Once in high school I had finished smoking a joint and got this breathless, tight but not unpleasant, feeling in my chest. I let it ride and just figured I was hitting a new high. I stood up, unphased by my quickened pulse or slight dizziness. I was so bored with pot at this point that it was a welcome change. I walked through the summer sun, away from the high school parking lot, leaving behind the ghosts that I hate to admit still haunt me and still dwell there. I felt sexy, untouchable and ready for whatever the evening may bring. It was likely my second or third joint of the day, worry didn’t exist at that point. Just heat, breeze, The Cranberries on a walkman and my imagination.
20 years later that sensation causes me to drop to my knees with my hand on my pulse, waiting for the “big one” to finally hit. The heart attack that lays dormant. A sensation that arises only to threaten and remind me that my time will come. It hits me like a disease that spreads in a matter of seconds throughout your entire body, a poison. One minute I am ok and the next an invisible demon bitch shoots a needle full of adrenaline into my chest and then:
My chest tightens
My heart rate increases, rapidly
My eyes begin to lose focus
My hands and arms begin to shake
An ache spreads across my upper chest and my airways feel as though they are closing up
I am unable to inhale without feeling like there is a rock in my chest, blocking the air from entering my lungs
My heart speeds up more
A pressure begins to mount starting in my shoulders and moving up into my head. So intense that I am sure I will black out
I lose balance and need to get into a crouching position in order to stay grounded
People stare. I am sure they are staring. I believe, each and every time, that I am going to die.
I fumble for my phone with my free hand and desperately dial my boyfriend or best friend, who ever I think will be available. I know they can’t help me now, nothing can stop this, but just the sound of a voice that loves me. At least I won’t die entirely alone, someone will be here with me. Sometimes they answer my call, a sixth sense they have developed that tells them I am not calling to check in. We immediately begin the ritual, the dance.
“You are fine, Scott. Just breathe”
“This happens all the time. You are not dying”
” You are NOT having a heart attack”
” You are a healthy person, you are NOT dying”
In the right context it could all read as a comedy. It is not. It is not funny. If I manage to escape this attack without taking a sedative the best case scenario is that my heart will slow enough to alow me to stand up. After a short while of standing, hand still on pulse, getting a handle on the dizziness, the disorientation, I begin to move at a snail’s pace toward home. Home if I am lucky and not work, an audition, an appointment where I will bring this with me like a suitcase that has been torn and kicked and is tied to me. The invisible weight that really is not so invisible. It will hover around me like a shadow waiting to engulf me again if I look it in the eye.
“Just give me one fucking reason and you are done”
I keep my head down, I move slowly, I exhale forcefully over and over, trying to slow my heart. I force the unlucky soul who answered the phone to stay with me. I hear him typing away, rustling papers. Working. Living. Having a normal life filled with normal things. They are adults, going about their adult business, cradling the phone between their neck and shoulder, cradling me the invalid between their neck and shoulder, saying “all the right things” but mostly quiet and waiting to be relieved of their duty.
If you know, you know. You know that as this condition ages with you, it takes different forms. Sometimes I bargain with the sensation in my chest, as it intensifies. Telling it that it doesn’t need to do this, that we are ok today. It can subside and I promise I will be good. I promise I will not do the things I want to do. I will not run or have fun or raise my voice too much. I won’t drink a coffee, I won’t exercise, I won’t laugh too hard, I won’t make plans to be anywhere but somewhere safe. I will play dead. Other days I am stumbling off of a subway three stops early for fear of emergency personnel having a harder time getting to me with a defibrillator if I am in the tunnel between stations.
Not every day. Some days are ok. Just ok, but really ok is…ok.
I medicated this asshole referred to as anxiety & depression for three years. I stopped this past April when I was afraid of what it may do to me in the long-term. Not based on medical evidence. Who the hell is going to remind me to take my daily pill when I am 90 and can’t remember the names of the kids I never had? What if I miss a few days and completely lose my mind? How much concern do you figure they give a 90-year-old man who forgot to take his Cipralex? I figure they’d slap a “dementia” sticker on it and just wait for me to finally free up a bed.
4.5 months off of the medication and things are not great. FAR better in month 4 than they were in month 1 or 2, but the me that I am sure once existed is still very much buried beneath a thing that seems unable to kill me but still able to keep me pinned under its foot. The me that wakes and walks and speaks every day is not me. At the moment it is the next best thing. So now I have come to a point where crying and wishing and despair have not helped. Well fuck. So now what? The things I feel I need to tackle in order to co-exist with this beast, while trying to live the life of a functioning, healthy, 35-year-old man…
When did this start?
Why did this start?
Why does it seem to come and go?
Is this all my fault?
Is this circumstantial?
Is this a medical issue?
Should certain people be held somewhat responsible? Are certain people helping or are they making this harder?
Can I live without a daily medication?
Can I ever go for a run again without suddenly gasping, checking my pulse and hitting the emergency stop button on a treadmill?
Should I stop spending $40 a week on supplements that the kind eyed ladies at the health food store insist will help but don’t? Bitches.
People do live with this. They make life happen. They have children and homes and awful marriages and take this as it comes. So in an attempt to do the same, I will try just about anything shy of going back on a daily medication. I will research, ask questions, share, learn and with any luck find myself remembering this period as exactly that. Just a bad time in my past when sometimes just leaving the house was more than my body and mind would allow.