In the last year, Liadan Hynes’ marriage fell apart. She is now working on adjusting to the new reality. In her weekly column, Things Fall Apart she is exploring the myriad ways a person can find their way back to themselves.
A few weeks ago I had a panic attack.
I’ve never had one before. It came out of nowhere.
Herself and I had had a lovely afternoon in the park with a friend and her boys. She needed a sun hat, so I decided to go to Omni, admittedly a place capable of inducing low-lying panic when visited on one of the hottest days of the year.
At first, I thought it was the coffee. That jangly, unspecified free-floating anxious feeling you sometimes get when you have over caffeinated. But then it came on strong. Waves of horrible anxiety edged with a tinge of dread. The knot in my stomach relentlessly tightening, vice-like.
I tried to focus on Herself, strapped in her car seat, happily chatting away. She loves a trip to Penneys.
But that didn’t stop it.
I tried deep breathing, attempted to push my breaths out beyond the quick, shallow breathing.
But that didn’t stop it.
We arrived at the shops and I went to a newsagent and tried drowning it in bottled water.
But that didn’t stop it.
Partly, it was like watching your own life while trapped inside some sort of inescapable glass bubble. I see myself thanking the woman in the shop for giving Herself two extra hair bands, their tags ripped off so she couldn’t sell them. Smiling. But inside, panicking.
There I am finally relenting and buying the much longed for Elsa-plait hairpiece, discussing which sun hat we will buy. Inside, wave upon wave of panic.
I consider driving straight to my parents’ house, depositing Herself and going home to crawl under the covers. But I can’t. There are things to do.
We walk through the shopping centre, and it feels as if the high, arched ceiling is closing in slightly at the periphery of my sight line. There are dark spots at the edge of my vision.
Back home, the Father comes over to mind Herself as I’m going out.”I think I’m having a p-a-n-i-c attack” I say, spelling it out, not wanting to scare her. Calmly taciturn as always in the face of drama, he takes over while I go up to meditate. Nothing happening; it fails to shift it. So I get ready, repeating grimly to myself. This. Will. Pass. This. Will. Pass.
From three to eight that afternoon waves of anxiety, with no discernible cause, washed over me.
I couldn’t shake them, couldn’t step out from, or away from, the awful feeling.
If this becomes a regular thing you are allowed to go demand Valium from the GP I tell myself. This is too much.
I’d make a terrible celebrity, I think. They always seem to suffer from anxiety. There is no way I could tolerate this regularly. I would be an addict in no time.
I’m going out to a live recording of the Work Wife’s podcast. She and her pod wife (so many wives in the absence of a husband) are two of the funniest, most honest women I know. And surprisingly -because the thought of sitting in a small, dark theatre had been fairly unappealing during all this- it is like flipping a switch. Distraction? The sight of a good friend? I have no idea.
I spend the rest of the evening gingerly testing that the anxiety has disappeared, as one might carefully investigate a toothache with your tongue. I don’t fully trust it has gone until I wake the next morning feeling calm. But it has. Five hours, and then nothing.
When you undergo a life crisis, the just keeping going of daily life becomes a much more taxing affair than otherwise. Grief is exhausting. Just living takes everything out of you. Even if you don’t feel like you’re struggling. Even if you feel that generally, you’re doing pretty well. That doesn’t happen of its own accord. The effort to be buoyant is just that, an effort. And at times it can be exhausting.
That’s probably why I’ve had a recurring sore throat since Christmas. Why I’ve had more free-floating anxiety than I have had in years. Why the fear on Sunday nights can seem so much more vivid some weeks. Your reserves are depleted by the effort of enjoying your life.
Earlier that week I had listened to Claire Balding talk on the podcast Mother of Pod about her alopecia. When her hair suddenly started falling out in huge clumps, her GP asked her “what is your favourite thing about yourself?” “My hair,” she wailed. For seven years she had been ignoring the stress she was under, first in proving to everyone that an early, unplanned pregnancy was fine, all fine, she was coping, she was fine, and then when her second child essentially refused to sleep for months. This was her body’s way of forcing her to take stock.
Sometimes coping is not a good thing. Sometimes it is better to say this is enough. This is what I can cope with. But no more. To draw some boundaries, or take a break. To not over-cope.
It is possible to very gradually, very subtly, become incrementally used to quite high levels of stress. Stressful times will happen to us all. The important thing is to realise when the actual stressful situation has passed and to go back to living life at a less heightened level.
So I take a few measures. I go into Marks & Spencer’s and buy a load of ready-made easy-to-prepare meals. I ask the Mother to stay over a few times. I tell the Brother what happened, and he is quietly present. I say yes to a work trip which involves handing over all autonomy for two days, staying in a beautiful hotel, being shepherded about London. Two days out of the responsibilities of life.
Me-time. Self-care. Call it what you will. It is a life-break. And then I am ready to go again.
Photo: Jon Flobrant, Unsplash