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.

The Ragged Sweetness of My Own Voice

“You need to get up now. I need you to get up.”

I am kneeling on a cold floor, sobbing into bedsheets.

“You need to get up now.”

I brace myself against the command, the voice thick with emotion and wet with tears. I grasp tighter at the soft cotton, the smoothness of it against my palm soothing. I shake my head, sobbing harder. My anchor-heavy heart sinks further into the ground, the leaden weight ripping a track down my gut as it goes. I open my mouth, and my sadness begins to tumble out and patter to the ground like broken shells, each one cutting my throat and making a thin, little wail and cough each time they hit the floor. I actively open my jaw wider, as though I could let out all this feeling, all this hurt, all this stuff out with tears and small-hurt-animal-sounds. I shake my head again, so sure I will not be able to get up, sure I will not be able to pick up my keys, sure I will not walk out the door. I am sure I will be anchored forever by the bed, in a broken harbor of my own making.

“You have to go now. You have to do this. I need you to do this.”

Even more strained, the seriousness makes me snap back to myself. I struggle to take a few deep breaths, my own inhalation rushing into me like ice. I blink my eyes a few times. I cough, the last few shards of sadness sputter out again, cracking once they land.

Stop. Breathe. Again. Good. ”

“You know you need to get up now. You know you can do this.”

I nod, recognizing the voice as my own. When panic hits, the separation between the head and the heart becomes so clear, so precise, that it’s jarring when the wall shatters and comes down.

Still, after years of begging others to help me come home, I take a deep breath, and hear my own voice– ragged and strained, but still sweet and drunk on its own agency– bring me back to myself.

“You know you can do this.”

I take a breath again. I see so many faces, people who have wrapped themselves around me like warmth in the storm, nodding as I finally, for the first time, come into myself as master of my own fate.

Today, that fate is merely picking up my keys and being able to leave the house.

I take another shuddered breath. I nod to myself again.

I pick up my anchor-heart. I feel the weight of it in my palms, notice how my arms strain to carry it. I sweep away the bits of my own sadness, mindful not to get cut, not scared if I do. I listen to my own broken voice, a siren’s call, begging me to come home. My throat is ragged with painful truths. I hear the sweetness of its own power. And I leave the house.

Today, that small victory is the flag on top of Everest. It’s the medal at the end of the marathon. It’s the ravaged warrior, finally come home again, not dead as once-believed but scratched, beaten, scarred, and smiling that they came out the other side.

Today, the call was my own voice. Today, I listened and came home.

 

I Am Not Okay; I Will Be Okay – An Admission

I have been sitting with some stories on my heart for the past few months, but I haven’t known how to share them with you.

I guess to start off, I have to make a confession: I’m not doing so great. I’m okay. Some days, I’m not okay. Many days, I am. I’ve been pretty emotionally overwhelmed for the past few months. Like, the -water-is-exactly-at-my-head kinda overwhelmed. I’m not pulled under the tide yet, but the current is strong.

And that’s a terrifying thing to write, if I’m honest. Much of my work is predicated on the idea that I’ve got it together– or at least that I can present that face well-enough, especially online where much of my work is done. I’m still not sure how this will turn out, but admitting this here is something I’ve wavered on a lot.

Still, I was reminded by the lesson I learned from Luis Alfaro: we can either run from the things that hurt us, or we can name and eventually own them instead.

So, let me tell you a few stories. Mostly about my anxiety.


K is the only reason I was able to write this.

K is a 14-year-old freshman in my English class. Sweet kid– hyper, athletic, hilarious, exuberant– and a great kid. He’s been dealing with ADHD since I had him as a 7th grader, and has been pretty good about managing it and being upfront with it (it helps that he has an awesome family supporting).

So, this year, I asked all my 9th graders to tell me a story about them. It was pretty broad, but K shuffled over to my desk in his Longs-Jesus-Slippers all the kids are wearing at my school.

“So, uh, Ms. Torres?” He starts out shyly.

“Yes, sir. What can I help you with?”

“Um, I want…can I talk to you about my paper? I want to write, um…” He looks back at his classmates, back at me, “I want to write about, like, um, seeing my ADHD not like, always a bad thing.”

I was silent for a moment. Here was this teenage boy in all his embarassed-awkward-teenage-boyness, opening up about his own stuff. I was also a little surprised. I’m all for framing things positively, but normally we don’t associate ADHD with anything positive, just an obstacle to get around.

