“I think I had a panic attack yesterday,” I told my therapist via Facetime. I still wasn’t sure. It was embarrassing and grandiose to say it out loud, just as it had been when I’d croaked “Hubby,” from the porch hammock while my husband watered the garden, oblivious to my tears and pounding heart.
It had a not-quite-real feeling about it, like when I used to have public asthma attacks during high school; yes, I actually had asthma, but I probably could have fought the current if I’d just swam a little harder. It felt too good to give in, it was too easy to just lie back and let it wash over me.
I could have breathed into a paper bag the way I taught myself decades ago when hyperventilating for reasons I no longer recall, or when I went into shock after grabbing the handle of a hot cast iron skillet, or the way I coached my youngest child to when she unraveled one night in mid-March, weeping that one day her entire family would be dead and she would be all alone.
The maybe-panic attack felt like I imagined it would feel to starve yourself: light, heady, sort of buzzed with electricity, like your legs might give out underneath you. Actually, when was the last time I had eaten something? Maybe it was too much coffee and not enough food. Or maybe it was the conversation I’d had on a rare child-free walk, catching up with a neighbor I hadn’t seen in months.
I’d shared a few details of our conversation with my husband when I returned home. He folded laundry as I reclined in bed, caught off guard by one of those paralyzing “pandemic fatigue” episodes where even reading a novel is too much work. “Maybe all the worrying and talking about school drained my energy,” I confessed. We’d spent most of our discussion wringing our hands over our school district’s frequent and ever-changing communications. “Maybe it was actually more stressful to be together.”
“I wouldn’t want to talk about COVID with anyone right now,” he replied.
“There’s nothing else to talk about,” I responded simply.
It wasn’t fair—all we had was our emotional connections to one another, and even that worked against us. The bonding, the sharing, the fretting . . . it left me feeling more depleted even as it validated me. I needed to know there were other women whose invisible work and frenetic anxiety tallied up to exactly nothing by the end of the day. Other moms who felt exhausted and frustrated with the daily zero sum game of Groundhog Days spent unloading and reloading the dishwasher, forgetting laundry in the dryer for days at a time, neglecting to remind their children to brush their teeth and hair, to take a bath (what exactly was I so occupied with that I couldn’t find the mental space to remember such things?), allowing Netflix marathons as the path of least resistance, “working” from home with nothing to show for it.
“I am a pandemic cliché,” one of my former co-workers wrote on Facebook. “I’ve gained the Quarantine 15 because I can’t stop stress-eating.”
I “liked” her post without adding that I could barely eat a thing but still couldn’t lose weight.
I wanted to write about it, to let it bleed out of me the way I leaned back into my adolescent asthma attacks and middle-age panic attack, but what publication wanted to feature a story that had literally no takeaway, no “how-to” or “10 tips for getting your emotional shit together during a pandemic” headline? It was just me, having a nervous breakdown with no end in sight.
Maybe it wasn’t a panic attack: Is there another description for overwhelming despair when you can’t pinpoint the origin any more than you can identify how to find your way out?
“What do you need?” my husband asked and I shook my head numbly. Did I need water? That paper bag? A benzodiazepine or bourbon or a joint? Did I need to take a walk around the block or go meditate or lay down or announce I couldn’t prepare dinner? I had no clue.
What I really needed was for every single decision I made on a daily basis not to carry a life or death weight.
“Is it OK for the kids to ride their bikes in the street with neighbors?”
“Should I go into the grocery store (pros: ClickList won’t mess up my order and I can pick out my own organic honeycrisp apples; cons: I will be filled with rage as I stare down middle-aged men whose masks lie beneath their noses until I finally shame them into righting them) or order pickup or Instacart?”
“What is actually acceptable for my daughter’s pseudo-birthday gathering?”
“How am I supposed to create a remote learning pandemic pod, and do we interrogate each other weekly about whether or not we’ve interacted with people outside the pod?”
I eventually landed on taking my overly enthusiastic dog on a half-assed stroll around the block where I continued to judge people inside my head (wow, that couple is really beginning to look like brother and sister. I couldn’t tell them apart from behind.) and shush my inner monologue so I could attempt to get back in touch with nature and my breath.
I assisted with dinner and faked my way through normal mealtime/problem-solving banter and then poured a hot toddy, as the night was cool enough to accommodate it. I rounded out the day with immune-boosting CBD tea and an anxiety pill and slept blissfully for over ten hours.
My therapist listened to my description and then thoughtfully remarked, “It sounds like a cortisol crash to me.”
The realization dawned; I had been on a 3-day steroid burst for my back pain (thank you, middle aged body + sedentary lifestyle + overly aggressive yoga stretch), and my episode occurred two days after I stopped taking the medication. It was a classic reaction to abruptly finishing a steroid treatment without tapering down (note to self: do not do that), and I couldn’t believe I didn’t see it coming. At first I felt validated that there was a “physical” explanation for my panic attack, but after thinking about it I realized it didn’t matter at all. If anything, I used my perceived misstep (What was I thinking, not preparing for a post-steroid response? My nervous system is fried, I should have seen this coming. Why don’t I know how to take care of myself?) to further emotionally pummel myself.
Drugs or no drugs, we are all marinating in the perfect storm right now. For some of us, our body chemistries may be firing all over the place—in addition to cortisol, my serotonin has also been out of whack, and it shows. Even for those who may be chemically more stable, the circumstances of our lives are ever-shifting. We lack a trail of breadcrumbs to follow because it is impossible to retrace our steps and make sense of what may be coming—we have never been here before.
The Type A subset is taking it particularly badly. The fact that we can’t anticipate, plan, and flawlessly execute our lives is a bitter pill to swallow. Though if I’m being honest, this boot camp for control freaks is probably exactly what I need. That knowledge doesn’t take the sting out of the fact that, in my bewilderment, I seem to have forgotten how to do life: properly care for myself, plan meals, make decisions, identify burgeoning dreadlocks in my fourth grader’s unwashed hair. . .
“You’re being harsh,” my therapist told me after a barrage of self-deprecating criticism tumbled out. “The way you are speaking about yourself is harsh. It’s time to pause and let in some kindness.”
I wanted there to be a point to this blog post. I poked a hole into my psyche to let some pressure out, but try as I might, I was unable to identify that helpful takeaway I so wanted to provide you. Except maybe this: You, too, are likely being harsh with yourself.
I don’t know what is going to happen to us all, and I don’t know how we are going to cope with continuing to raise our children during this pandemic, and I have no idea how we will survive the school year. I can’t give you a recipe of nourishing rituals or how-to tips for managing stress and I don’t want to attach a PDF of self-care resources. But maybe I can give you that one thing: Just pause. Pause, take a deep breath, and then speak kindly to yourself. The world is full of harshness right now. Don’t add your own; treat yourself with kindness.