I Thought I Was Dying. When I Learned The Truth, I Became Desperate To Keep It Secret.
If you know me, or see me on the street, I might appear to be carefree.
That is a lie.
It’s a lie I’ve been telling myself in the hopes that it would simply become true. And one blissfully, surprisingly cool summer dawn, as I hit my stride during a morning run, I began talking to myself in my head, as I sometimes do.
I listened to myself rattle off the things I needed to do that day. That week. That month. To accomplish and complete. I felt the familiar erratic pounding of my heart. In my chest. My throat. My ears. Not from my pace, but from the building anxiety and self-doubt I now felt every day. It had come and gone for perhaps as long as a year, but it swelled into a crescendo this summer.
The past several years of my life hadn’t offered a lot of stability, even setting aside the era-defining pandemic that swept the world. I discovered I was inexplicably unable to conceive a second child. My dad was diagnosed with ALS, suffered and died. My mother became his caretaker, and then a widow. After her shock and grief subsided, she created a new life and my confusion fractured our relationship in unexpected ways. A year and a half after my dad’s passing, she remarried, further complicating my own feelings despite being happy that she could love and feel loved again.
Our family moved into a new home the same month I took a new part-time job. Our son started elementary school and I stopped being a “young stay-at-home mom,” transforming overnight into a “part-time working mom with a school-age child.”
Suddenly, nothing looked the same: not myself, my parents or my home. Not my child or our household dynamic. Not even the world around me, as we all took stutter steps toward finding our way out of COVID and mask mandates and Zoom meetings and back to a “new normal” that looked wholly abnormal.
And so, I reacted by making myself busy — because if I’m busy, then I can’t think about the aching change and arduous growth, the racing wreckage and painstaking rebuild. I decided that to survive, I could no longer feel. I could only do. So I joined the PTA, the garden club and the tennis team, and took another part-time job. I stacked up titles, positions and hobbies, all while cooking homemade dinners. I remembered names and faces, noting birthdays with personalized trinkets and handwritten cards.
“I decided that to survive, I could no longer feel. I could only do.”
When alone, I checked and rechecked to-do lists. I scoured emails I’d written for typos until my vision blurred. At gatherings, for which I’d cook elaborate meals, I chatted loudly, laughingly, with the room of faces. But privately, I raced around cleaning my whole house until late in the night. I frequently found myself teary-eyed in the grocery store aisle, numbed with indecision that I might buy too little shrimp for the dinner I’d planned.
For months I’d woken up at night with a racing heart and night sweats, certain I must be dying. My grandma had lymphoma, I suddenly recalled. Her first symptom was night sweats. I went in for my annual physical and labs, wringing my hands until the results came back. I was healthy. Every lipid panel, blood count and metric was utterly unremarkable.
I then assumed I was probably not getting enough exercise. I began to run daily, walked with friends, joined my son on his trampoline. Still, the racing heart continued, now coupled with an inability to catch my breath. I could only find short, sharp intakes of air — like Lamaze, but as if I were giving birth to fear. Then my jaw began locking. I woke up daily, teeth clenched like an animal unwilling to let go of its prey. But the prey was me.
Finally, one day I became certain I was simply dying — that I was having a stroke. A heart attack. Something. I stood in the kitchen wild-eyed as my husband caught my gaze.
“I can’t breathe. My heart is beating so fast,” I said. “I’m sweaty and I’m having trouble even explaining this to you right now because I can’t think clearly. Everything feels foggy and far away.”
He looked at me, hard. He listened as I stammered on, attempting to communicate something without knowing what.
He grabbed my forearms gently but firmly, stared me squarely in the eyes and said: “You’re having a panic attack. When I breathe, you breathe too. You’re OK.”
He guided me through a series of counted breaths. It was embarrassing: He saw me give birth to our son, but somehow, I felt more naked, more flayed open in this moment than ever before. But it also felt relieving. Maybe I wasn’t dying. Maybe he was right.
But at the same time, he couldn’t be right. He’s the anxious one, not me. I’m the carefree one, the one with social grace, deftly carrying us through conversations with strangers and tricky social situations. He’s the cautious one, the one who manages our finances with scrutiny and detail. I’m the one who urges us to take a few risks here and there. He’s the quiet one, who prefers to stay in where it’s cozy and safe. I’m the fun one, ready to scrounge up some pantry leftovers, call it charcuterie and invite others over with a quick text, or attend a last-minute dinner party we hadn’t planned on and aren’t dressed for.
