When she looked up, all she could see were spots. Bubbles of gold, blue, grey, red… all floating in circles. She blinked her eyes to make sense of the blurry scene she saw before her. Straining to hear what was being said to her over the sound of rushing waters that seemed to fill her ears, she tried to ask for help but her mouth wouldn’t form the words. Her hands hung uselessly down by her waist as she struggled desperately to make them work.
Lorelei had passed out again. This time in a group full of strangers, at a CPR class she had to take before getting clearance to work in the hospital’s gift shop. It seemed so silly–she’s not a nurse or a doctor. But they required all employees, no matter their position, to know basic first aid and CPR. She had been sitting in the back when she was asked to come to the front and help demonstrate the proper way to check for a pulse.
“You’ve done this before, right?”, the teacher asked. Lorelei nodded. “Great! Then you could teach some of these newbies how an old pro does it!”
Her heart began to pound as she stood up and walked to the front of the room on shaky legs. She had taken this CPR once before, back when she used to babysit for local families for petty cash in high school. And having a fabulous memory meant she rarely forgot something she learned. She told herself she would be able to handle this. “Just don’t look at anyone in the eye. You probably won’t even need to speak.” But, when she made it to the front, and all 32 pairs of eyes were on her, she felt her face flush and her hands go numb. “Oh shit!” she said to herself. “Don’t you dare faint in front of all of these people!” But it was too late, and a moment later she was laying sprawled out on the floor.
A little while later, when her hearing had returned, the feeling in her hands and legs had come back, she assured them that she was okay. “I probably just forgot to eat breakfast this morning. I’m fine now.” She explained.
But she wasn’t fine and she knew it. It seemed like these episodes had begun to take over her life a little at a time until she felt that she was making her daily plans around how to avoid them. Slowly her goals and aspirations were replaced with hopes that she wouldn’t find herself stuck in the middle of an intersection on a rainy night or needing to use the tiny elevator in her apartment building. The stairs were even worse because with every footstep upward came an loud echo that made it known just how far down a fall it was to the bottom floor. After that last time, when she had to pull over on the highway because she was hyperventilating and dizzy, she decided she needed to find a job closer to home.
“What do you think triggered these attacks?” Dr. Ranshaw asked Lorelei one afternoon as they sat on her couch in her first floor suite. Dr. Ranshaw had been recommended to her by her primary care doctor when she described her dizzy episodes and they had ruled out any medical cause.
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here.”, she replied quite earnestly.
“Okay, so let me ask you this–do you remember the very first time you felt this way? Racing heart, feeling of panic?”
“I guess about 2 years ago.”
“Tell me a little about it.”
“I was driving to work and I look over for a moment to pick up my phone off the seat, and when I glanced back at the road I realized I had almost run into someone. A pedestrian. I was so scared! I immediately pulled over because I couldn’t stop shaking. I don’t even remember how I made it home.”
“So you had a traumatic experience. You realized they your vehicle could also be used as a weapon. Possibly take the life of another. How did that make you feel?”
“How would it make anyone feel? Horrible. I don’t want to hurt anyone. Just the thought that I could makes me… makes my… oh just thinking about it is making my heart pound. I don’t feel well.”
And so Dr. Ranshaw had talked her through the anxiety before it turned into a full blown panic attack. It was the first time that Lorelei had felt like there was hope.
Over the next several weeks they made progress, and in each meeting they discussed a new technique. Meditation, purposeful breathing, proper eating and exercise regimens. Lorelei was gaining back her old life little by little. One step at a time. Learning how to not only handle taking the elevator and handling herself in large crowds again, but also how to stay in the moment and not let the anxiety get out of control.
“It’s okay to feel anxious, you know. Anxiety is an emotion which lets us know something is wrong. Like a warning sign. It lets us know that there may be trouble up ahead. The problem is that when we let our anxiety lead the whole show, it puts us out of balance. Being in a highly anxious state is hard on the body. The blood doesn’t flow properly to your arms, legs and head. It prevents your stomach from digesting. It even makes your skin feel cold and clammy. You need to learn to take the reigns again. Keep anxiety as one of many tools in your toolbox. Otherwise you’re body will be in a constant state of fight or flight, and unless you’re trying to outrun a tornado or fight off a mountain lion, it really doesn’t serve you well. Next week I want to discuss you making some goals–getting back into your old life.”
On the way home Lorelei kept replayed the conversation in her head. She new Dr. Ranshaw was right. It was time for her to take that next step, but she was so scared. Her heart pounded just thinking about standing in front of a group of people with all eyes on her. But, there was this thing, a poetry slam–open mic night on Thursdays, that she’d read about in the paper. Back in high school she’d often been told her poems were really good. “Very moving”, her English teacher had written on the one which she had been most proud. She’d kept a private journal of them ever since. Even wrote one recently that she was particularly proud of about overcoming anxiety.
As she drove along the highway she saw that the exit that would lead her home was up next, but realized if she stayed on for another minute she’d practically be right in front of the bar where the reading was. It could be like a practice session. A trial run. The bar wasn’t even open this early so she could just turn around in the parking lot and head back home. Dr. Ranshaw would be so pleased with her, she thought. So impressed that she gave it her all.
She took a deep breath, smiled, confident and happy, and continued on past her exit ramp and turning instead a few moments later onto Downlane Rd. When she heard her phone buzz over on the seat next to her, she instinctively looked over, just for a moment–which is the only reason she didn’t happen see those two little girls stepping out onto the cross walk.