Down the Rabbit Hole

CW: Anxiety and images of death.


I never know when it’s going to hit.

I am sitting in an airplane as it begins to speed towards the end of the runway and take off. It’s a normal flight— one of the the hundreds you take when you live on an island, getting either to the mainland or island-hopping. It’s routine, at this point, to find myself on a plane.

Then, there’s a slight bump as the jet soars higher. The plane pitches forward for an instant, and I hear the metal begin to rip off and break. The bolts are popping off, loud and violent, and I look up to see a fireball shooting down the aisle of the plane, straight for me. In that moment, I realize I am going to die. My eyes engulf the flames coming towards me, the silver second I have left on earth quickly flashing away. My mouth turns to ash as I whisper, “No,” thinking of all the things I do not want to lose.

Then, I blink, and it’s gone.

The aisle is clear, the plane is steadily taking off, safe as any other flight I have been on.

I blink again, and the sequence starts all over, a movie playing behind my eyes on repeat. Over and over I watch myself die— which is not necessarily the worst part. The worst part is imagining what comes after. I see my family, devastated and in mourning, all the things I left unsaid, everything I will not get to do. My heart breaks. My chest clutches and I feel like I cannot breathe.

I blink, and it’s gone. Then again, in an instant, the movie starts all over.

I take a deep breath, and close my eyes, trying to stop the anxiety that is not the monster looming on my shoulder or the storm cloud passing through my day, but torture in the worst way. It is my own mind, forcing me down the rabbit whole of my worst nightmares over and over and over.

May is Mental health Awareness month. My anxiety is something I’ve written about often— in regards to my teaching, my running, and just my day-to-day existence. I can easily share many of the ways it will manifest: crying jags, a temporary inability to breathe, insomnia.

I’ve been quiet about it, though, because I’ve been in the throes of some of the worst manifestations of my anxiety that I deal with.

Which is difficult, because it’s something that’s hard to talk or write about. It’s not the anxiety that my body unwillingly throws at me when I least expect it, a physical mutiny of panic as my rational brain scrambles to try and calm me down. It’s a descent deeper and deeper into the own, darkest parts of my psyche and, if I’m not careful, I can spiral may way down into a pretty terrible place.

My most intense trigger, in truth, is death— more specifically, death or pain happening to my loved ones. Since childhood, I have been occasionally overcome with the deep fear that someone I love is going to die and I won’t be there to do anything about it. As a kid, I would follow my family around because I’d feel certain that if I didn’t, something bad would happen and I wouldn’t be there to try and help them or simply be around for their last moments. My stomach will fill with hot lead, I’ll get nauseous and light headed— not just anxious or scared, but unable to stop seeing the horrifying movie in my head. It plays my worst fears back to me in vivid detail— seeing my family brutally murdered, discovering their bodies strewn on the street after a car crash, the anguish of discovering they’d been killed in a fire.

Like Hamilton in Hamilton says, “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.” I am no Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I understand what it’s like to imagine something so vividly over and over that you relive a memory that hasn’t happened at all. The sequences will repeat itself over, and over, and over again. It can paralyze me. I have lived with the specter of death since childhood, and there are times its presences looms so large that it overshadows anything else. Instead of living my story, I can find myself caught up in the horror movie my brain insists on writing and rewriting.

Now, we live in an increasingly scary world, where our ability to stay safe feels even more out of our control. There are only more images of people mourning lost loved ones that feed my own ability to feel like I am living that trauma myself, over and over again. While I can manage some of the physical aspects of panic, it’s hard to control my vivid imagination when our current climate only adds more ammunition into the gun that shoots off rounds of “what if, what if, what if” over and over through my mind.

The world is scary for many of us, and I think there’s a natural anxiety that comes with a lot of what’s in the news today. I’m not saying I’m special or that my anxiety is any more unique or interesting than anyone else’s. I am just admitting that my panic is not only the out-of-my-control physical reaction I often write it as. My anxiety is just as much mental as it is physical; it takes the horror of events and overlays them onto my own life.

Which is not only painful but, frankly, inconvenient and annoying. While there are many real fears that can upset me, my anxiety also makes it hard for me to function rationally at times where, truly, there is no need to panic. It’d be nice, for example, to not have a panic attack after watching Avengers: Infinity War, because, in watching the end of that film, it triggers the film in my mind that forces me witness my family or partner disintegrate before my eyes over, and over, and over again.

