothing."
After laying in bed for over two hours, I decide to hit the earliest spin class I can at my cycling studio. It may not fix it, but it might give me a brief reprieve while I focus on not falling off my bike. No such luck. The thoughts continue to fire without ceasing. "Okay fine, I'll go to the gym next!" I spend another hour lifting weights, trying to make my body so tired that my mind can't possibly keep up the barrage of commentary. And still, it continues. I do manage to physically exhaust myself enough that I collapse on my bed upon returning home for almost two full hours. I wake up to a moment of quiet before the chest pain starts again, this time accompanied by beads of sweat on my forehead and nausea in my gut.
Hours later I manage to put on some clean clothes and drive myself to my favorite local coffee shop. Lord knows I don't need any caffeine, but I do know that sitting alone in my bedroom will not help this pass any faster. I watch people come and go. Some look happy, some look stressed, some look indifferent. I know that I have no idea how anyone actually feels, because I look completely normal. All the while, my anxious mind and heart do backflips and keep me right at the edge of a full-blown meltdown.
Eventually, and thankfully, the physical symptoms start to subside, though my brain continues to incessantly run through my self-created list of problems. What are you going to do with yourself? How are you ever going to make enough money to sustain an uncomplicated, quiet life without taking another job that leaves your soul painfully unfulfilled? What if you never feel better than this? My inner asshole, who has been relatively contained as of late, is making up for lost time.
There is some benefit to having years of experience with these often debilitating episodes with anxiety, the most important of which is knowing that it WILL pass. Sometimes it takes days, even weeks, but without fail it always improves. Even looking back at some of the most poignant episodes of panic that occurred when I was diagnosed with PTSD a few years ago reminds me that as excruciating as this feels, it is nowhere near as bad as it once was. In the past, I was not able to leave the house when this happened because a single encounter with an angry person on the freeway would send me spinning out of control. Today, I carried on and practiced as many healthy tools as possible to manage my way through. I didn't eat a sheet cake, instead nourishing my body with exercise and food it likes. I didn't go on a shopping spree for things I don't need with money I don't have. I didn't start a fight with anyone to distract myself from the real source of my discomfort. I sat with it, all damn day. And it's not gone yet, even as I write this.
The reason I share is because anxiety is an invisible foe. It might be afflicting that person who just cut you off on the road, the checker at the grocery store who wasn't friendly during your exchange, or your boss who blew up at you over a seemingly harmless mistake. Or, it might be the girl sitting across from you at the coffee shop, smiling through her pain and just trying to survive one more day. I hate cliche sayings, but the one that certainly applies here is "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
Brief moments of humanity have kept me from falling over the edge more times than I can count. Extend kindness wherever you can. Love your people. Be the most compassionate toward those who throw pain and anger your way, even if it's hard. Because you just don't know.
Anniversaries are hard.
It has been three years today since I said goodbye to my husband and the love of my life, Patrick. Three years since holding his hand as the last breath escaped his lips. Three years since I felt his embrace, touched his skin or saw him smile. Three years since he burst into our home in a fit of excitement over something or nothing, because he was so full of life that the 'nothings' were just as important as the 'somethings.' Three years since he stood in front of the TV doing a silly dance because he knew it would make me laugh. Three years since he called just to tell me how much he loved me. Three years since he looked me in the eyes in that way only he could, already knowing what I wanted to say without uttering a word.
Three years is one thousand ninety-five days. Not that I'm counting.
To be honest, most of the time now I'm not counting. I am pressing forward. I have completely readjusted my priorities. I left a job that was unaligned with my soul. I spend most of my time pursuing spiritual goals rather than material ones. I am still overly careful with my tender heart, but I am learning to let people in again - because that is what Patrick would want, and it's what I want. I don't spend every day in morbid reflection anymore over what might have been if he had never had that seizure; if the doctors had been right the first time, and he hadn't had the most aggressive brain cancer known to mankind; if we had gotten a chance to live the life we hoped to have. I am taking gentle care of myself in every way possible. I am regaining my physical and emotional strength so that I can rejoin the stream of life in the most meaningful way I can. I am proud of the progress I have made and the willingness I have had to face the pain head-on, sober, without ceasing. I have never given up even when I wanted to, or when the desire to be removed from this world felt stronger than the one to stay. I have survived.
