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.
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.