What are you afraid of?

by: Douglas Grant

The first time it happened I thought I was having a heart attack. I was twenty-six years old. I was just back from a big weekend in Vegas and I was driving southbound on the interstate when I suddenly had trouble catching my breath. Two seconds later I felt like my brain had stopped talking to my body. The connection hadn’t completely been severed, but my muscles seemed to be fighting against what my mind was telling them to do. And now my heart was beating against my ribcage so rapidly that my next instinct was to reach over with my right hand and start slapping my left arm repeatedly to confirm that there was still feeling there. And there was, but that didn’t calm me down, because at this point I thought I might lose consciousness as I was speeding along at 70 mph in my Acura Integra. I didn’t pull over to the shoulder, but I did find the next exit and made sure to get off of the highway immediately. I posted up at a Rite Aid pharmacy and sat down on a curb, holding my head in my hands and desperately trying to catch my breath and slow my heartbeat. I didn’t know at the time that this would be the first of many.

My life is no more extraordinary or stressful than the next person’s, and I know for a fact that my problems pale in comparison to those of some people who are very dear to me. I am happy with what I have, and I recognize that I have it pretty good. People have asked me why this happens to me and I never seem to have an answer for them. Originally I thought it might be because of all the ways in which I trashed my body during the party days of my youth, but my therapist very much doubts that this is the case.

“The human body is very resilient,” he tells me. So that option is out. And it is a relief yet a burden at the same time, because I still don’t have any answers, and that rationale would have explained a lot. So I continue to wonder what the root of the problem is.

I was put on Xanax when I was thirty. I had just had yet another episode and this time it had become too much to shoulder on my own. I was reluctant to be put on the medication. I had taken it recreationally before, but it always made me feel fatigued yet famished at the same time. And who wants to be hooked on a pharmaceutical anyway? I certainly don’t.

Pot is supposed to help but it doesn’t. If anything it exacerbates the feeling. I thought this was normal because everyone always talks about the paranoia, but even my doctor says it’s not usual. And here I thought he would understand. I’m sticking to my guns on this one though. I need to decongest the traffic in my head.

A friend of mine who was going for her MS in psychology says she knows what I’m going through. She assures me that it happens to millions of people and that it’s one of the brain’s natural defense mechanisms. I don’t see how crippling fear could in any way be considered a form of defense.

“You’re not dying,” she says soothingly. “Just tell yourself that you’ll get through it.” Sounds like sound advice, right? Well that was six or seven years ago, and to this day when I get one, my first thought is always the same: This is it. It doesn’t matter what I tell myself when I get one, because my reason doesn’t want to listen.

“Why do you drink so much coffee,” my father asks me. “Don’t you know what all of that caffeine is doing to you?” He’s so much more pragmatic than I am. I could say that it helps me to focus when I’m reading, or that I’d rather be on edge than sluggish at work, but the truth is I should cut back. I should do a lot of things.

A friend of mine has an apartment that’s very serene in its decor. It’s very inviting—with lush plant life, scented candles, and colorful engaging artworks—and it would put me at ease whenever I was over there. I don’t hang out over there anymore though.

I wonder how much ugly shit is buried in my subconscious when this happens to me. And although years later they happen to me with much less frequency, the intensity of them when they return has in no way diminished.

A good friend passed away last year. I found out on a Sunday night and got up and went to work the next morning. When I was in the office I got that lightheaded feeling again, and this time it didn’t go away. I sat down and counted to thirty, taking deep breaths as the clock ticked by. None of this assuaged my tension. A co-worker saw what was going on and relieved me of my responsibilities, promising to cover for me. I came back to work two hours later. This was the first time I had established a direct correlation between my fits and something awful that had happened in my life.

Just how fucked up in the head am I? I really have no idea. My loved ones would tell you I’m a pretty normal person, and I’d have to agree with them. There’s nothing over the top about my lifestyle and no deeply repressed memory of a childhood trauma. And I know I’m not alone in this; many people suffer from the same affliction. The feeling still sucks though.

It might be constant reminder of my mortality, and maybe it actually serves to remind me that I’m lucky to be alive. That would be one way to put a positive spin on it.

You’re probably thinking that this is a huge sign of weakness on my part, and wonder why in hell I would share this with anyone. But anyone who’s important to me knows the score, and if I can’t write with candor then why even write at all? Anyway, a little humility never hurts now and then.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about my situation and a lot of time to pursue remedies. I got back into running when I was thirty and I think I’ll be a runner for the rest of my life. When my brain releases those endorphins I think I can actually feel them washing away that feeling that makes my head spin. Yoga every now and then helps too. I just started receiving acupuncture treatments, and although my expectations weren’t too high going into them at first, I have to say that I think I can really feel the benefits now. I’ll probably try meditation soon. It’s good to be exploring these options.

I know there’s another one waiting for me just around the corner. There always will be until I dig deep. And I don’t think I want to dig deep just yet. I know I’m going to be alright.

This is my catharsis. If this is my biggest problem in life right now, then life isn’t so bad. Just take a deep breath. You’re not dying.

2 replies on “What are you afraid of?”
  1. says: Liz Hillard

    I come back to read this from time to time. It reminds me that I’m not alone. You’ve put into words what I’ve always battled since I was 23. Thank you for writing and sharing. It has helped me. Hope to shake your hand one day!

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