I’m cruising eastbound on Sunrise Highway. It’s a beautiful day, marred only by the homicidal tendencies of the surrounding New York drivers.
I’m in my Jeep Wrangler – the one I saved up five years for, the one I adore. I’m not materialistic, but the truck gives me incomparable joy.
My Android blinks to life from its windshield mount. It’s Prince Charming, of course, texting me at 8:00 a.m. as he always does. My heart swells. He’s probably texting me something like, “Good morning, beautiful. Are you on your way to work yet?” We work on the same road. We spend a revolting amount of time together. And yet, after two and a half years he still looks at me like he’s just met me for the first time.
I’m headed to work, to a job I enjoy. It could be more exciting – I’m the only employee under 35 – but it’s comfortable and it pays well. Soon, I’ll be able to buy a house.
My sister and I are heading to The Nutty Irishman in Farmingdale tonight after work, our typical Tuesday ritual.
Tomorrow I have a dinner date arranged with a friend from high school – she’s home from college for the week.
By Friday I’ll be exhausted, so I’ll have a leisurely night at my boyfriend’s, watching rom-coms until we fall asleep. If I’m lucky, I’ll “forget” to wake up, and end up having breakfast with his family Saturday morning. They adore me, and I them.
Who has it better than me?
Mom and Dad fought this morning, as usual. Who would’ve thought it would hurt this much to watch your parents’ marriage crumble at the ripe age of 22?
Whoa – what’s up with that tickle in my throat?
I wonder when they’re going to split up. If they’re going split up. Maybe I should start looking at apartments instead of houses. Maybe this whole “family” thing won’t last. The house is in foreclosure, for crying out loud. This is unsustainable.
That tickle won’t go away. I can’t swallow.
Is my throat closing?
Calm down. You’re driving. You’re going 75mph on one of the most dangerous roads on Long Island.
I wonder how many people die on Sunrise Highway each year from accidents caused by medical emergencies?
That’s morbid. Who thinks of that?
I can’t breathe.
Slow down. Slow down! You’re going 80! What’s the matter with you? Do you want to die?
Just calm down. You’ll be okay. You’re acting crazy.
I’m trembling. Why? Is it adrenaline, or something worse?
Why is it that I’m taking deep breaths, but I can’t get any air?
I can’t focus on the road. I can’t focus on anything. I can’t breathe. Am I having a heart attack?
What a pathetic way to die. So much left to live for.
It passes eventually. It always does. I pull up to work with a grimace plastered on my face, slam the Jeep’s door hard, and enter the office with my eyes to the floor. I plop weakly to my desk and put my head in my hands when I think no one’s looking. My chest heaves as if I’ve run a marathon.
It’s a different situation every time; but all it takes is one trigger thought, one moment of weakness, for reality to start spiraling out of control.
Am I insane?
I’ve warred with the thought many a time.
In my heart I know the answer is “no.” If I were, I wouldn’t have survived seven years of anxiety disorder and still be high-functioning. If I were, I wouldn’t worry about it – that’s the point of insanity, right? Being crazy, and not knowing it?
The thought itself is a trigger.
“Anxiety” has become a light-hearted, freebie mental illness; people wear it like sticker. Who am I to judge them? Maybe the whole world is suffering from panic attacks, and self-deprecating humor is part of the healing process. I mean, you have to laugh at it – one minute, you’re considering how wonderful your life is, and the next minute, you’re choking on air! If you can’t laugh, at least try to laugh, how can you possibly make it through the worst days?
I’ve certainly improved over time. When the attacks first started, there was concern I had a heart problem. I’ll never forget the way my mother and doctor ogled at me, their arms crossed, after going over the results of a 48-hour EKG monitor.
“You are likely experiencing panic attacks – which are nothing,” the doctor said simply.
Which are nothing? Then why did they feel so real?
“But what do I do to make it stop?” Fifteen-year-old me stammered, hands trembling as I gripped the paper-lined patient bed.
“You have to get over it,” my mom said simply.
“But this has been happening for weeks!” I whimpered.