But today, I am sad. And that's okay.
What follows is an excerpt of the words I shared at Patrick's Celebration of Life, which was held a few weeks after he died in the room where we first met. I felt compelled to share this so that those of you who did not have the privilege of knowing him in this life might be able to understand in some small way the impact he had on everyone around him.
Patrick always said that he felt like God took both of us, faced us toward each other, and said “Here. This is what you’ve been looking for.” We both knew it would be complicated, but we also knew it would be worth it. From the beginning our relationship was built on mutual respect, a commitment to a lifetime of service to others, and a friendship deeper than either of us could imagine. We met in our recovery fellowship. I remember where I was when I first saw him. There was just something about Patrick O’Leary – I knew my life was never going to be the same.
When we had been dating for a little less than a year, Patrick took his kids to Disneyland for three days. This was the longest we had been apart since we started seeing each other and I literally threw him a welcome home party because I missed him so much. On the door of our apartment, I put a sign that said “Baby, I love you because…” and laminated all of these little pieces of paper with reasons on them. I found the papers in an envelope in one of his boxes, and I would like to read what it said because it gives a small idea of how much he meant to me.
BABY, I LOVE YOU BECAUSE …
You make me feel like the only person you can see, even when we're in a crowded room.
You're as silly and goofy as I am.
You have the biggest heart of anyone I've ever known.
You always want to take care of me in every way you can.
You always tell me how beautiful you think I am, even when I'm a hot mess and you know it.
You always want to spend your time with me.
You're not afraid to talk about our future.
You love me enough to want to spend your life with me.
I know I can trust you with everything, especially my heart.
You're a great example to me of what it means to be a sober member of our fellowship I'm always encouraged to be better because of you.
You're willing to do whatever it takes to help me, no matter what.
You're always thinking about ways to make me happy.
You make my lunch every day and do endless little things to show me how much you love me.
You love being in recovery as much as I do.
You make me feel like I'm a priority all the time.
You forgive me when I'm unforgivable.
You love me even when I make huge mistakes.
You stick with me while I try to figure out how to be the woman you deserve.
You never give up on me.
You're sexy as hell.
You believe in me.
You love your family, especially your kids, in a way that most people never experience.
You're loyal and faithful.
Your kids are awesome.
You allow me to be a part of every aspect of your life.
You're patient with me.
You're my safe place.
You protect me and I know I don't have to worry about anything when you're with me.
You're hilarious and make me laugh so hard my stomach hurts on a regular basis.
My heart is not whole when you're gone.
I get butterflies in my stomach when I think about you.
You get me in a way no one has ever gotten me.
When I picture my life, I can't see it without you.
You're incredibly generous with me and everyone you know.
Did I mention you're sexy as hell?
You're always thinking about my happiness and what you can do to make my day brighter.
You're constantly being of service to others.
You remind me that I'm an example to others, whether I like it or not, and it helps me behave better.
You love chocolate and cheese as much as I do.
We are the same person (and I’m awesome).
We love all the same things.
You love my kitties.
You want to build a life together.
You don’t mind when I dance and sing like an idiot. I think you actually enjoy it.
You’re better that what I pictured when imagining the man I would end up with.
AND FOR A MILLION OTHER REASONS …
I love you with all of my heart.
When Patrick and I had been dating for about six months, we got a pair of swallows tattooed on our shoulders – we each had one. The meaning behind this was that swallows mate for life, and even if one of them dies, the other never has another mate. We knew, after that short amount of time, that we were soul mates. I knew that he would always be “the one,” the true love of my life.
In August 2014, Patrick and I took his kids on an amazing vacation to Maui. We drove the road to Hana, explored waterfalls, swam with sea turtles, took surfing and stand-up paddle boarding lessons. There was no indication that anything was wrong – in fact, he was in pretty much the best shape of his life. We had no idea of what was about to happen, and that our lives were going to be turned upside down forever.
