Life in a vice grip

I am having a really hard time.

For the past 2 days the panic attacks have been a constant dull drone stalking the edges of my awareness. My heart pounds, breathe becomes difficult as my chest tightens. I feel like I can’t get fresh air.

It is not fun.

Any moment the air becomes still, the existential dread tightens around me, a python grip that my hard earned dialectical behavior therapy skills do little to lessen. I trained for this. I know what the professionals say will help. Hell, I have enjoyed the benefits of the skills plenty of times myself. But these times are unprecedented.

A local appliance store often puts clever sayings on a pop up sandwich board outside of their store. It has become a highlight of one of the only outings I make anymore; my biweekly trip to Walmart to pick up groceries. My favorite so far has been, “I miss precedented times.” Indeed, little sandwich board. I miss them too.

The fact that I feel a sense of compatriotism with an appliance store sign does little to boost my self esteem. This is a problem. I spend the majority of my time alone. I need to like myself. The prospect of spending months on end with a person I hate is … less than desirable.

I suspect that this is a dilemma that many people are butting their heads against, approximately 6 months in to the COVID outbreak. I have been under fairly strict quarantine since the end of March. The amount of time spent ruminating endlessly has left me relating more to rats in cages than my fellow man.

At first I saw this as a challenge that I could easily conquer. Time at home? Pffft. My car has been more or less out of commission for a year, & one could make a convincing argument that I suffer from a touch of agoraphobia. Staying home is usually my objective. I am a pro at this, I tell you.

I have always been a secret social butterfly, though. Well, semi secret. I have so many wonderful friends that I love. Talented, funny, compassionate people. We, like you & I right now, dear reader, socialize fluidly online all the time. This is 2020. Online socializing is de rigueur.

But I want so desperately now to be encircled by a dozen of them, laughing, hugging, sharing snacks & stories. Touching someone’s shoulder as I lean into a fit of giggles then reach mistakenly for a beverage that isn’t mine. Precedented times that feel so far away as to become unprecedented in this new normal.

I hate it. My misguided confidence has completely withered under a virus, political unrest & wildfires. After quarantine due to Covid seemed to be something I could handle, conversations with loved ones developed their own brand of restrictions as we all had more time to think about politics. This lead to enough heartache as to make such conversations prohibited. My world seemed smaller.

I watched as many friends had the same experience. It’s one of the sardonic joys of these times, watching humanity go through these psychological convulsions as we try to find any comfortable position within this cage. After commiserating for a month or two started sounding like an echo chamber, I think we just stopped talking about it. More & more it feels that these things simply are the way they are. You can only talk about your drunk uncle who suddenly spammed his Facebook wall with racist memes so many times before you’ve cracked all the jokes you can to keep yourself sane. The world is showing its ugly underbelly. With nothing to distract us, eventually silence feels like the only response.

It is what it is. It is to be expected. Now there are fewer who can speak freely with civility. The world is smaller still.

The historic wind & heat event turned a barely tenable situation into a living hellscape. Quarantine fatigue became a tortured panic. Not only can I not see my friends, go into the store, speak my mind, or have any random fun in my life at all, the air itself was literally dangerous to breathe.

I used to be, shall we say, “tormented” by some kids when I was young. There was always a boy who was bigger than me who would muscle me into a position in which I was helpless. I am a portly adult, but I was a tiny child. Because of this I found myself in a number of situations that I could not get out of. I was locked in a closet until I complied with the wishes of the boy who molested me. At other times I was stuck upside down in a sleeping bag. I do not remember who put me there or why I could not get out. I remember trying to control my breath. I remember telling myself that by not reacting I could somehow get myself out of it. I was able to reframe the closet & the sleeping bag into involuntary endurance tests, which is pretty impressive for a kid under the age of ten. There were never any adults around. Not knowing how to get out of these situations, as well as the countless times I was physically restrained, my young mind just made it work. We are miraculously adaptable creatures, we humans.

I imagine this is what lead to my claustrophobia as an adult. I suppose that this shrinking, suffocating, terrifying world I find myself in now is much like that sleeping bag, much like that closet. But my adult mind is not as malleable. The coping mechanisms I have been trained in, the DBT, are not the armor my young mind conjured. It’s as if it got used up.

I do not have a bottomless well of endurance, which truly sucks at the moment. Feeling endlessly boxed in, I cry out for that younger me to teach me how to stop thrashing against this quarantine; how to breathe calmly while the world burns. But she doesn’t know how to solve this problem for me any more than anyone else in the world does right now.

Perhaps I make her my totem. I survived that, so in some small way these feelings are precedented. They are bigger – global – but I can only do what I can do when the world is what it is.

We can agree this is unprecedented, but we can’t agree on who the boogeyman is or which monsters exactly are causing this endurance run of trauma.

So.

The panic attacks have come like wolves. I sit outside & imagine that the air that is now not as dangerous is also cool & clean, even as the sun & moon turn red in the sky.

I CAN breathe.

I AM breathing.

I am alive. I am not in immediate danger. I am what that little girl has become, & I WILL find a way.

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