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.
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!