I told myself I could not have a panic attack because I don’t have panic attacks. Other people — nervous people — have panic attacks. Someone doing as much as I was doing couldn’t possibly function while being riddled with anxiety, depressive tendencies and, above all else, physical symptoms of stress that would culminate in something as ridiculous and inconvenient as a panic attack!
It turns out I was having a panic attack. And like cockroaches, where there is one panic attack, there are more panic attacks. Turns out, my coping methods were not actually coping methods but avoidance and denial. Turns out, each time a friend or acquaintance mentioned therapy, mental health or destigmatizing medication for emotional regulation ― and I said, “I am so proud of you for being open and honest about your experience; that is critically important, and taking care of yourself is just as vital as taking care of others in your life” ― I was really hiding a big, fat secret. I, too, was wrestling a mental health crisis of my own that I desperately wanted to go away all by itself so I wouldn’t have to come clean about the chaotic state of my response to, well, living life each day.
I did not want anyone to know that sometimes it revealed itself as rage, often directed toward my husband, because I felt so desperately out of control that it made me shockingly angry at something I could not identify ― and so I chose him. I didn’t want anyone to know that sometimes it showed up as despair, as I struggled to drag my legs over the side of the bed in the morning, find the floor with my feet, and throw back a cup of coffee in hopes that the caffeine would propel me toward a day filled with tasks that seemed insurmountable — like pouring our son a bowl of cereal.
I didn’t want anyone to know that sometimes it announced itself as overindulgence, as I killed a bottle of wine late at night, hoping to swallow those feelings I was desperately trying to avoid even as they threatened to erupt at any moment. And I didn’t want anyone to know that sometimes it arrived almost as some type of manic energy, a feeling that if I could only outpace this thing by attending social events, girls’ nights, pool parties, dinners out, committee meetings, client calls and PTA functions, then maybe I could run so fast, I’d lose it behind me.
Except it wasn’t chasing me — it was already inside of me.
I finally decided to set up an appointment with a licensed professional counselor for talk therapy. I’d been in therapy once before, shortly after my dad died. I was experiencing terrible stomach pain and I visited my general doctor, who, after examining me and finding no physical concerns, asked simply, “Have you been stressed lately?”
As I burst into an ugly, contorted fit of tears, I revealed my fresh grief and she prescribed medication that would suppress the acid burning a stress-induced ulcer into my stomach. She also referred me to a grief counselor. I found it useful, and I was discharged from her care about six months later, after fine-tuning some coping skills.
“Maybe I could run so fast, I’d lose it behind me. Except it wasn’t chasing me — it was already inside of me.”
Even though I had previously felt the physical symptoms of stress, I didn’t recognize them creeping in again. The first time, it felt different, more acceptable. I thought that because something had happened to me — a loss — it was normal to need help making it through to the other side. I guess what I didn’t count on was that there is no “other side.” There is only continuing to move through your life and facing the good and bad alike.
I felt there was no acceptable cause for this effect. I felt ashamed to call a therapist and say: “Hi, there’s something wrong with me. Nothing has specifically happened to make me feel so broken and confused, but I am. In fact, my life is exceedingly comfortable with every blessing I’ve ever imagined. My husband is kind, handsome and smart. He’s a phenomenal father and supportive partner. Our son is smart, healthy, kind and funny. His life holds nothing but promise. We love our home, we have great friends and we live in a wonderful neighborhood with a wonderful school and have wonderful jobs. I know so many people have so much less and are dealing with so much more, but I’m also angry, scared, lonely and pretty sure that I’m failing at everything all the time.”
Who says that? Who feels that? I guess the answer is me.
I don’t have a neat little bow to tie on this for you — or for me. I don’t know if I’ll find some immediate relief from a counselor, or if first I’ll have to make myself even more vulnerable and uncomfortable. It turns out there is a lot I still don’t know in general, even about myself.
But what I do know is that I’m glad I admitted I was not OK. I’m glad I explained myself to my husband in our kitchen that day. I’m glad I called a therapist, and that I have the means and privilege to see one. And I’m glad to be writing about this right now, if for no other reason than to let someone else know that it really, really is OK not to be OK.
We don’t talk about that very much — not with our families or friends, and certainly not in public. But we should. So many of us are feeling this way, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it — or of wanting to ask for help to feel better. Because feeling like you might die is just no way to live. And I’m ready to keep living.
Lauren Dunn is a part-time writer and strategic communicator. A Virginia native, Lauren lives in Richmond with her husband and 7-year-old son. Keeping prolific journals from a young age, Lauren uses writing to process her experiences and environment, trying her best to make sense of this utterly nonsensical, sometimes confounding, but always entertaining life.