By Laura DeBrizzi
When I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter in high school, I never imagined that I would bear my own scarlet letter like Hester Prynne. Although the branded “A” holds very different meanings for the fictional protagonist and me, in both instances the feelings the wearing of it dredged up were shame, guilt, dishonor and weakness. Those who read the novel know that Prynne’s “A” stood for Adulteress. The meaning of mine was a bit more muddied and, dare I say, harmful to my quality of life because something had broken down internally … my soul shattered … and the chaos that ensued resulted in Anxiety.
One thing must be understood before I type another word: Anxiety is not even on the same playing field as the phrase “butterflies in the stomach;” the latter scenario produces some apprehension but it does not leave one so overwhelmed that he/she cannot physically move. Like anything else in life, anxiety sufferers cover a broad spectrum and what may plague some may not be an issue for others.
I can only testify to my truth. Most often than not, I suffer from a kind of “free-floating” anxiety in which fear overwhelms, saliva evaporates from the mouth, deep breaths cannot break open an airway long enough for my heart to revert to normal beats while my mind races about nothing. I cannot convey what I am overwhelmed by. There is no tangible answer. I wish that I could point to the one action or issue inciting my inner alarm and formulate a game plan to attack the enemy—a torturous scenario.
Small comforts come by way of closing a blind and humming an inspiring tune. Only in the darkness can I quell the storm inside me and downgrade it from a hurricane to a tropical storm. But, I cannot stop the hurt or halt the tears. Meditation and Four-Squared breathing, prove unreliable. The panic attack may be so paralyzing that it impairs me from using those tools.
As someone who suffers from anxiety, I learned to assume the identity of a low-level con artist in offering excuses to my friends and family when the fear blindly assaulted me on day that I made plans—a difficult call to make since I must keep straight all the lies I’ve told to get out of other jaunts. I feel bad about it later and, to make matters worse, I go back and forth with myself over whether another hour or so would have made a difference in how I feel. Criticize, criticize, criticize!
I cannot pinpoint when I suffered my first panic attack. Maybe it was the night my ex-husband proposed to me. I remember looking at the engagement ring on my finger and growing incredibly dizzy as my heart beat so wildly that I thought I was suffering a heart attack. I chalked it up to all the unsuccessful marriages among family or my friends’ parents and could not imagine growing old with someone. Two years into our marriage, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer and, like always, I exhibited little emotion. I only broke down upon learning of my breast cancer diagnosis and remained shut off throughout chemotherapy and radiation. I ignored the pleas of my oncologist and my surgeon to join a support group because I never talked about my feelings, deeming it to be a sign of weakness. It embarrassed me to let anyone that I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. Even in the modern context, mental health carries a stigma. I sometimes hate myself for not being stronger.
“Shutting down” during childhood served me well in getting on with life, throughout which I became a master secret keeper. My beloved Grandpa died when I was 10. As with my cancer diagnosis, I sobbed uncontrollably in the backseat of my Uncle Mickey’s car. The next morning, I asked my mom, “Was it a bad dream?” When she confirmed my grandfather’s passing, I announced that I wanted to go to school. My parents let me because it was what I wanted to do. I got angry at my fifth-grade teacher for announcing during morning prayers that an extra one be said for my family. All I wanted was to get back into the routine.
I did not go to either of the two-night wakes for my Grandpa—something I will regret for the rest of my life. During the entire mass, which my mother insisted that I attend, I never cried because I did not want my Gram to be sad and I kept making sure she was not weeping. She knew what I was thinking because every time I looked at her, she smiled and waved for ME. I returned to class after the service and did not cry again until age 24 when my nephew, Andrew, was born.
I want to be the “old” Laura … to reclaim my identity. I want to be fearless and love myself again.
If you know people who suffer from anxiety, do not diminish their pain by saying, “you are not dying.” They sure as hell feel like they are.