Stressing Over Stress is for the Birds

I don’t normally write about anxiety. At least I don’t think that I do. Upon further examination I’m sure one might be able to locate strings of unease woven through previous posts. But it’s not something I’ve really tried to focus on in my writing because it’s not something I try to focus on in my life. I deal with problems. Trust me. I’ve gone years in my life avoiding issues and pretending problems aren’t there. I don’t do that anymore, honest. But anxiety is a strange one. You see because I generally believe that everyone is anxious. Everyone is stressed. I supposed that since my affliction is so common, it wasn’t really worth discussing. Although that sounds sort of embarrassingly nonsensical when I say it out loud now: “Don’t talk about something that affects most people!!”.

I guess it is that fear of sounding like I think I am unique. That is one of the first things that got drilled into me when I started going to AA years ago. I am not unique. I laugh and I wonder if that sounds harsh to “normal” people — but it’s a godsend for an alcoholic. When I listened to the stories of so many other people who looked so different from me but who were so much the same on the inside — I realized that I could get better too. I understood that the universe had not given me some unique disease or singular set of feelings or circumstances that I could not overcome. There has been hope for many before me and it will live on for many after.

Anyway, I realized this morning (and I know it is something I will have to remember again and again and again…) that sharing my thoughts is not some profession of remarkableness. Rather, it is an acknowledgment — a reaching out to others I am sure are out there.

About ten days ago I started having problems breathing. I felt short of breath all the time and I found myself constantly trying to yawn to get a deeper more fulfilling breath. It got scary. There was more than one day and night where I looked at my husband and said “I don’t want to go to the emergency room, but I’m afraid, it’s getting really difficult.” I had only experienced something similar twice before, when it was made clear that I had an odd and rare allergy to pumpkin seed oil. It felt as though someone was standing on my chest, disallowing the full expansion of my lungs.

I’ve done just about everything I can to try to attribute my shortness of breath to something besides anxiety. I have been examined by and spoken to more than one doctor. I’ve explored the possibility of asthma or an allergy, and even a pulmonary emoblism. In the end the clearest diagnosis I was offered by a physician was the explanation of conscious and unconscious breathing. Basically, the more focused I am on my breathing the more labored it gets. The more I worry about my breath, the more of it I seem to lose. I was told to stop thinking about my breathing. But that felt impossible.

I have a serious new found empathy for people with asthma or other breathing related problems. As a kid I had a friend who had asthma and she’d often have to skip a running drill during practice and take her inhaler. I secretly thought she was just tired and lazy. I am so ashamed of that thinking now. Breath is life. When it is restricted, it feels like life is slipping away from you. It is terrifying. I did not want to accept that my stress had gotten to a point where my body had begun to physically react beyond my control. I remember the worst morning, standing naked in front of my husband, sobbing. Months before that I had had to have a tooth repaired because I had begun grinding my teeth. Then I had had some tiny odd ticks in my blood-work. Now I was standing in front of him, shaking, trying to get ready for work, and unable to catch my breath. “I don’t know what’s happening, I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I told him as I blew my nose and hurried to get myself into the shower. He tried to get me to explain to him what I was so stressed about. Through absolutely no fault of his, this made me feel even worse. I couldn’t explain it. My life is fine, really. There are people being displaced from their homes and their families — fleeing war and rape and famine. My life is fine, really.

I’ve realized now days after that that moment where I felt weak, and vulnerable, and unjustified is the moment that really doesn’t serve me. You see, I take the weight of the world on my shoulders. I know you don’t ask me to, and neither does anyone else. Still, these are some of the things I worry about on a daily basis:

  • People losing their healthcare (I have great insurance through my and my husband’s employer, I have never had to deal with all this Obamacare business)
  • Refugees from all over the world having no place to go
  • Famine in Yemen
  • Famine in South Sudan
  • Muslims thinking we don’t want them here
  • Mexican and Central American families being split up and living in fear of deportation
  • Desperate people risking their lives in the cold to cross the border over to Canada in the middle of the night
  • Transgendered kids not being able to use the bathroom
  • Police being able to shoot black bodies with impunity
  • An Attorney General who will work to systematically put even more black bodies in the ground or in prison
  • How totally fucked our system of mass incarceration is
  • Leaders like Marine Le Pen being elected in Europe
  • American citizens not caring about Donald Trump’s tax returns
  • American citizens not caring or understanding that our system of democracy is at stake
  • American citizens not caring or understanding that our democracy is our freedom
  • Steve Bannon

Ok. I will stop. I guess my point is that I could go on. As you can see, I worry about a whole lot of things that don’t necessarily impact my life directly. That may seem silly. But I know that it’s not now. It is just a part of who I am. It’s actually a special part of who I am — a great part. My capacity for empathy is vast. I think what’s changed though in the past year — what has provoked physical reactions to these stressors, is the deterioration of my belief that everything might be ok. I’ve been privileged to live my whole life with this assurance. Whether it was real or imagined, it made me feel safe.

The loss of my breath in all of this seems quite symbolic. I started having difficulties about four days after I found out I got into the NYC Marathon. To be clear, I was and am happy that I got in. But I am also pretty terrified. I’ve been on this road before and I’ve gotten injured. Running the marathon has been a dream of mine for so long — this feels like my shot. It is a big feeling, and I think it converged with all my other feelings and literally knocked the wind out of me.

I’m finding that one of the best things I can do with all of my anxiety is admit to other people that it is going on. So that is what this is! Things are slowly getting better. Breathing is not yet back to normal, but the situation is improving. I’ll share some more thoughts on all of this next week, and I’ll get into what I am doing to relieve my anxiety. I think the most important start for me has been stopping the circular pattern of stress and guilt that I have followed for so long. It’s actually kind of awesome, cause I realize now that having anxiety does not make me weak. But overcoming it does make me strong. That’s not a bad deal. I know other people have done this before me. I am not unique :). I am not the first, and I am so glad.

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