(For future reference, this was written while listening to Mansionair – Easier)
Catching My Breath
It is absolutely amazing how only when faced with a horrible realization that I am once again able to find myself facing the future. For months now, I was living in the shadow of past circumstances. I had a horrible work situation where my trust was broken by people I regarded dearly, and I couldn’t shake that. The initial panic and subsequent hurt loomed over me. The resulting anxiety frequently left suffocating even during some of the most serene moments of my existence like bike riding, washing dishes or taking a shower.
There was little escape from that anxiety, but I coped. I survived through binge watching tv shows and playing video games. I submersed myself in fictitious universes, and while it worked, it cost me my academic success and damaged my relationships, some I fear beyond repair.
In the weeks that followed, my home and people I love were facing catastrophic hurricanes. There are defining moments in the wake of hurricane Irma that I believe will shape me forever. It felt like my life was moving in slow motion. When I saw Facebook live videos of Irma in progress, I remember feeling so broken and defeated. I just couldn’t handle the reality that my little sister could be in imminent danger, and there was absolutely nothing that I could do to save her. After the storm was over, all I could do was search every Facebook and weather channel video hoping to see just a glimpse of my little sister to know that she was alright.
Once again I felt like I was suffocating and no matter what I did, I just couldn’t catch a breath. When she texted me and called, it finally felt like I could breathe again, but I knew that the fear and anxiety was still looming over me. In the shower, while bike riding or washing dishes, I’d find myself suffocating in that grief and panic once again. My mind kept returning me to that moment on the couch crying just at the thought of losing what was dearest to me. However, I managed to cope focusing on maintaining contact and facilitating conversations between my little sister and mother.
In the week that followed, I was trying to get my life back together, and I focused on doing what I could to make up the time I had lost, but I still wasn’t willing to face myself, my grief and my pain. I ran away from it thinking that it was the easier thing to do, and maybe it was at that time.
I remember the morning I woke up to hear that Maria was now a category 3 hurricane, and thought nothing of it. I had lived through a category 3 in my house years ago, and it was nothing. That next morning, everything changed for the worse. I woke up to hear that a category 5 hurricane was in route to directly impact St. Croix, my home where my mother and grandmother would be forced to take shelter. I can still feel the intensity of that anxiety now. I had seen the devastation of Irma on St. Thomas, and I couldn’t believe that only weeks later St. Croix would be subject to that level of devastation as well.
There were these unrealistic feelings of guilt that I couldn’t shake. I felt like I should have been paying more attention to the weather channel and that it was somehow my fault. I felt like something I had done must have put the life of my mother and grandmother in danger. In the days that followed, I tried to focus on giving my mother as much information as possible to help her prepare. I warned her that our neighborhood was listed as a potential area for massive storm surge. I urged her to take the storm very seriously.
Once we lost contact, my fear, my anxiety and my panic that had only been looming up until that moment manifested. I felt like I was walking through the world as a zombie. I was just so afraid that I could lose my mother. It’s the fear that I’m not as vocal about compared to how openly I speak about my fear of losing my little sister. In a single parent household, the eldest is always raised to understand that they may one day have to grow up and assume responsibility in the event something should happen to the parent. I am and have always been that child, and it is the burden I bear. I understand that if something were to happen to my mother, my entire world would change in one moment. Even so, I have always just wanted to be old enough. Initially, I just wanted to be 18 and have a sense of control to manage everything, but now I want to have a footing. I am always so afraid that my life could change, and I wouldn’t be ready. I wouldn’t have the finances to be able to handle everything appropriately and fill the shoes of my mother.
After Maria, I had so many out of body experiences. My fear, anxiety and pain were manifesting profoundly. There is one moment in particular that I don’t believe I will ever forget. This was after Maria had hit and I still wasn’t able to make contact with my mother. An entire day had passed and I was able to make contact with every other member of my family. I was in class and my professor was going over a handout with us and I remember thinking that my mother could be dead at this very moment and I was in class. I felt like I was fading away, suffocating in the guilt that was eating me away. I judged myself for wasting time in class when I should be preparing to do my duty and fill my mother’s shoes. I couldn’t believe that I was disrespecting her memory by being in class when I should be honoring her life and the path that she walked. Even after telling myself that these fears were unsubstantiated, I still felt like I was suffocating. I couldn’t find my way back to the classroom for minutes, and it bothered me that my classmate and professor noticed.
Once I found out my mother and grandmother were okay, my anxiety and fears went back to looming over me. At the most random of moments, I would find myself back at the height of my panic. Often, I would find myself hunching over bearing the brunt of it until it passed. Sometimes, I would grip my chest because it was suffocating me. Other times, I would just stop and fade away finding myself in an out-of-the-body experience which would interrupt any task that I was in the process of completing.
I tried to cope, but binge watching and video games just didn’t shake it to levels that I could cope with. This time, my video games and tv watching could be interrupted by a moment of panic. This time, there was no escape. To make things even worse, in the middle of all of this, I got extremely ill which only served to worsen the state of my mental health. I just couldn’t seem to get my life back together in the shadow of the past. Then, I failed my first test in graduate school.
Earlier, I spoke of how I feared dishonoring my mother’s memory. Well, academics is the legacy of my family. It is because of my mother having two master’s degrees that I pursue a Ph.D. and the possibility of shaming that legacy and turning my back on my dream were cause for considerable alarm, yet it was not what turned my life back around.
A few days ago, I finally figured out this medical issue that had been plaguing me for some time. I had been really worried about it, but I didn’t have the words for it. Rather than making a fool of myself in a doctor’s office trying to express something that I could barely conceive, I spent time every night trying to research it to no avail. It wasn’t until we came across the subject in class and the professor played a clip that I was able to realize what I had been experiencing. I remember saying out loud, “That’s what’s been happening to me.” Which while it is awful and definitely the worst thing I have ever faced medically it was so freeing to just finally know. I had the words for what was happening to me.
However, now that I know, I must act and it is hard because I fully understand that this is something that very likely will stand in the way of top surgery this December. But that pain, it wakes me up. I remember when I wrote ‘I must’ I said, “In fact [20 Caleb] was wrong. Tragedy doesn’t break us. It wakes us up. Tragedy pushes us to find a way to fix the world so that no one else has to suffer. That kind of resolve can only make us great.” Years ago, I said that with the utmost conviction. I felt that resolve then, and I feel it again now.
I chose to study pharmaceutical sciences because I believed I could make a difference in my field. Now more than ever, I strongly believe that I can and will make a difference for people who live with my conditions. That is who I chose to be. That is the path that I must walk, and it’s a path that my fears, anxiety and panic can’t take. Walking this road, I am finally free. I have caught my breath.