The Hummingbird Caged Within My Heart
A hummingbird is living inside my chest.
She has built a nest inside my rib cage. Some days she is content to flit around at home, and I barely register she’s there, flying. She’s always flying it seems. Once, when I was little, I heard that hummingbirds stay in flight even while they are asleep. I’m not sure if that is true. The hummingbird’s wings beat life into my body so, if not, she must be the exception to the rule.
I heard once that the hummingbird has the fastest heartbeat of all animals.
That one is true. A hummingbird heart can beat up to 1,200 beats per minute (bpm) during flight, 200 bpm at rest. It would be over-dramatic to say that I can relate.
Sometimes, though, I imagine that I’m a hummingbird, too. If I were, my body would be considered normal for my species.
There are days when my heart beats too fast. When the hummingbird has set her mind to break free, and I can feel her ramming her little bird body against my chest wall, beating her wings frantically. Help. Help. Help.
It feels like she’s going to burst right through. That any moment she’s going to rip through my skin as if it was tissue paper. She’ll thrust into the sky, and, without her, my body will merely ride the waves of air from her wake straight to the ground.
The reality is both more and less violent. My heart stays put, but I’m out in public waving my arm in front of me reaching and trying desperately to prop myself up or grasp onto something because I am losing my vision. I know what happens when black spots crawl out from the corners of my eyes and I have only a few seconds to act before my body revolts.
The hummingbird’s cry has spread to my legs and arms. They jerk and spasm. I can aim them in a general direction, but I cannot see where to put them, which does little good for me if I haven’t found a safe place to land yet. I don’t want to hit the ground. I don’t want to be the lady who faints at the graduate reception or work or on the sidewalk, alone. I sweat, and I shake. I hear echoes of the world around me but mostly just the ringing of the hummingbird’s battle cry. It sounds like a chime choir at Christmas. Even when I fall down, I guess I technically win, the hummingbird didn’t escape. I leave the scene of the battle as quickly and as discretely as possible.
Most days the bird’s attempts to escape are less intense, more predictable. When the bird throws herself against my chest, my hands shake. My body shivers. A part of me is always a little afraid. I avoid stairs; I avoid walking, When walking is unavoidable, I have to lean or hold onto things, and so much energy is spent concentrated on merely keeping my balance. I’ll mutter soothing words to try to calm the little bird, because I know that she, too, is afraid. Just breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
I don’t want a hummingbird in my chest. She wants to fly, and I want to be able to hike and run and soar again. There are days when it is a struggle to make it from the bed to the bathroom. There are days when I can pass as healthy – when I get nasty looks for taking the elevator to the third floor as a young, skinny apparently able-bodied person. There are days when I can take the stairs and days when I only think I can. The days when you find out you’re not capable of doing what you felt you possessed the spoons or the energy for are the hardest.
I have postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). If I am trying to diminish the condition, I’ll joke that POTS causes me to sometimes faint if I stand up too fast. That isn’t what it’s really like at all. My heart jumps more than 30 bpm from its current rate if I go from lying down to sitting, or from sitting to standing. Sometimes it’s well over 100 bpm even while I’m just at rest.
I have hot flashes and cold flashes. I’ll sweat with no activity. My body will transform the act of trying to shuffle from my bed to the bathroom into a marathon. If I drop something on the ground, there’s always a moment where I have to check in with my body and consider whether reaching down to pick it up will cause me to collapse. If there is a chance I’ll go down, an internal debate ensues on whether that pen or my phone or my keys are worth that risk. I have gotten quite adept at scooping things up with my feet.
I would never name my hummingbird “POTS,” but having a hummingbird that lives inside my chest is the best way I know to convey how it feels living with POTS. You cannot blame a caged bird for wanting to be free, nor can you predict how or when it will try to escape next.
It’s not the hummingbird’s fault.
I also wish I were free.
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