Do I rationally know that this is ridiculous, because this is a fictional movie and, while there are many scary things in the world, the possibility of Thanos snapping his fingers and removing half of us is not one of them? Of course. But that doesn’t make the feeling any less real in the moment. Even though, in my head, I know that it’s ridiculous, it doesn’t take away the overwhelming heartbreak, the tears burning in my eyes, my chest caving in so I cannot breathe, as I see the fear, sadness, and horror in their eyes over and over again.

There are things that help, of course, but anyone who’s ever had anxiety, depression or running thoughts will tell you that saying, “Well, then don’t think about it,” is like giving me a box of tissues to try and stop a flood. Even while well-intentioned, it not only will not work, but also leave a soggy mess in the process.

My therapist has also tried some other tactics, like asking me to play the movie to the end. What would happen if any of those tragic events did occur? And this is what’s also difficult— my mind knows that, rationally, I’d be okay. I would be heartbroken and devastated, but I would live. I’m strong enough, now, to believe that. I trust in the love and support my loved ones have given me to know they would want me to be happy, and that they have given me the tools to move towards happiness again.

But it doesn’t make the moments where I am living those very real things feel any better. Knowing that, eventually, I’ll stop falling down this well of darkness, doesn’t change the fact that I am currently falling and it’s really terrifying. The hardest part with being told that “it will pass,” or “it will be okay,” is that I know those things are true, but it doesn’t fix the feeling I am having right now. Knowing that this will pass doesn’t un-cave my chest or bring back my breath. 

Unfortunately, the best option I have found when I find myself going down this spiral is to try and distract myself so that I don’t fall too far down. I claw my way out towards the light and attempt to move forward by focusing on something else.

Of course, though, that means that it’s really hard to talk or write about, because in doing so, I have to think about it, which makes it really hard to not trigger a downward descent into the darkness. Even in writing this post, I have had to take multiple breaks so that I don’t let myself go to far.

Recently, though, my anxiety has gotten worse, because it’s started attaching to my partner, Michael, as well. Before, it would only be my family I worried about. Once Michael’s departure got close (he is surfing and adventuring for a month), my anxiety went into full affect. I have been terrified that now that I am so incredibly happy and feel stable in my life, that it will suddenly be ripped away from me.

In the weeks before he left, I was a mess. I will be honest: there are time now that he is gone that I am still a mess, because I can’t stop myself from watching his death in my mind over and over again.

Which is a pretty shitty way to live. Michael has been really supportive, but I feel bad dampening his deserved excitement with my morbid fears of his death. It also means that there have been times where, instead of enjoying the time I did have with him, or the time that I have now with my friends, I am very close to being paralyzed in terror on my couch.

But… that hasn’t happened. At least, not yet. There have been a few close calls, but after crying for a few minutes, I have been able to breathe through it, remind myself to let it go, and call a loved one or put on MTV’s Catfish because it is the perfect kind of TV distraction that helps me stop seeing this morbid movie in my head.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if this is a sustainable plan. As vulnerable and thoughtful as I have tried to be with my anxiety, this Mental Health Awareness month I find myself at the end wondering if I’m actually as aware with myself as I could be. Yes, Catfish is a fun distraction, but running from this trigger for the rest of life (one that I imagine will be worse when I have kids) doesn’t seem to be the most enduring response.

For now, I am trying to breathe through it. I am sitting in these feelings taking each day as it comes, and thinking through what comes next while still trying to be kind to myself and figure out my next course of action on my terms. The rabbit hole can be dark, but I know I can claw my way out, and I feel lucky that the light at the top I’m reaching for is full of joy and strength and, most importantly, love.


Hi there,

I know sometimes with posts about mental illness, we want to share our own experiences as a way to validate and connect, and I really appreciate that. But if this is a trigger for you, too, hearing your vivid imaginings of death or tragedy is kind of upsetting and hard for me, so I’m gonna ask that you hold off. Also, I’m not looking for feedback or ideas on how to handle this at the moment, since I’m dealing with a lot and don’t have the capacity to focus on that right now. I’m just sitting in and sharing these feelings. Thank you!

Advertisements

Lifting the Veil

“The hardest story to write is always the one you struggle to tell the most.”

This is what I typed a few minutes ago. Then, I look at the sentence and laughed. Well, duhI thought to myself, That’s pretty obvious.

What meant to say was:

The hardest story to tell is the one you need to write the most.

or maybe

The story you need to tell the most is the one you struggle to write.

That’s the place that I have been in. I know there’s a story I need to tell, but I haven’t been able to share real words about it yet. Because I haven’t really felt like myself for about two or three weeks now.