That shitty doctor tapped her foot, pursed her lips, and snapped at me, “Well, your other option is that we send you to a psychiatrist, and then you have to take anti-anxiety medication. Maybe even anti-depressants. Do you want that?”
“No!” What was I supposed to say when she put it like that? ‘Sure, sign me up, doc’?
“So then we’re done here,” she said, smiling at my mom. “Have a good day!”
“You scared the daylights out of me,” my mom had said once we were out of the office. “God, I thought there was something actually wrong with you.”
In retrospect, I can understand her relief – any mother would take panic attacks over a heart defect in their youngest daughter. And to be fair, I did “get over it” after my first year of high school, and functioned as normally as any other hormone-fueled teen could.
That is, until college came.
College was a whirlwind of high-powered stress, even for a straight-A student who attended a nearby school. I spent many a night staring at the ceiling, struggling to fall asleep while my pulse banged in my ears and my mind was permeated by unwanted thoughts. In class I’d feel like I was about to jump out of my own skin. I always took a seat near the door, on the off-chance I’d have to dart out of the classroom and power-walk down the hallways to expend the adrenaline. The anxiety often entwined itself with other feelings – like hopelessness, loss of control, and depression.
I tried to talk to my mother and sister about it then, too. They approached it with humor.
“Oh, you’re so weird,” they’d chuckle. If I continued to express my concerns about the issue that seemed to be controlling my life, they’d narrow their eyes.
“You’re fine. You’re just a hypochondriac.”
Well, duh, I’d scoff to myself. Their recognition that my behavior was irrational didn’t make the feelings any less real. It just made me worry more.
There were breakthroughs – like when someone unexpectedly decided to confide in me their own stressful burden.
While I was working as a waitress at an unremarkable Long Island diner, a coworker in her first year of college struggled to share her own experience with me.
“I keep, like, freaking out recently…”
The far-away look in her eyes said it all.
“I’m familiar with freak-outs,” I responded shortly, surprised by the sudden confession.
“No, no – like, I can’t sleep. And in class, I’m so tired, but I feel like I’m going to explode. There’s no reason for it. It gets so bad it distracts me. I miss the whole fucking lecture sometimes. It scares me. I feel like I’m losing it, or something… I just want to lay on the floor and cry.”
“It feels like you’re panicking, right? Like you’re having a meltdown?”
“I guess so.”
“You feel like you’re going nuts?”
“Well… yeah. It gets bad. Like, really bad.”
“You feel like you have to run out of the room sometimes, right?”
She stared at me silently.
“Yup. I get that. All. Day. Long.”
We sat for three hours after work discussing our anxiety and how it reared its ugly head. We laughed. We cried. We compared coping techniques, and reactions we’d received from the few people we tried to confide in who just couldn’t relate. For the first time, as undiagnosed young women suffering from a painfully complicated disorder, we felt accepted.
Anxiety has drifted in and out of my life since then. It’s been bad enough to last for months, covering vast spaces of my past in a black veil. It’s disappeared completely for entire summers, burned away by the searing South Shore sun.
I try not to lament on the bad, lest it gets any bright ideas of returning.
Lately it’s been benign as ever. For every morning I spend trembling behind the wheel of my Wrangler, I spend a week’s worth of commutes without incident. When it does come, I try to ride the experience out as gracefully as I can. I don’t beg for sympathy from my employer. I don’t ask for friends to accommodate my nervousness. I compartmentalize it as best I can in public, and sometimes, I let it tear me down in private.
When the sensation finally subsides, I feel exhausted. Lately, I’ve been trying to remind myself that I should feel brave, too.
As I get older, I try to dissect it, try to understand where it’s coming from. It happens during major life changes – a new job, new school, new relationship. My parents are on the brink of divorce and my childhood home in foreclosure – that’s a sure trigger. I come from a family that tries its damnedest to sidestep its problems until it comes to a gnarly head. In the end, maybe this is a part of who I am. It’s not ideal, but reality never is, is it?
No matter what, I won’t let it stop me.
So the next time I’m cruising down Sunrise Highway and my heart skips a beat, I’ll be damned if I slam on the brakes.
Anxiety can be a part of me, but it cannot define me.