What Does an Anxiety Attack Feel Like?

Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash

My own mother didn’t recognize me.

We had agreed to meet in front of the Burger King at the corner of Main and Asylum. I was sitting on a giant planter, my head tilted slightly down as I scrolled through social media. She looked at me, and kept walking. My phone rang a few moments later. When I saw it was her number, I looked up. She was right across the street, so I jogged over.

“I didn’t even know that was you,” she said when I got to her. “Your hair looked so short.” That’s fair. She hadn’t seen me since I’d started getting my hair braided again; this is what I normally look like. “And you’re so skinny!”

It was the last thing she said that struck me. I’d weighed myself earlier in the week, and was shocked to see that I was down to 155 lbs. My weight has always fluctuated, but I’m typically between 165-175. I hadn’t made any conscious decisions to diet, and yet I’d lost ten pounds. Hearing my mother note how different I looked made me finally take a step back and realize that I was stressed the fuck out.

There were so many things going on in my life, but I’d convinced myself that I was juggling all of them somewhat successfully. It became clear that I’m not handling anything well this week though. I broke my glasses on Monday, which is a bill I simply don’t need after getting fired and still waiting for unemployment to approve me. No problem, I thought, as I still had my prescription. I planned to run to Walmart and grab a cheap pair. Turns out that prescriptions can expire, and mine did, three months ago. Now I would need to pay for an eye exam too.

Fine. But fortunately, I found a place that was offering not one, but two frames and a free eye exam for $69 (haha). I even got my appointment with them moved up a week, to Wednesday. Things seemed to be looking up, until the exam itself. My eyesight is so bad that it priced me out of the deal. Instead of $70, I ended up paying $270.

As I sat there in the glasses store, turning over in my head how I could afford this, another question popped into my head: Why am I always in this position? And that led to the rest of them: Why am I such a fuckup? Why can’t I keep a job? Why can’t I find a job I like? Why can’t I save like other people? Why can’t I just see like other people? I’ve already written this essay before, so when are things finally going to change for me?

All of the feelings I thought I had bottled up uncorked themselves and have been going to town. I feel my whole body shaking as soon as I wake up in the morning. There’s a nervous, uncomfortable energy right beneath my skin, pricking me like needles from the inside out. I chew on my tongue randomly. Pain shoots up my leg and into my lower back constantly. I’ve cried the last three days. Is this what an anxiety attack is?

The acuteness of the last few days has thrown into relief the undercurrent of stress that has permeated my life not just for weeks or months, but for years. The last time I remember being happy- genuinely, exuberantly happy- was June 2019, That was the day I watched the 8th graders I was tutoring graduate into high school. I still remember one young man who walked across the stage and refused to shake any adult’s hand except for mine. That remains one of the proudest moments of my life, because I knew that I’d made a different to him, and that was all I cared about.

So I became a teacher. And fucking hated it.

So I went to work at a nonprofit. And fucking hated it.

I sat inside for an entire year during the pandemic, like everyone else. Friends died. Others got sick. Still more lost their jobs. I smoked an ounce of weed a week. A week.

I became unmoored from just about everything I’d put faith in during my life. School. Government. Nonprofits. But I lacked the power as an individual to make a difference on my own. All of my railing about being an anarchist is really me seeking the answer to the most basic question: why do we think our world and the way it functions is so great if so many people are suffering?

All of that, two years of my reality essentially collapsing. And then I got fired by someone I thought I was a friend, for doing what I was hired to do- say what I was I thinking.

But that’s just life, right? Pandemics happen. Jobs don’t work out. I can’t do anything about my cornea being misshapen. Yet it’s all come together in a moment where this stress is compromising my relationships with people I love. That’s the hardest part. I’m all about the people in my life. I want to please and support them with all of myself, but myself isn’t all there. So I can’t be there for them the way I want to be, and the way I think they want me to be.

I told my son school is bullshit, so he took that to heart and almost failed the 8th grade. I still think school is bullshit, but me raging against the machine has collateral consequences. The stress of not fitting into this world is compounded by my guilt and shame at harming the people around me. It becomes a cycle. I focus on the negative, no matter how much my loved ones try to point out the positive. I can’t get out of my own head.

It just all came to a head on Wednesday. I don’t know why $270 glasses were the breaking point, because the whole thing goes so much further beyond money. And intellectually, I know I’ll be fine in the long run. I’ll get unemployment. I’ll find another job. I have the strongest support network I’ve ever had in my life behind me. Even though I know all of these things, I just don’t feel good. But I’m trying.

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