It’s a little terrifying, to be honest. When I’m trapped in an anxious state like this, it’s as though there’s a veil behind my eyes that separates me from the rest of the world. It’s not active, necessarily– it’s not as though I can’t do my job or generally act like myself. It’s more subtle than that. I remember conversations after they happen, but feel as though I’m watching them in the third person instead of having lived them. My students notice when I misspell easy words (“fued,” “Aril”), or switch them around completely when I speak. I write sentences like the above, which are a bit nonsensical.

This has happened before, of course. I’ve been dealing with anxiety since my childhood and all of these things point to an incoming panic attack. The difference now, though, is that my life is actually, truly happy and stable. There is no big “thing”– relationship worry, job concern, etc.– that will trigger an attack. In the past, there has always been something that my anxiety could latch on to– whether or not I admitted it– that could set me off and, at the very least, allow me to have the attack, get the anxiety brewing inside of me out, and help me move forward.

It’s the most hilarious problem to have, in some ways. Now that I can’t default my normal ways of “bursting the bubble,” I have no choice but to face it. I try and breathe through it. I try drinking or not drinking. I went to yoga twice this week and am working out daily. I am attempting everything I can to be “okay.”

I will think I’m fine, but then something will happen that reminds me that, actually, my body isn’t yet mine. One Saturday, after a wonderful writing workshop, I was standing in the middle of Foodland when the world around me went fuzzy and I suddenly felt like I could no longer stand. The rest of the day was hours spent of trying to work through nausea, lightheadedness, and worry. I didn’t run the half-marathon I’ve done annually for the first time in 4 years, unsure if my body would be able to. This feeling lasted for days, and each morning I’d wake up hoping this would be the day my anxiety lifted away, and at some point, my chest would begin to bubble, my heart race and my throat close, as it hit me that I am still separated somehow from my reality.

Yet, somehow, having anxiety is not the end of the world. Unlike the past, I’m still able to function well, laugh and love and be loved, despite the looming veil of clouds on the horizon. With the exception of that one weekend, I am able to have this anxiety and still feel, well, happy.

Which is a weird reality to sit in. For so long, my anxiety was the monster I ran from, the black smoke that swallowed me whole when it came, leaving me gasping and weeping on the floor. Now, I am in a place where I can still live a generally happy life, if only behind the veil a little.

And it does eventually lift.

Michael and I were preparing for our Friday morning workout when, out of nowhere, my body broke into a sweat and began shaking uncontrollably. I sat on the ottoman by the door, back flat against the wall, trying to breathe, as Michael got ready in the other room, not knowing I was fighting through a storm.

“What’s wrong baby?” He asked, as soon as he saw my face. I shook my head and said I just needed a minute. He came over, stood in front of me, and rubbed my back for a moment. “We don’t have to go,” he said quietly.

“No! No. I want to go. I can go. I can… I just…”

“Just breathe.” He responded immediately. “Just breathe. It’s okay.”

And just like that, the wave broke. I leaned my forehead against his chest and my hand on his back, as if to steady myself against the storm. I started to sob, crying into his shirt as everything inside me whirled about. He stood there, ever my rock, as the storm raged through me.

Then, things settled. I took a long, shaking breath. The clouds began to dissipate.

And there I was. Somehow, slowly, feeling the light of myself shine through again.

Michael asked me later why I hadn’t told him I was feeling so disconnected. “There wasn’t anything anyone could do,” I shrugged. “So it made sense to say to just wait for it to go away.”

“But I could’ve known,” he pushed me. “That way I could understand better.”

For the first time, I realized that panic is not always the monster I have to battle or run from. Panic can just be the sometimes-storm-cloud in my forecast, and I don’t have to wait for it to pass alone anymore. 

It is not perfect (as the sentences at the top of this post show). I was still tired much of yesterday and today. I am still catching myself a bit out of it, but finding a quick shake of the head brings me home. While I am still recovering from this cycle of anxiety, I at least feel like the veil is lifting and I’m seeing the world as myself again. Yesterday morning, I stood under the shower, feeling the water hit my scalp as I dug grains of sand out of my hair from the day before. I inhaled deeply and rejoiced that, in the solitude of my simple, little shower, I was able to finally be my full self.

I smiled then, relieved to realize that these little moments– while lacking in drama or intrigue– are the things making up the happy life I have wanted for a long, long time.

A Shatter, A Death Knell, A Wail, A Rallying Cry

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.

I breathe.

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.