And I Breathe

[trigger warning: anxiety, panic attacks]

Apparently my pulse is racing, my heart racing.  But I am not conscious of this.  My mind is plowing through a million thoughts at once, each worse than the last.  The problem, thought or incident that caused this disappears.  It is lost in a spiral of cause and effect.  The thoughts become crazier and more unrealistic every time around the spiral.  But at that moment, each is so real that they touch me.

And I breathe.  Deep, long, rough.  Like a car driving on gravel.   I focus on the breathing.  Every thought, every muscle, every sense, is dedicated to a long inhale and longer exhale.  I keep breathing, long and deep, until the car is off the gravel and onto smooth pavement.  At least, smoother than before.

I am analytical. That is my virtue, my talent. I try to focus on one thought, one problem. I go to its raw naked form.  In systems terminology, the root cause.  I get to that point…

And I breathe.  Long and deep.  Thinking about the breath.  Control.  Stability.

The problem takes form. I walk it through in my head. I work hard, almost beyond my physical limit to not let it spiral out of control. I can’t let it happen like last time. “Like last time” is humorous phrase.  Last time was only a seconds ago. Maybe a few minutes.  But that is all it takes to lose control.

And I breathe.  Long and deep.  Focus on that single breath.  Feel the oxygen reach to every muscle.

I follow the problem methodically, breaking it down to its parts, following tangents.  I write it down.  Writing helps.  It takes it out of your head and makes it real.  You can’t spiral things out of control after they are written.  That’s a rule.  They are real now, facts.

And I breathe.  Long and deep.  How good and calming it feels.

That is the key isn’t it.  Facts.  I add a section top my writing, called FACTS – all in capitals.  Bold.  Underlined.  I write everything there that I have proof of.  Not innuendo, body language, or interpretation.  But FACTS.

And I breathe.  It takes much less time to get back onto pavement now.  One deep inhale and exhale.

I look at my work, removing one “fact” because, it really isn’t a fact.  I review it again.  I want to write down the next steps, impacts, processes and solutions.  But I know better.  My feelings and panic are not gone.  They are under a single layer of control.  I need space.

And I breathe.  Control.  Calm.

I get up from my desk and walk down to the cafeteria.  The entire incident took 5 minutes.  Sometimes it lasts longer, sometimes shorter.  I always need to walk away from the desk, away from whatever caused that spiralling panic.  I need perspective.  Often I don’t even know what caused it, sometimes I never do figure that out.  So getting perspective from an unknown entity is an art I have come to be good at.

And I breathe.  Long and deep.

Three steps in, three steps out.  Three steps in, three steps out.  I walk instinctively, robotic.  Every thought is on my breathing again.  I find I am very vulnerable during this walk.  I have flushed the problem out of my brain.  I can feel the panic wanting to take up that vacated space.   I force away the panic by filling my brain with breathing.  Three steps in, three steps out.

And I breathe.  Control.

Keep my head down.  Look deep in thought – which is somewhat true I guess.  My thoughts are on how not to think.  Thinking very hard about “not thinking”.  So can I say that I am deep in thought, in a paradoxical kind of way?  Is paradoxical even a word?  I’ll have to look that up.  Too long to use in scrabble.  But paradox would use an “X” and “P”.  Imagine the triple word score!  These random pieces of stupid things run through my brain.  Anything to keep the panic at bay.

And I breathe.  Stable.


I do not want to talk to anyone.  It is imperative I not talk to anyone while on the edge of control.  I won’t say constructive or correct.  If I am forced to talk, it takes every ounce of effort to keep focused on the conversation.  I know I am not thinking straight. I don’t commit to anything nor divulge anything.

And I breathe.  Relax.

I take a glass of water, not coffee.  Caffeine is definitely a bad option right now.  I don’t need a “pick me up” – I am waaaaaayyyyyy to awake right now. Caffeine would only help the panic return.  I find a quiet corner and pull out my phone.  I have a few mindless games that I can play.  Escape is good.  Escape is not bad.  Escaping and not returning, that is bad.  Been there, done that.  Never again.

