Tuesday, March 12, 2013

It Hurts To Breathe (There, I Said It)

On days like yesterday, I do my best.  I get up, shower, get dressed, force myself to eat, and beg myself to act normal, be normal.  I drag myself to school, to work, to wherever I am expected to be and tell myself, “You can do this.  I know you can do this.”  I take deep breaths and try to ignore my heart thumping hard against my chest like a metal fist telling me to “go home, go home, go back to bed.”  I fight the urge to go back to bed because I’ve been here before and I know that one day in bed might lead to two, three, ten. I’ve been here before and have clawed my way back out of this bottomless pit, digging my nails into the swampy earth, my whole body burning with the effort of it, fighting against the force of gravity pulling me down, down, down to the darkness below.  I know how easy it would be to lock the doors, draw the blinds, turn off the lights, and let myself become a permanent fixture of this very room, motionless and numb.

If I go back to bed, it wins.  “It” – the monster that lives and grows and breeds inside of me.  It is always there, hovering below the surface of my consciousness, breathing its feverish breath down my neck, waiting for the right moment to spew its poison all over my world, its thick black ink staining everything in sight.  It’s always there – like a blemish nobody can see but me – though I’ve become a master at pretending it isn’t.

There is shame in admitting any of this – admitting that I struggle with mental health issues and admitting that I pretend I don’t.  But there is a stigma attached to mental illness that, even in this day and age, makes it nearly impossible not to lie about it.  What are you supposed to say when someone asks how you are?  How do you answer the question, “How was your weekend?  And what excuse do you give for calling in sick, for missing classes, for bailing on your friend’s birthday party last Friday?

I’ve said things like, “I have a really bad sore throat and think I’m getting sick.  I’ve said things like, “I just developed the most painful migraine and I need to stay home.”  I’ve said things like, “I have way too much studying to do.  I’ve said things like, “My family’s in town and I need to spend time with them.”

I don’t think I’ve ever said, “I’m anxious.  I’m depressed.  It hurts to breathe.”

There is shame, for me, on another level as well.  As a practitioner of Chinese Medicine, am I not supposed to know how to deal with mental health issues?  Am I not supposed to be the hand my patients hold as they travel their own healing journeys?   Am I not supposed to help others find their voice, heal their bodies and minds, and speak their truth?

“Healer, heal thyself,” right?

Right, of course.  But here’s the thing with anxiety and depression:  When they appear, everything else disappears.  The books I’ve read, the things I’ve learned, the tips that have been passed down by wise and worldly teachers – all of it sinks to the very bottom of the murky waters that have invaded my mind. The formulas for wellness that I know so well rearrange themselves in a sort of gibberish.  The very thought of trying to remember what steps need to be taken drains my already leaky reservoirs of energy and I am left in my bed, in the dark, as I had feared.

On days like yesterday – days I call my “rock bottom,” the crash that always happens after the weeks or months of surviving panic attack after panic attack – I feel weak, embarrassed, inadequate.  More than anything, I feel disappointed in myself.  Disappointed to find myself here, again, after years of battling the same demons. I feel like I have taken ten steps backwards.  

But on days like today, I make myself remember that there is no such thing as going backwards.  The very act of living is a perpetual forward flow.  These struggles that seem to be pulling us back are in fact pushing us ahead in our own unfolding, our own expansion into the unique human beings we are meant to become in this lifetime.  

In the calm after the seemingly never-ending storm, there are things I tell myself.  They are the same things I would tell my patients.  Things like:

  • Stop calling your anxiety a “monster.”  It is not a monster, but simply a manifestation of years of accumulated struggles and stresses that contains, within it, important messages for your own healing and growth.
  • Don't feed the panic.  Panic attacks are time-limited and if you can recognize and label the symptoms of panic as they arise, most of the adrenaline will be reabsorbed in three to five minutes and the scary symptoms will subside.
  • Respect your exhaustion.  Rest when you need to.  It’s ok to miss work or skip classes in order to practice self-care.  Sleep in, cancel your plans, and don’t feel guilty about it.
  • Acknowledge the emotions that need to be felt. Don’t judge them or push them aside or tell them they’re unimportant.  Taste them, chew them, swallow them, stomach them, and let them go – just as you would a piece of unfamiliar food with a taste that doesn’t appeal to you, but with health benefits that you know are worth the effort.
  • Talk to someone.  Reach out and ask for help.  It’s important to talk, to get thoughts and feelings out of your body, to allow someone to gently guide you to a place of peace.
  • Find those things you love, those things that bring you joy or make you laugh or simply make you feel calm and grounded and keep them close at hand - an arsenal to help you survive the toughest times. 

