I am sitting in the back seat of a car and I pull my sunglasses over my eyes.
I love these sunglasses now more than ever. I feel like a child playing hide and seek. If they can’t see me then maybe I can’t see them. But wait, can they see me? It’s so warm in here, gah, why is it so warm? I lean over to see the air conditioning is on. But I’m so warm. Maybe I will just melt away. I wish I could just melt away.
They are talking about hospitals and healing and brain injuries. My knees start to ache, no my knees feel like they’re on fire. It always starts in my knees. And then slowly I feel the hotness rising until it reaches my heart. Now my heart is racing, what is it racing against, why is it going so fast? Come back! And then it races all the way up to my throat. Suddenly my throat is the smallest part of my body. It is the tiniest part of me as it gets smaller and smaller like a dark cave that abruptly comes to an end. Then there is nothing left to breathe. If I could breathe the air would be on fire.
Gah, why is it so hot in here? Why does everyone else have air? I DESERVE SOME AIR DAMNIT.
Their voices blur and the silence in my head roars. Maybe it’s silence. Maybe it’s so loud. I can’t quite tell.
When we arrive I spill out of the car and focus on the blue sky. I suck in as much air as the world’s tiniest throat will allow. I focus on my breathing. Breathe, just breathe.
I am pacing back and forth in my kitchen.
My roommates are watching in horror, at least it looks like horror, as I pace back and forth and words carelessly fly from my mouth. I wish I could hide, but where would I go? My fire knees are burning and I grip the counter. I’m afraid if I don’t hold onto something I will either burn up or fly away or spiral out of control. This counter anchors me. My hands are sweaty and my fingers leave little pools on the shiny fake granite. I can smell the turkey burgers we cooked for dinner.
I can feel everything and nothing all at once.
Part of me is crying and the tears seem so soft and gentle. But I can tell I’m yelling because I can see it on their faces. I start to pull at the spaghetti in my brain. I pull strand after strand, thought after thought. I trace each one back to the source. I can’t pull one piece without it dragging another.
I follow my spaghetti brain and pinpoint what’s really going on.
Eventually I land on the only thought that matters. I focus on my breathing. Breathe, just breathe.
And that’s what it feels like when I’m having an anxiety attack.
I used to yell at that part of me because I was so angry at my anxiety. I was so angry because I felt so disarmed. I felt so disabled. I felt so exposed and out of control. I was embarrassed by my inability to control my thoughts and think like a normal person. I got angry because I never thought I would be anxious.
Anxiety is for the weak, I would tell myself. And now look how weak you are. You disabled, cruel little creature.
I am anxious when I live half in the past and half in the future.
When I hear things, painful things about my past, it triggers this uncontrollable spaghetti brain that shoots me straight to the future. There is no present. There’s just footage from the past playing on a screen in my mind and suddenly that past turns into an uncertain future and I’m gone.
Which is why I tell myself, “Your only job here is just to breathe.”
Because when you’re focused on your breathing it’s all that matters. The way your chest rises and falls. The way your lungs fill up with the fire air and the way your tiny throat tries to push it back out. There aren’t any hospital rooms or dying dads. There aren’t any breakups or failures or disappointments. There isn’t rejection or humiliation or hurt.
There’s just the breathing and I can’t fail at the breathing.
Suddenly, when I’m just breathing, I’m present. I can taste the chocolate chip pancakes and I can feel each individual chip in my mouth. I can see how blue his eyes are and I can smell the coffee the waitress pours for the tenth time. I can hear the knives sliding across the plates next to me. I’m hyper-aware and hyper-present when all I’m doing is just breathing.
I used to think my anxiety disabled me.
But I am differently-abled. I am able to feel parts of me that are overwhelming. I’m learning I’m highly sensitive to my surroundings. I'm able to sense, feel, and imagine in ways that I previously found embarrassing. Now I find them, at times, enabling. Because of my anxiety I’m learning to connect with myself. I’m learning what my fingers feel like and what the sun on my face feels like.
I’m learning that having anxiety helps you see the world a little differently. And I'm learning that is okay. In fact, it's more than okay because it's me. Being myself is the best thing I can be in those moments even if it's messy and loud and sweaty.
My writer friend Ally says to breathe.
I want to practice the art of breathing even when I’m not anxious. I want to live a life right here and right now. I want to get better at the present of presence. If I don't I fear I’ll miss out on blue eyes and chocolate chip pancakes.
I want to do a better job of connecting with myself before I’ve even disconnected into an anxious spiral.
My anxiety is helping me to connect with God, with myself, and with others. Sure, sometimes it makes me want to shut down and withdraw. But sometimes I can channel it. I can be a student from the lessons it teaches me. It's the unorthodox teacher in the movies, the one who tends to be a little cruel and harsh but somehow inspiring nonetheless. Learning to be present and learning how to breathe help me practice the ministry of presence. When I'm fully present with God, myself, and others it's one of the greatest and most vulnerable parts of myself that I can offer up.
What would happen if we woke up and told ourselves just to breathe? Just to be here, right here, in the glorious moment of the now? Would we catch the knowing glances and the steady smiles? Would we be better at knowing exactly how we actually feel as opposed to how we’re supposed to feel?
To that I say, breathe, just breathe. You can’t fail at the breathing.
*I cannot and do not claim to speak for everyone with anxiety. I can only speak to my personal experience. If you or someone you love struggles with depression or anxiety I highly encourage you to seek a licensed professional. They're the best. They're miniature saints armed with wonderful questions, techniques, and medication to help mitigate anxiety's sources and symptoms.