On September 15, 2014, I woke up at 2:30 in the morning to Patrick sitting straight up on the floor speaking really loudly, but everything coming out of his mouth was gibberish. I called 911 right away, thinking that he was having a stroke. He had two seizures on the way to the hospital, which led to a medically-induced coma for 36 hours and four days in the ICU. After that came surgery, months of hospitalizations, radiation, chemotherapy, rehabilitation – the list goes on and on. And while there were some impossibly hard moments, some of which lasted for weeks at a time, I was constantly amazed at the grace and dignity he displayed through all of it. When he came out of his surgery to remove the tumor and was in the recovery room, the first thing he did was crack a joke about how his surgeon was about 12 years old. He made sure that he had his daughter go out and buy me presents for my birthday because we were at in the hospital. He was constantly concerned with how I was, how his family was, and what he could do to make US more comfortable. And that, my friends, was Patrick. Even when he was faced with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, his first thought was how he could help those around him to get through it. While the ten months of his illness were brutal, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was the greatest honor of my life to hold his hand every day and let him know how loved he was.
The night he passed, it was just the two of us together. I knew he was still fighting even though he was slowing down. Through my tears I managed to choke out, “I love you, honey. I’m going to be okay. You can go now.” And at that very moment, he took his last breath.
Patrick truly was the best thing that has ever happened to me. He taught me through his example how to be selfless, how to love passionately, how to conduct myself with dignity and grace in the face of the most extreme adversity I could imagine. I knew I wanted to marry him long before he ever got sick, but there were so many times I was afraid that we would never get to see that day. The fact that we were able to get married just six weeks before he passed and committed to love each other forever was a testament to his strength and amazing spirit, and his refusal to lie down for anyone or anything. He changed my entire life. On our wedding day I promised that I would love him every day for the rest of my life, no matter what happens. I intend to honor that promise. I believe that our love story did not end the day he died. He’s with me every day. If you’d like to hear how he’s been visiting me, just ask. And if you’re wondering whether it’s okay to talk to me about him, PLEASE DO. He’s all I want to talk about, so don’t hesitate because you think it will make me too sad.
One of the first doctors who treated Patrick in the ICU was so caring and loving to both of us, and he kept in touch with us long after Patrick was no longer his patient. He sent us a card that I would like to share, because I believe it sums up who Patrick and I were together.
“Dear Patrick and Lisa,
I hope that this card finds you both well and in good spirits. I wanted you both to know that since the very first time I cared for you both, I have always been amazed with the incredible love and devotion you have for each other. Living through cancer is an experience only those who have lived through it can understand, but to do so with the love, commitment and grace you have shown for each other speaks to your incredible will and strength. I just wanted you both to know how much I admire you both and am inspired by your love for each other. Please accept this small gesture of my thanks for your friendship.”
I always said Patrick was larger than life. The fact that he was taken far too soon confirms that I was right. I know he’s up there, watching over all of us, and fulfilling the next phase of his journey undoubtedly with a huge smile on his face and his hand stretched out to help wherever he is needed.
Patrick, please save me a seat next to you at the big meeting in the sky. I promise to make you proud.
These words are as true today as they were three years ago. For those of you who think that sharing this means I am dwelling on the past, or that I haven't moved forward, all I can say is you're wrong. Neither Patrick or I are holding me to the standard symbolized in our puppy love tattoos, but I will always, always love him with a fire that burns deep in my soul.
Love does not die when the incarnation of this human form ends. I continue to honor Patrick, today and every day, by living the best life I can manage and holding space for the hole in my heart that he left behind.
To my bunny, sweet pea, honey, baby, love bug, goobey bopkin head, and all the other silly names I called you - I love you to the moon and back, forever and ever, amen.
Lisa O'Leary is a lawyer, cat mom, widow, sports enthusiast, truth seeker, soul searcher, meditator, and consciousness practitioner who is actively engaged in quieting down the mind to allow the song to play.