As the term wraps up, I’m trying to walk more as the days get longer, and the days—sort of—get warmer. Spring is long in coming this year, and it all looks very different given the COVID19 pandemic.
But the wildlife that finds its way into town seems unaffected, and if anything, has more freedom to move about. You can hear the Canada geese flying in the morning, you can hear coyotes in the evening, and you can find tracks of deer, moose, and maybe bobcat in the river valley. Here’s an encounter I had on an evening walk.
This is the sixth of seven in my series on memoir. When I was twenty years-old, I developed anxiety disorder. No one I talked to at the time understood this disorder, but it was the 80s, so it hardly seems surprising. It was more than ten years before I heard the term panic disorder. I remember being ecstatic knowing this thing had a name—it meant I wasn’t crazy, or so I thought at the time.
“Breathe” was first published as flash nonfiction in Open Minds Quarterly in June of 2019. OMQ is a print magazine, dedicated to issues of mental health, which I encourage you to check out.
I’m including a copy of “Breathe” below. Nearly ten years after the accident that took my sight, I began to realize how affected I was by that accident. It would be another ten years before I had the courage to begin facing the trauma of the experience and, more importantly, begin sorting out my life.
Trouble breathing—sudden panic. Why can’t I breathe. My head is spinning. We are driving. Am I going to pass out? My voice sounds distant as I try to say something is wrong. It sounds to my ears as though someone else is speaking. I wonder, in a distant chamber of my brain, if I’m about to pass out. Maybe I’m dying.
I’m in a truck when an accident takes my sight. I don’t remember it well. In that present, I am ten years-old. I am with my two cousins. I remember what happens immediately afterwards—somewhere, above me, my older cousin is shouting our names. I hear the words as though I am lying at the bottom of a darkened well.
In this present—my eighteen-year-old present—I am totally blind, the story of the accident far in the past. I’m with a girl. We have been dating for over a year, and we are on a highway, driving to a small town in southern Alberta to visit friends.
And now, I can’t breathe, and I think I’m dying.
I don’t die on that trip to southern Alberta, but the experience leaves me shaky and wondering. I learn something important, though. If I drink, then the feeling of imminent collapse and devastation fades away.
Later that summer, I am with my mom. We are in line at the annual book sale at the downtown library. It’s their yearly cull of books. And standing there, in the lineup, talking to my mother, the inability to breathe reaches out and takes hold of me again—this time, worse than the time in the van.
I have to get out of the line. I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me. I will simultaneously loose my mind, implode, dissolve, or any number of terrible things. I am shaking all over. My body is not my own.
We make it out of there, to a mall across the street. My mom has me sit down while she goes to find me something to drink—an Orange Julius, if I remember.
Then it hits me again, slamming into me like a truck. This time I know I’ll pass out. I nearly hit the floor. If I could breathe, I would scream.
It’s like terror—paralysing me, stopping my breath, speeding up my heart, vibrating through my limbs.
I can’t breathe—I can’t breathe—I can’t breathe.
Someone calls a cab. I find myself in the backseat with my mom, and we are driving to the hospital. I am bent over in the back of the cab, gasping and struggling to find a breath that works. None of them do.
Then I’m in a wheelchair, and I’m in the emergency. My mother is talking to someone, a nurse, I assume. I don’t remember much for a while.
Later, I’m lying on a hospital bed, in one of those large hospital rooms, each bed sectioned away from its fellows by curtains. I wait.
Several hours later, I don’t appear to be dying. They have run their tests. My dad has arrived, and so has my girlfriend. I’m feeling better, save for the sense of humiliation that now colours this whole experience.
Finally, a doctor is talking to me. He asks me what happened, and I try to explain. He tells me that nothing whatsoever is wrong with me. Now I’m feeling stupid. But he gives me a referral to another doctor, someone else who will give me a full exam.
I’m with the next doctor, weeks later. The feeling hasn’t come back, but neither has it gone away. It lies there, at the edge of my awareness. This thing has come to live with me. Now I’m aware, I can’t be unaware. I take time off work. I remain in my apartment through the hot afternoons, wondering, thinking, and worst of all, not smoking. My GP recommended the not smoking. Now, I’m visiting this doctor, who, I think, is going to tell me what’s wrong with me.
He asks questions about my life. He is kind and patient. He examines me, from head to foot.
It comes down to this—if I take care of myself, I should go on to have a perfectly happy and healthy life. He actually dictates this into a recorder. So goes his assessment.
We leave the doctor’s office, and I feel less stupid, but still without any answers. With me comes another, a new companion—my ever-present sense of imminent disaster that now lives around the edges of my awareness.
The years pass, and I learn to live with this companion, which sometimes comes violently forward in feelings of dread and panic that stops my breath. New sensations are added to my kit—the feeling of being pulled inside-out like a glove, or having my brain vacuumed out through the top of my head are just two.
It’s not until one afternoon, years later, that I learn what has held me in its grip. I now have young children. I’m listening to the radio one afternoon. My kids are home for lunch, but soon heading back to school. The special on the lunchtime program is about something called panic disorder. I experience something like shock as I listen. All the things they are describing are things I’ve experienced in some form or other. I can feel the old feelings assert themselves as I listen, but along with the dread comes a sense of relief that makes me want to laugh out loud.
It’s actually something, I think. I’m not crazy. Other people have experienced this, and it has a name.
Discovering that my experience had a name goes a long way to making it easier to cope. But as my relief enables me to do something more about this debilitating experience, I begin to realize that my panic disorder is only part of a larger constellation of symptoms I’ve been experiencing for years, all leading back to the accident that took my sight as a kid. I have a long way to go, but this is a start.