“Okay,” I nodded, “That sounds great. What’s the story?”

He smiled.


K’s words stick with me as I drive up the Pali to my first day teaching Sunday yoga for Crossfit. I’m nervous and excited to take over the class from an excellent teacher who I consider a mentor.

Then, my car feels funny. Bump. Bump. Bumpbumpbumpbump. 

Then comes the smoke.

Fortunately, I’m able to pull to the side of the road. I hop out of my car and see my front tire. Completely shredded, flaps of rubber jagged and hanging off like they had a play-date with some very aggressive cats. I sigh, thank God it wasn’t worse, then turn to get the spare in the trunk. That’s when I see THE SECOND FLAT TIRE.

I sigh, again, and feel my heart race. I’m baffled. What will I do? The logistics of letting the studio know what happened, getting the tow truck, explaining what’s happening to my parents, figuring out where to get the weird tires that no one EVER has on island and I have to wait three weeks for Costco to have shipped and how am I ever going to manage that when I only get one tow with my insurance so I’d have to pay for the others out of pocket and I won’t have a car for weeks and seriously what the fuck now am I going to do?

The tow truck guy shows up, a late-forties local with a bit of a beer belly. I ask if he can do patches, and he gruffly replies, “Nah, sis. That ain’t my job.”

I nod and understand, still no idea what I’m going to do. He begins to set up my car on the dolly. Midway through, he stops and walks over to me. “So, where am I taking you?”

I look at him. My eyes burn. “I…uh…” I feel my heart rate rising. I feel my ears start to ring. “Um…” My head gets flooded with a million thoughts at once and my lungs can’t hold onto air for very long. “I have… no idea.” I admit. It becomes harder to breathe.

He’s on the precipice of perturbed, but something stops him and he looks at me. I don’t know what he sees– late-twenties, brown, bougie, yoga girl freaking out in front of him?– but somehow it brings him to some place of compassion.

“Okay,” he says. “You don’t know where you’re gonna get tires?”

Heart rate rises. Throat chokes.

“That’s okay,” he says, “have a seat in my office.” He leads me to the bed of his truck and we lean against it. He cautiously places a hand on my shoulder.

“It’s okay,” he says. “Just catch your breath. I’m here. We’ll figure it out. I think I gotta guy anyway.”

Heart rate drops. Lungs open a little. Eyes sting with tears.

“Thank you,” I mutter back, humbled by this in-the-moment grace sent to me in the middle of my morning.


I don’t know how I end up at the foot of the bed, but I do.

It’s a week or so before, and something has awakened me. I have no idea what– but it’s all-consuming. I can’t breathe, and it feels like there’s this weird fog between my brain and my eyes. Like I’m seeing the world, but not really processing it. It’s dark, though, because it’s two in the morning, so it doesn’t matter. But I’m distinctly aware I’m operating on two different levels.

One level is telling me to calm down. To get back to bed. To settle down and get it together.

The other, though, is the one wrapped around my head like a filmy gauze coloring everything I can see. I can’t do this, the voice whispers at me again and again. I  can’t do this. I feel my ears start ringing. I have no idea what the “it” is. No, no, I can’t do this.

I move to the floor sit with my back to the bed, a steadying presence. I desperately want to deflect my emotional blast from my partner with the mattress. I cover my ears, put my head between my knees, and try to breathe.

But the voice gets louder, so loud that I even bring voice to it, “I can’t do this.”

I start to cry, hard now. Sob, really– nose running, mouth open, tears and snot and saliva spilling onto the floor. I’m drowning in myself, and I don’t know how to pull myself up.

At some point (honestly, I have no idea how long), I feel the bed stir. No no no no,  I try to muffle myself with my hand, but the ringing in my ears is loud again and I cover my head.

“Baby?” I hear Chase say, looking for me in his half-sleep. I say nothing. I cover my ears tighter. I hear him ask something, but I can’t hear or see him through the fog of my own panic and just tremble on the floor.

He doesn’t fly down, trying to shake me out of myself. He doesn’t freak out and ask why I always have so many feelings.

He slowly climbs to the end of the bed where I’m sitting. He leans over and gently kisses the top of my head, a silent call for me to come home now.

I take a breath.

He tucks his chin into the crook of my neck, nuzzling my hair, saying nothing. He just breathes next to me.

I pause and take another big, shuddering, breath.

“There you go,” he whispers, and I can hear him smiling.

