I’ve performed in front of crowds. I’ve run races in front of thousands. I’ve presented ideas and numbers and defended my entire livelihood in front of execs who could have had my job in a second. Before I’d spent a year in California though, none of these instances forced my nerves past jitters, into a full on panic attack. More recently, and only every so often, I fall victim to the oppressive grip of anxiety.
When it happens, it’s like there are three parts of myself vying for attention at once. There is the high-minded part of me that says “Nobody cares, B. You’re grown; you’re not some angsty teen anymore. Nothing is permanent, and even these stressors will go away eventually. You know that. You also know that individually none of these is tragic enough for this reaction. There are people living in third world countries, raising children alone; struggling to find gainful employment; comparatively, you have no right to complain, let alone *have a complete meltdown* when things get rough.”
The problem with listening to Little Miss Rational is two-fold. One, she falls conspicuously silent when an attack comes about with no concrete trigger. When it’s been six months since the sneaky beast of anxiety has reared it’s obtrusive head, and a ten-minute cab ride from my workplace to my home sees me plastering my back against the seat as if on a roller coaster, head to the side, face in a tight grimace, desperately calling my best friend as a last ditch means of calming distraction, “Little Miss” is nowhere to be found. Secondly, despite all her perfectly reasonable ramblings, she is no match for the actual physical realities of an attack: the way the floor swings violently away from me, the way the world spins crazily around me, the combination of a sudden sweat and chill that makes me sneezy, the urgent beating of my heart, and, the weight of worry that seems to press down around my entire self; a palpable force that smothers my body, my breath, and my pride. This second part of me: the physical, feels like my predominant reality, when in the throes of an attack.
Finally, there is my outward-facing self. The exquisitely-socialized girl who know how to smile politely and interview well. More often than not, these incredible occurrences happen around other people, many of whom are colleagues. While turmoil and urgent confusion is whipping about inside me, outwardly I am only biting the inside of my cheek and gripping the edge of a desk. I am far too concerned with appropriate comport to “act out” in way that might make people around me uncomfortable. I don’t want to be judged- I’m doing that enough for myself.
The first time I completely succumbed, I was being driven to a flight back to San Francisco by my parents. I was concluding a relaxing spa vacation in Phoenix, and returning to a hostile work environment where I was demeaned and manipulated on a regular basis.
This was a startup. Everyone was all-in. I had no right to complain.
We were going maybe 40mph. It felt though, like we were hurtling through space and time at a break-neck pace. I braced for some impending impact. My breath went shallow, and quickened. I blinked, hard, trying desperately to force reality back inside me. I rolled down the window and sucked in as many heaps of air as my faltering lungs could stand. I wanted to shout out “PLEASE SLOW DOWN” but I could see the speedometer, mocking me in it’s inanity. When my parents asked what was wrong with me, I settled for a quiet, panicked, “it just feels like we’re going so fast,” with tears alighting my cheeks. It felt like I’d landed in a black hole. Or that the weird sisters of A Wrinkle in Time had tessered me onto a 2D planet.
I didn’t want to alarm my parents, so I steeled myself as I exited the car. Said my goodbyes and rushed to the bathroom where I let my inexplicably angry tears fly. I got on the plane, went home, buried myself in the day to day and forgot about it.
A new job saw new challenges, and an environmental shift.
This was the big happy place everyone dreams about. Other folks were walking around with smiling faces, skipping with rainbows shooting out of their asses. I had no right to complain.
Here, when I went to the bathroom to lose it, I found teammates 20 years my senior already doing the same. Working until you passed out became the norm. Joking about crying yourself to sleep became commonplace. Twitchy, panicked, frustrated people milled around me, and that became my new normal.
The first time an attack hit me at night, it jolted me from my sleep. All of a sudden sitting bolt upright, I became immediately lost in a confusion of thoughts: ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but I am dying. I am going to die right now.’ I curled myself into a tight ball, pressed my knees into the mattress, my face into the pillow, and moaned as loud as I dared (careful not to wake the neighbors).
In the light of day, I joked to my work-wife about what had happened. She confessed that the same had happened to her the night before. We commiserated, talked deep breathing, and went back to the salt mines, believing, somehow, it would get better.
Two years passed without much incident. Conditions were growing poorer, but at such a rate as to be unnoticeable. Physical symptoms leveled out, and coworkers and I would joke that we’d traded night sweats and ‘bathroom cries’ for extended illness recovery times. So you just couldn’t kick that virus? Meh. To newbies we assured: this was a step up.
Until the breaking point.
Until the mere act of drifting off to sleep would set off an attack. Until I had to rip myself off of the couch of a friend I’d been visiting and race over to the balcony. There, I begged the cool breeze to deliver me from the grogginess of slumber, and therefore the panic. Each time, my breathing slowed, and I returned to the couch hopefully. Each time, I drifted deeper into sleepy listlessness, and each time the immediate heart thumping, sweaty, oppressive weight of anxiety thrust me more violently awake.
My body was electric, but my tired mind was all helplessly crackling fuses. I was moving on instinct; even Miss Rational was disoriented and desperate. I felt closest to what a zombie must feel. Moving from compulsion, or a great need, but mind unable to make sense of any of it.
That lasted three weeks. I continued to do my job, and well. At the strong, strong, very strong, I’m-kicking-you-out-right-now-
It wasn’t all rainbows and milk and cookies. I grew (separately, infuriatingly) sick during my time off. I came back too early. I was passed to a new manager who’s presupposition of my idiocy I’ve not been able to explain to this day. Soon after my return to work, a few folks left my team. Then I did. Then even more did. It turns out I was less the annoying employee who couldn’t hack it, than the canary in the coal mine. But watching some friends depart and then leaving the others was no comforting vindication.
Little by little, I’m teaching myself the lesson that no one thing I’ve accomplished has been more important that my wellbeing. Every day, I’m convincing myself that the brain is an organ like any other, and a sickness found there is no more a personal failing than the flu would be. More and more I’m able to recognize the same over-achieving stress downfall I experienced in my friends.
Life is short. As a Black Woman, it’s shorter. It does me no great service to work myself into an early grave. I love what I do. I take great pride in my work. But I’ve never saved a life at the office. I’m not a doctor, the President, or a hostage negotiator.
The stakes aren’t that high. They aren’t life-threatening.
Except maybe, my own life. Except maybe, another like me.