It starts when it occurs to me that I have more time left in my class than I have activities to fill it. No problem, I tell myself, I can always come up with something. Even as the words cross my mind, I know that the storm is coming. The pacing issue is the least of my worries, this has been building for weeks. Uncertainty, travel, exhaustion, and new stress in my life have left me wide open, a sitting duck for the inevitable episode to come. That feeling of sickness, of a heavy weight in my throat. My mind races, a million disconnected thoughts run through. Through it all, I can’t break. Young, innocent faces look up at me, oblivious to my inner struggle. They don’t know about my disease, what I’ve been through, or what I’ve seen. They don’t know that I feel like I’m dying. I try to crack a joke, to smile, but I can feel the laughter die as it gets caught by that throaty roadblock.
I think, for a moment, I may be having a heart attack, but I know it’s not true. This is just my anxiety rearing its ugly head. My brain chemistry playing a trick on my body. It seems cruel that the same mind that allows me to understand complex scientific concepts, find musical harmonies, and appreciate Dutch still life would betray me in this way. Like a fair-weather friend, it knows that I have 6 hours left in my school day, but disregards my schedule.
I send my students to break early, grab a snack and something to drink, and put on classical music to calm my nerves. I think a lot of people assume that anxiety attacks are like you see on television, but screaming and hyperventilating have never been my style. Instead, I sit in a quiet room, the strains of Schubert’s Impromptu For Piano In G Flat Major begging my mind to release me from this prison.
My students were the reason I went on anti-anxiety medication in the first place. Before it, my coping mechanism was to remove myself from a stressful situation and let the feelings pass. I knew that I couldn’t abandon a classroom full of students, so I talked to my doctor. The first few weeks were hellish. Once the nausea and exhaustion passed, I started to feel more human. Instead of twice to three times per week, I walk this path only once every few months.
Ironically, the infrequency of the attacks doesn’t make them less intense or less frightening. If anything, their randomness increases their potency. I send up a silent prayer of thanks that the next activity on my lesson plan is a karyotyping study that requires quiet, individual work and gives me time to wait it out. There is no telling how long this feeling will last. Sometimes the waves pass in only a few minutes. On other occasions, aftershocks rack my body for hours or until the next day. The uncertainty is often the hardest part. Uncertainty and the duty to pretend this isn’t happening.
They need me to be my best, and I’m certainly not that now. 54 minutes until the end of class. I feel that if I can just make it to the break, I’ll be home free. My limbs feel heavy and thick as I move through space. I can’t breathe, but I don’t let my face belie my turmoil.
49 minutes left. Just hold on…
All photos from Katie Crawford’s My Anxious Heart