I’ve been writing a lot about mental health recently. At least, it seems that way— for Teaching Tolerance, thinking about it as a runner and educator. I’ve been talking about “fighting monsters” for years now, mining stories of the times I “got off the mat,” or “made the choice to stand up.”
Those stories feel good and victorious, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy I’ve written them. Those days do feel good— the days where I am able to look my monsters in the eye, to get up, to not let them control me. Those are stories that feel good to share too— reading how other people cope with mental health has also been an inspiration for me to move forward too.
There are days when the monsters win, though.
These are the days that are hard to write about.
They start slowly. Lots of times, a panic attack will hit me out of the blue– a blind-turning-truck-into-a-deer-in-headlights hit. The tsunami wave you were so sure would never come. I don’t expect, and the ferocity of it flashing through me is enough to knock me on my ass. It hits. I cry. It passes. Panic.
Some days, though, my body has been a battlefield for weeks. I start noticing little things– I’ll stutter when I talk, I’m tired all the time. I start struggling with my spatial awareness and running into desks and doors, bruises blooming on my arms and thighs.
Still, even now, I try and see if I can outrun and out work Panic. Two-a-days and yoga in between. An extra beer at dinner. Nights laying in bed, hand on my heart, repeating, I am fine, I am fine I am fine Iamfineiamfineiamfine, like a talisman to protect me. If I run my tongue enough over the words, maybe I will conjure some sort of magic that will make the statement true.
You can’t ask the external to protect you from what’s already inside you, though.
And so, over the course of the day, a few hours, it comes. I am lightheaded all afternoon, my heart feeling like it will beat out of my chest. I am so hoping it’s just an upset stomach or tired mind. I try to calm myself, taking my own pulse to prove that I am not having a heart attack or dying. I just feel that way. I hang on, for as long as I can, to the rational part of my brain.
I begin to shiver, and my body becomes the Hoover dam holding back the flood, bursting at the seams. I wrap my arms tightly around to try and hold myself in, as if I could keep my rabbit-heart safe in my embrace so it does not beat right out of my body and lose a bad fight bloody on the floor. I breathe. I tell myself, iamfinefiamfineiamfine,
And then, I call my parents. They immediately hear something in my voice. “Can you stay on the phone with me? I think I’m having a panic attack.”
And then, I break.
They stay with me as the first wave passes. They’ve been here before– comforting and cajoling me to breathe, just breathe. As I alternate between hyperventilating and sobbing, they tell me that it’s okay. They gently remind me that I’m okay, they’re okay, everyone is okay. They sit on the phone and tell me that this, too, will pass. That they are there, and that they love me.
And, in many ways, this is more than enough. The first wave passes, I am able to breathe again. They remind me how much they love me, ask me to get some rest and stay safe and, when I am ready, they hang up the phone.
The fight is not over though.
I roll onto my side and begin to heave, my body furled tightly into the fetal postition like a flag rolled up to try and survive the storm. I cannot stop crying. I openly weep, long unfettered wails pulled out of as I mourn the gentle peace my body had built. I try and let loose everything bursting from me, as if I could scrape the bottom of the well of my sadness as a sign that, just maybe, it’s finally gone
I roll onto my hands and knees on the bed, the blanket draped over my back like a fallen warhorse making its last stand that I saw in a book somewhere. “You need to get up now,” I beg myself aloud, sobbing as I press my forehead to the bed in a desperate prayer. “You have to get up.”
I continue to cry, to wail, to try and somehow call my body back out of the hole we are falling into and try and find my way. I slink and slither to the foot of the bed, trying to breath. One foot touches onto the cold linoleum. Then the other. I come to my knees on the floor, pressing my eyes into the mattress as I finally, finally start to calm down.
I don’t know how long it takes, but by the time I am able to stand, it is dark outside.
I get up, slowly find my footing.
And I begin to rebuild.
These are the days I do not often write about. The shatter, the death knell, the wail, the rallying cry trying to bring me back home to my body. They are the not the Cinderella-story where Panic is the thing I find some magical cure to overcome.
Yet, they are just as much a part of my story as any. At the end of the day, I always come home. After it all, this, too, does pass. And today, raw and wounded as I feel, I have put hand to body, and begin to rebuild.