And I breathe.  Calm.

It takes a long time to clear the mind of the fear, panic and spiralling thoughts.  Five minutes of panic results in sixty minutes of mini-games broken up by watching cars on King Street.  Sometimes more, sometimes less.  But always out of proportion.

And I breathe.  Serene.

I go back to my desk.  The rest of the day is a write-off.  The problem that caused the whole attack is put away until another day.  Sometimes I do tackle it so it doesn’t sit in the back of my mind.  It all comes down to how much control I have.  Regardless, the rest of the day is a waste.  I answer emails, book a few meetings.  I get up for water about 20 more times– resulting in visits to the washroom 20 times.  I move small things along.  But I don’t need to hide again.  I am under control.  Just.

And I breathe.

I leave work early – but still a respectable time.  Sometimes I leave after the panic and “work from home”.  I avoid driving right away and walk to a nearby bookstore and Starbucks (decaffeinated of course).  An anxiety attack and driving is not a good combination.  For me it can be deadly.

I have epilepsy.  One time, in 2011, I had an anxiety attack and that broke through my epilepsy meds and caused a grand mal seizure.  5 months off work and freshly diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.   Anxiety doesn’t explain my epilepsy – nothing will ever explain that.  But it doesn’t help explain some of my seizures.  Anxiety is one of my epilepsy “triggers”.
That was crucial information I did not have before 2011.  I need to keep the anxiety at bay or I have seizures.  Seizures result in no driving for 6 months to a year.  In our house with 4 children, that adds a lot to my wife.  I worry about overburdening her.  It’s not that I need her.  I do, especially at times like these.  I want to be a partner, not a burden.

And I breathe.

I get home and my wife can sense it. After 22 years my wife does not even need to talk to me. She can sense my anxiety levels. She even knows when my head is “not right” and a seizure may be near. Not even I know that. She says a few code-words to the kids.  “Your father is resting.”  They know. They give me space. I hide in our room.

Usually I cook dinner, but not today.  It went unsaid that I wasn’t on duty.  I try sometimes but cooking is too hard after these anxiety attacks.  I have to follow recipes, one individual step at a time.  I have to think about each step.  Cut carrots:  Okay, get a knife and a cutting board.  Now what.  Ah, a carrot.  Ok.  Oops I forget the peeler.  Dinner would take hours to prepare.

I sit quietly with the family for dinner and mindlessly listen to the chatter.  Most of it goes in and out but enough registers to make conversation, ask questions.  Be participative.  Sometimes I don’t even bother with dinner. I am neither hungry nor talkative.

And I breathe.

“I am going to a movie alone”, I tell her.  Another code-word.  She asks if I have taken my epilepsy pills, if I am tired, or need a drive.  I smile sadly.  Unfortunately, this has become a routine.

And I breathe.

I would often escape to the movie theatre.  It did not matter what movie I saw, though I did try to avoid anything realistic.  Sci-fi or kick-ass movies were good.  A sci-fi kickass is golden.  They take you away from reality, away from a reality that is out of control.  The two hour escape is great.  Refreshing. The world and its problems seem to be gone when I get out.  At least, almost gone.  I know they linger in a corner of my brain.  Waiting.

And I breathe.

I get home and climb into bed.  I get to sleep easily.  I am worn from the day.  I am also blessed with the ability to shut work off the moment I leave the building.  The work itself is locked in a separate filing cabinet that remains locked until tomorrow.  But I know the anxiety, started at work, are never locked away.

And I breathe.

She always comes to bed after me.  When she does, I move against her.  Her feet are always icicles.  But the rest of her is warm.  I am not alone anymore.  I realize I never was.  I am safe now because she is here.

And I breathe.  Without effort.  Naturally.

[Contributed by P. Grun]

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