For me, writing helps.  Even now, as I type these words, I notice that I feel lighter than I did a few hours ago and certainly much lighter than I did yesterday, or than I have for the past few weeks.  Tea helps.  Breathing helps.  A text from a friend that reads, “I love you Vicki” helps. Reading Pema Chodron helps.  Stretching helps. Crying my heart out helps.  Hugging my cats helps.  Knowing my guy will be home soon with his big arms around me helps.  Taking a bath helps.

What helps most of all, though, is the being here, the surrendering to the present, the acceptance of what is and the letting go of trying to change that.  We, human beings, have a bad habit of trying to take the unpleasant, the difficult, the painful, the sad and mold it into something else, something prettier, easier, more palatable.  We are so uncomfortable with feeling “not ok” that we are quick to reach for the nearest distraction – the bottle, the remote control, the cigarette, the meds – in an attempt to fill ourselves up, to alter our thoughts, to dull the ache throbbing in our bones.  We want stability, damnit!  We want the ground to stop shifting, the floor to stop tilting, we want our thoughts and feelings to align perfectly with our current reality so that we can feel calm and comfortable within our own skin.

But peace, we must understand, isn’t found in stability; it is found in our ability to accept the unstable quality of life itself.  Life is change. Life is movement. It is a perpetual fluctuation of highs and lows, births and deaths, growth and decline.  The Earth never stops spinning – and if it did, we would all be in very big trouble.

Finding peace comes from being ok with being not ok, from accepting the inner and outer movements that cause us to lose our grip.   Peace comes when we stop fighting with the very processes of life itself and, instead, embrace the mess we find ourselves in, knowing that this mess shall eventually pass and another mess shall replace it. 

In her brilliant book, When Things Fall Apart:  Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes:

We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

On days like yesterday, I forget all of this.  I become so caught up in the falling apart, I forget that the coming together is right around the corner.

But on days like today, I sit here, grounded in my own groundlessness, anchored within the unanchored.  I know I must be loving and gentle with myself, just as I would tell my patients to be loving and gentle with themselves.  I must trust that things falling apart is not a reflection of my own weakness or failure; that it is, in fact, exactly what I need at this moment in time. 

I tell myself to “be here, feel this, know that it will pass.”  I rest.  I reflect on the journey I have been on and am grateful for the progress that has been made, the healing that has already taken place.  I feel my heart beating in my chest, its rhythm no longer erratic, but soft, kind, compassionate.  I know I am on the verge of being ok, of greeting a new day, of standing again on solid ground - at least for a little while.  


  1. Thank you for posting this. It means a lot to me. <3

    1. I am more than a year late in saying thank you. But, thank you. It means a lot to me that this means a lot to you. <3.

  2. Enjoyed your writing here. As someone who suffered through two episodes of gruelling depression, my heartfelt advice is to get all the help you can get. In my personal journey, visiting a psychiatrist probably saved my life. I had to cycle through four different types of medication (a fairly common scenario: six months of med cycling despair) until I found something that truly worked, but when it did, my life came rushing back, and so did my ability to love, work and plan. So keep an open mind and try different things, even ones that prick your ego. Or as a good friend once told me, when you're in the middle of the desert keep walking.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I appreciate your words (it is always nice to connect with other warriors). I believe that there are many, many paths to healing (as many as there are to disease) and that we each must find the ones that work for us, resonate within us, and lead us back to our own hearts. Medication has never been the right path for me, but that is not to say that it isn’t the right path for countless others (there is no judgment here – only love and tremendous respect). I am happy you got your life back. I got my life back too. It seems we both have learned how to walk (march, trudge, storm) through the desert. Big hugs to you.

  3. Just re-read this and forwarded it to a beautiful young (and hurting) soul whose world is tilting and shifting daily ... I'm hoping that your words are a source of comfort to her and that she can find some peace and light.

    1. I will gently hold your friend's heart in my heart today. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Probably the most beautiful text I ever read about anxiety and life. It truly gave me strength during the hard times. Thank you for writing this.

    1. Carry on, warrior. (We are all in this together.) Thank you for the kind words.