I could feel it rolling in, a series of swift and whispering waves in the center of my chest that grew stronger with each pulse. Soon there was no pause between the tightening intervals. The grip on my heart stole my breath away. My body felt weightless, similar to the blink of a moment just before you fully drop from the first steep slope of a roller coaster. The body unnaturally suspended, yours and also, not yours. Yet unlike with the roller coaster there is no giddiness tied to this particular weightlessness. It is a warning, a signal flare. Your body has been through trauma. This is violence of an aftershock.
No more than two hours before I had been standing in the kitchen of a modest home tucked in the wooded mountains of Northern California. As I diced plump garden tomatoes and sweet yellow onions he asked, “Lauren, have you heard of CBD?” We discussed briefly of how it can be useful. He was looking for pain relief without a high. I was already using it sparingly to help manage my anxiety. He was intrigued that I had already been using it, though I’m sure I had mentioned it before.
“Yeah, I use it here and there when I’m having a particularly awful spike in anxiety, so that I can try to avoid taking my prescription meds. Surprisingly I haven’t had a panic attack since before the pandemic hit us in mid-March, which is weird because my stress levels have been through the roof.”
Sweeping the contents of the salsa from the cutting board to a bowl, I brightly announced I would be heading outside to read in the hammock.
In my sacred space, the utmost of comfort between towering pine trees, I lay engrossed in a book until the sunlight crept away. Without enough visibility to read I switched to playing a game on my phone. I wasn’t ready yet to leave the cocoon.
It was then, after twenty minutes of mindless gaming I felt the first wave roll in, a squeezing around my heart. Taking casual note of the unpleasant sensation, I inhaled a few deep, purposeful breaths in the hopes it was the mild beginnings of heartburn. Within moments I knew all too well that the pain was something equally as familiar, but sinister in origin. The hope of heartburn was a foolish wish to lean on.
When the pressure became too strong to ignore I lowered myself from the nylon cradle and walked swiftly to the house. Right away Dad could tell something was not right.
“Are you okay Lauren? What’s wrong?”
All I could muster was a quick, “I’m having a panic attack.”
“Can I get you something? Do you want to sit down? Do you need me to do anything?” he questioned with slight urgency.
I reached into the bowels of my purse with one hand as I shook my head. With fingers locked around the bottle I was looking for, I could hear the promising shake of its contents as I lifted it to meet my other hand. I freed a single diminutive pill, washed it down with a swig of chocolate milk, and plopped into the reclining chair next to Dad.
I don’t remember the specifics of what he said, but I do know that he did his best to distract me from my own body, improving jokes and commentary regarding whatever was playing on the television.
I reciprocated with a truthful gesture of comfort of my own. “I don’t think this one’s going to last very long. It feels like it will be over soon.”
My mind didn’t feel panicked. I wasn’t worried or frightened by what was taking place. This was the fourth panic attack to date and they had all played out the same. The only difference between them was their unpredictability in timing and the length of the episodes.
I wondered silently if I had jinxed myself, taunted the pain from it’s hiding place by claiming that it had left me unscathed during these last several months of peculiar hardship.
No. I quickly knew that to be untrue.
It was much more likely that everything, body and soul and emotions, had finally eased up from working in overdrive. This short vacation in the woods had acted as a slamming of the brakes after the weeks upon weeks of survival mode I had been enduring. And with the momentum abruptly stopped I had slammed face first into the windshield. The woods, the hammock, the air scented with pine and iron-rich dirt, had acted as my safety belt. But even with this I still felt the impact of the halting crash.
If you’ve been a reader for awhile you may remember that my parents and I snuck away to this very same property a few months prior. At first I wondered why I didn’t experience a panic attack during that trip, but thinking back it makes sense. You see, I spent most days of that trip helping Dad with projects. I emptied out an entire shed, cleaned it, and re-organized all of its contents. I made meals and helped my Mom sporadically throughout each day. Yes, I did read in the hammock periodically, but I know that I was subtly tense. It was the first time we had travelled together, just the three of us. As with all new experiences that include Mom I was anxious for it not to go well. Thus, I never fully and truly relaxed, nor let go of the tension I had been gripping during the previous weeks of instability regarding the state of the world and of my own.
The day after the panic attack in the hammock I was bogged down with drowsiness and lethargy. I napped several times but never felt rested. My body was still in the process of letting go, releasing the anger and fear, uncertainty and loss of control that comes with a global health emergency.
I didn’t hike or take pictures on this trip. I didn’t do the traditional float down the river in an inner tube or even play card games with Dad under the glow of a waning moon. Instead I, we, all melted in place. The outdoor table and chairs are still untouched, covered by the protective tarp I had placed on them months ago. My hiking shoes haven’t left the reusable shopping bag I brought them in. The 103 degree heatwave only added to our sluggishness.
Time has not been wasted though. In fact, I’d say the opposite. We have coddled our time here most appreciatively, settling into the earth and our bodies like dust after a windstorm.