Stigma

I wrote this poem at three-o’clock in the morning, maybe six or seven months ago, while my heart was trying to pound its way out of my chest. It was in fight or flight mode, fueled by the adrenaline rush of a panic attack that awakened me from my slumber. I don’t know why the first place I go to calm myself is the bathroom, but that’s where I found myself. Writing the poem helped me focus on something other than my heart.

          The anxious
heart tries
          to make

its escape,
          beating its drum,
a war cry

          to the nerves
that jump
          and scream

and sob
          for release
from the cage

          that is but
a stop on
          the way to

the guillotine
           that will
end it all

I had my first panic attack twenty-seven years ago. My boyfriend (who eventually became my ex-husband) was beside me in the bed when I was pulled out of a deep sleep. He didn’t stir, not even a little, when I ran to the bathroom to escape my doom.

And doom is exactly what I felt that pre-dawn morning, a certainty that my life was about to end. The terror was overwhelming. There was no reason behind my impending death, only the assurance it was imminent.

Half a lifetime ago, and I still remember that first panic attack like it was the one I had when I wrote this poem. I guess it’s true: you never forget your first. I have a few of these panic attacks a year—all nocturnal, all without rhyme or reason.

The anxiety attacks are a relatively new feature in my life, something I began experiencing a few years ago. Unlike panic attacks, which defy explanation, anxiety attacks tend to have a root you can eventually pull out of the ground. Also, they happen during daylight hours, when I’m at the office, with a client, driving, eating out, at a party…you know, when it’s inconvenient to be incapacitated by anxiety.

I’m not, by nature, an anxious person. I don’t often feel stressed out, I don’t fret over things I can’t control, and I don’t hold on to negative emotions. I meditate every day, twice a day. But there’s anxiety there, apparently, buried deep beneath the surface. It’s like a nerve, and when that nerve becomes inflamed, instead of pain, anxiety shoots through my body. My heart goes into overdrive, my blood pressure skyrockets, my skin tingles.

I can work my way out of a panic attack fairly easily, usually within ten minutes. I pace, I take deep breaths, and I repeat my mantra: Linda, you’re having a panic attack. When you put a name to a panic attack, it takes away its power.

The anxiety attacks don’t respond to reason. They don’t respond to deep breathing. They don’t give a shit what I say or do, because they know they have power over my body and mind. Sometimes they hold me in their grip for a few hours before they get bored with me, or when I give in and pop a Xanax.

I live with my anxiety disorder, and in some ways, it’s become the fertilizer for my poetry and prose—even my photography. It focuses my perspective, I think, forcing me to see things I might not have otherwise noticed.

I’d prefer not to have to deal with an anxiety disorder, but since I do, I’m going to put it to good use. This poem, birthed from panic, made its way into my first collection of poetry, illusions and misdemeanors (which you can purchase here). I’m also open about my anxiety disorder, because I’ll be damned if I’m going to contribute to the stigma of mental health disorders by keeping silent. You’re more likely to notice when I have a cold or a flu than when I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack…so why should I be embarrassed by it?