He sits there with me, quietly, for however long it takes. He does not drag me, kicking and screaming. He merely shines the light into my own darkness and stays beside me while I find a way to return to myself.


I don’t know if I will ever see Panic as more than the monster that sits on my shoulder.

I’ll give it this, though. While I have been intensely overwhelmed, these past few months, I have also been placed in the way of grace more times than I can count.

I have tried to handle it alone. I have failed spectacularly sometimes. Yet in the moments where I have been most broken, most vulnerable and so sure in the overwhelming knowledge that I was alone, I have been met time and time again with an equally overwhelming amount of kindness. These moments have not been happy, but they have been full of joy and, yes, an astounding amount of grace that I don’t know I deserve.

So, as scary as it is right now, I can admit that I am not okay.

Still, I am filled with the small, glowing voice that reminds me that, somehow, I will be okay.

And, for now, I think that can be enough.

Perpetually Broken, Perpetually Healing

First, you have to acknowledge the lies.

Panic is good at lying to you. It’s a tricky bitch. It will wait till your defenses are already down– you are already tired from long nights of insomnia, exhausted from trying to parse through the millions of thoughts that won’t stop racing through your head. Then, Panic will slip under your covers like the tenderest bedfellow. It will wrap its arms around your stomach and chest and hold you close and validate everything bad you’re feeling. Then, it will begin whispering lies to you.

I will never go away.

You look around, shake your head and readjust yourself body, ignoring the voice because you know everything must end and you’re sure this will too.

But Panic knows your weak spots. It knows how to make a bad thing worse.

I will never go away. And no one is ever going to put up with that.

Panic feels your stomach clench under its hands and smiles.

Yeah, you know it’s true. You’re so fucking annoying when you’re like this. You don’t even like yourself. Why would anyone put up with you?


Normally, when I storm and rage through an anxiety attack, it’s a solo adventure.

It hits me in cars or on runs. Sometimes in the quiet of my room. I’ve normally sensed an attack coming from miles away, and when the time comes, there’s nothing to do but wait for it to pass.

This time, however, was different. I thought I was fine. I thought I had gotten it out of my system a few days ago. I had a crying jag on the bathroom floor while my boyfriend was asleep, wiped my eyes, nodded my head and shook out my shoulders. Yeah, okay. I’m good now.

This night, though, I should’ve seen it coming. The inability to sleep. The desire to drink (nothing crazy, but when I go from drinking once a week to having a drink a day with dinner, I can tell something is up). The fatigue. It hadn’t really gone away. I was moody and tired and picking unnecessary fights, but I was so caught up in my own head that Panic blindsided me, that bitch.

Here’s the thing I don’t talk a lot about: While I have acknowledged my own struggles with anxiety, the shame hasn’t fully gone away. Even years later, I still feel incredibly judgmental of myself about my anxiety sometimes. Poor spoiled you, my brain snarls at me, What gives you the right to cry about anything? Why are you being such a whiny bitch? Who would ever put up with this? You’re pathetic.

So, I sit there, sniveling and helpless and hating myself. I sit there until it passes. But normally I sit there alone so that I can wallow in my own self-loathing without witnesses. When Panic rips you down the back and makes you crumple to your lowest self, you’re not looking for spectators.


Like I said, I’ve been dealing with Panic for a large portion of my life. I’m not scared of naming. I can identify the signs. I know I will live through an attack.

I guess I’m starting to see where the work begins now. I won’t always be alone when I have an attack. I can’t always get in my car and try and drive away from the problem. Sometimes, Panic will show up and I won’t be able to throw myself down the dark well where no one can see me.

The thing is, shame is a choiceGuilt is a choice. While the initial feelings can’t be controlled, whether or not we wallow in those emotions is inherently up to us.

We can listen to Panic’s lies that we are unlovable and unworthy. We can see our struggles as all the ways that we are “broken” and hide those flaws, ashamed that we are not as “strong” or “complete” as we think we need to be.

Or, we can realize that broken and healing are two sides of the same coin. They are different perspectives on the same state of being, really. What matters is which side we want to focus on. We can focus on the frustration that we are perpetually broken, or see the grace that comes with knowing we are perpetually healing, stronger than we were before.


After you acknowledge the lies, you have to beat Panic at its own game.

When it slips next to you, wrap its arms around your chest and neck, take a breath. Remind yourself that you can’t make it go away, but you can reframe the way you see its presence in your life.

