When Your Anxiety Makes You Feel Like You're Dying
Whether we admit it or not, I think we all imagine how we’ll die. I know I did. I’d be in my sunset years, retired and well-traveled, and I’d shuffle into the living room for a late afternoon nap, fall asleep in my chair and just never wake up. It’s perfect. Relaxed. Comfortable.
But my thoughts about dying were definitely not that.
This was primal. Terrifying. This was in the middle of “Livin’ on a Prayer,” drink in hand, hips swaying, heart racing, chest pains on the dance floor. Even then, I could appreciate the irony of the background music. This was big Tom Callahan mid-duet. I set down my cranberry vodka and clutched my husband’s hand. My voluntary release of liquor let him know it was serious.
I’m dying. I know it. It’s rude to die at a wedding. We haven’t even gotten them a gift yet, and I know Kyle will forget to once I’m dead. Should I call 911? I wonder if we could just meet them at the end of the driveway. Maybe I could pretend to get arrested by the rent-a-cop and beg him to take me to the hospital. Is he even a rent-a-cop? Maybe he’s a real cop. An arrest would go on my permanent record. Will it really matter once I’m dead?
We moved inside the house and spent the rest of the night in the host’s recliner. An elephant was sitting on my chest and to relieve the pressure, I unzipped my bridesmaid dress down to my hip. If I’d been wearing a bra, I swear I would’ve taken off the whole kit and caboodle. I was too frightened to be embarrassed by my near-nakedness. I was dying, after all.
My pulse raced and I repeated the presidents over and over again in my head, desperate to regain control. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison. *Inhale.* Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren. *Exhale.* Harrison, Tyler, Polk and Taylor. Deep breath in. It wasn’t working, and I was scared. Great fat tears cut a swath through 15 layers of foundation and blush. I think we all know how it feels when a violent panic attack ruins a good set of falsies, right?
I finally asked Kyle to go get a friend who’s a nurse. She came in, a little tipsy and unsteadily knelt next to me. I asked her to take my pulse, which was 113 beats per minute. Comforted that it wasn’t high enough to be dangerous, Kyle and I spent the next two hours sinking into the sofa cushions, sipping on glasses of water. Still the most fun I’ve ever had at a wedding.
The festivities finally ended and after the sparkler send-off that did nothing to soothe my nerves, we made our way back to our hotel room. I lay in bed that night, listening to the steady cadence of Kyle’s snores, absolutely certain that if I went to sleep, I would never wake up.
But I did, and not to state the obvious, but I’ve continued to wake up every morning since. Yet every night since my panic attacks began, I struggle to fall asleep, convinced that if I do, it will be for the last time. I lie for hours, snuggled against my husband, rubbing his back or holding his hand. I want to feel his warmth before I die, surrounded by his comforting love. Honestly, not a terrible way to go, in my opinion. I imagine for him, waking up next to me, cold and blue, would be a nightmare akin to Freddy Krueger. Or, depending on how unhinged I was the day before, maybe a dream akin to Oz.
“Panic Attack at the Disco” wasn’t my first. In fact, it was my sixth in many weeks. I had no idea what was happening to me and as they continued, my anxiety spiraled harder and faster. They lasted longer and rolled together, sometimes persisting for hours or even days. Each time, the fear that I was dying became bigger and more aggressive. Each time, it took longer to leave. My pulse would race for days afterward, only eventually slowing if I religiously repeated the presidents while I focused on deep breathing. It was a mind numbing and mindless chant, but my third grade teacher would be so proud.
I made an appointment with my primary care physician the week I returned from the wedding. He requested an electrocardiogram (EKG). The rhythm was normal — no murmur — but my pulse was 110, which was 30 beats higher than it should’ve been. It had been that high for four days and I was still having chest pains. He couldn’t tell me why. Convinced my body was a walking time bomb, I left his office feeling dejected. I knew I was on the verge of a heart attack at the age of 27. I was scared to exercise, drink coffee, have sex or do anything that might increase my heart rate. I was scared to live my life.
Three weeks later, my husband’s cousin died suddenly. He was 21 years old and had a head-on collision while driving home one night. It gut-punched the air out of all of us. I watched, immobilized, while the people I love grieved and continue to grieve, dazed with the burden of their pain.
The week after his funeral, I lay in bed, scrolling through Facebook. I curiously clicked on a video about Mental Health Awareness Week and listened as several women told their stories. One woman, about my age with blonde hair and glasses talked about her struggle with anxiety. At 20 years old, she went to a party and started having chest pains and shortness of breath. She was convinced she was having a heart attack, but she wasn’t. Finally, it clicked; these were panic attacks. I was stunned and honestly, excited. It felt like the heavens opened and God was speaking directly to me. I thought that since I could name it, it held no authority over me anymore. I was very wrong.
Because it was such an overpowering feeling during my episodes and after the recent family death, I became fixated on death and dying. I was positive I was sick and my rational brain had no control. I looked for signs of illness and found them everywhere. There were days I convinced myself my very real physical symptoms indicated a heart murmur, brain cancer or lymphoma. One day, I had an aneurysm. The next, HIV. Scrofula, MS, pernicious anemia, lupus, bubonic plague, hookworm, pancreatitis, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler. Wait—that’s a different thing.
It was a real roller coaster ride. Nothing lights a fire under your love life like hearing your husband yell, “You don’t have HIV!” at you, in complete exasperation, while you cry on the other end of the phone. Just a quick PSA: you cannot contract HIV from an eight year old nose piercing. Trust me on this one. I checked with my doctor. Also, don’t ever Google “swollen lymph nodes.” Just don’t.
So, our perfect love story wasn’t so perfect anymore. My anxiety had burst our newlywed bubble, and I was breaking down before my own eyes and the eyes of the people who loved me. It was confusing and embarrassing. I finally realized I needed help.
With time and therapy, it’s slowly getting better. I picture myself half-naked in my best friend’s living room, wedding guests wandering in and out, staring at me with wide eyed confusion. I can’t help but laugh. One gentleman toddled inside, searching for the bathroom, and squinted at me through blurry eyes like I was possibly a figment of his drunken imagination. He ping-ponged between me and Kyle, and I could almost see the gears whirring in his brain. I’m sure it looked bizarre.
Mental health is often silent, invisible and imaginary — until it’s not. There are days when I would literally do anything to turn down the volume in my brain. The noise is so loud and often inescapable. Before, I took all the radio silence for granted, but I don’t anymore. Sometimes, I am truly hysterical, and not just the belly laughs kind.
And you know what’s really not funny? How much I hurt my husband when I loop. How painful it is for him to watch me shake and cry over my impending mortality. It’s not funny that I don’t sleep or that I’ve spent thousands of dollars we can’t afford on doctor’s appointments, only to be told over and over again that I’m perfectly healthy. It’s not funny how broken I feel.
In the last year, I’ve longed for a community who understands how hard this is and that I’m not just some millennial snowflake who loves the sound of her own whining. I don’t need attention, I need validation. We all need a little sometimes, and I’m no different. More importantly, I need others who are struggling to know they aren’t alone. Because that’s how I feel even on my best day: isolated, misunderstood, crazy. And it makes a terrible feeling worse.
The reality is, I am dying. But so are you. And my husband. And my nephew and niece and parents and friends. Whether it happens sooner rather than later is not something I have any control over. Life and death are unpredictable. It’s scary because it’s true. In this anxious journey, I hope to make my peace with that.
Follow this journey on Hysterical.
Unsplash via Maia Habegger.