And when it whispers, gently, into your ear, I will never go away.

Turn around, look it right in the eye, and say, “I know. And I don’t really care. I’m stronger than you, anyway.”

Intersecting Stories

There are two stories I want to tell you.

The first isn’t really a single story, but a collection of them. It’s from the first three days of my classroom, and of being in the fifth-year of my teaching.

There’s the story I want to tell you about what it felt like to hit my stride. There is a moment where body, spirit, and mind connect and there’s a momentary, explosive bloom, like watching stars explode in space— it’s not violent, but graceful.

I turned towards my students on a too-warm August morning this Monday, started talking with them and thought, Oh, this is it. This is what I’m meant to do. My chest opened and the tension of uncertainty that summer brought melted away. This is it.

There are the students, who are already making me laugh harder than I have in weeks, whose stories are already burning so brilliantly inside them that I see sparks of them a few days in. It is the pop-crack of first flame at the campfire; it is the first rumbles of thunder in the storm waiting to break for hours. It is wild and unfettered.

It is perfect.


There’s another story I could tell you.

It’s about the fact that Panic is a sneaky bitch.

I think I’ve outrun him— taken every self-care precaution, immersed myself in joyful work— or kept him at bay. I’m so sure that I can sense his arrival, I let my guard down. Oh, I know he’ll show up, but I figure I’ll hear his footsteps down the hall, see the flashes of his fingers at the corners of my mind.

So, when Panic hits on King St. late on a weekday night, on a day where, for all intents and purposes, things are fine, it’s a little jarring. Panic does all the normal things he does— squeezes my chest; makes me cry; reaches down my throat and plays my vocal chords like a harp so I make squeaky, whimpering animal noises while I try to keep him at bay. I grip the steering wheel hard and grit my teeth, trying to ride the wave of his terror out, playing the scared bystander-under-desk to his Godzilla-rage.

I finally make it home and sob in my car harder than I have in months. There is no reason to it. The detailed inventory of my life is, at least, joyful. You’re fine. You’re fine, I think to myself, desperate to use that as an anchor to some kind of rational-self.

There is no logic to it, though.  There is just loud, unabashed wailing, each cry letting some of Panic’s power out of my system. I let myself weep in hopes that the more I let this wild rumpus continue, the longer I will be free from it.

The two stories seem juxtaposing, but they are not parallel universes. They intersect within me. They are consistently warring, forcing me to walk a tight-rope, a knife’s-edge worth of stable ground amidst two worlds that, if I am not careful, could swallow me whole.

Conversations with Me and My Monster

This weekend, I had a panic attack.

Now, panic attacks aren’t new to me. I’ve had them in my life– while running, in the classroom, just in life in general. It happens. I remember once, when I was seven, a bout of panic and anxiety left me motionless and sad on the couch. My mom asked me what was wrong, and the only way I could describe it was, “I can’t stop thinking about all the sad things that I think about.” She sighed, and said it would pass. It did. It always does.

I guess, in some weird way, I am still susceptible to the “I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine” trap. It’s been many moons (months, maybe?) since my last panic attack. I credit this to a lot of self-care, being more upfront with people in my life, a job I love, and just generally being happier with my life. While, it’s true, panic and anxiety do not have a direct correlation, I know that I am generally less likely to have panic attacks if I manage my anxiety.

So, after months of finally feeling stable, the notion that an attack was brewing wasn’t even something I actively ignored, it was just an honest misunderstanding between my body and I. The post about being grumpy? That probably had something to do with it. I had felt moody and gross, but assumed it was hormones, or the winter doldrums or post holiday blues.

So, I tried to take care of it in all the ways I normally would. I ran, exercised, I napped. I did my best to take care of myself. I drank more wine than I may care to admit. Rationally, I was sailing smooth, and I was doing everything right.


green_baby_monster_by_misstemprament-d52z3lnThe problem with Panic, though, is that it’s not interested in what’s rational. Panic doesn’t care about all the days it’s been that you felt fine.

I often think of Panic as the angry monster that sits waiting in my brain. It’s frustrating and irrational and needy, like a big dumb bully. And what Panic wants is for you to explode. It wants to feast on all that delicious anxiety and flight-or-fight chemicals it knows your brain will produce, if only you let it. Panic doesn’t want you to sail smooth. Panic wants to enjoy your (perhaps inevitable) explosion. Sometimes, you beat Panic, and you get it to settle down. Sometimes… not so much. Continue reading