Sometimes you expect certain moments in life to trigger grief or anxiety. I like to think each individual knows themselves and their journeys well enough to foresee how some situations might bring up difficult feelings. But sometimes it is unexpected and it doesn’t matter how well you know yourself or your journey. Sometimes, you are simply blindsided.Today I was blindsided. Today, I drove past a construction site on the way to my boys’ school. It is a common thing to come across but, since having sustained my spinal cord injury on a construction site, it is also something I prefer to avoid (I’ve become very skilled at averting my eyes). But for whatever reason, this one caught my attention. It was only for a few seconds, however sometimes that’s all it takes for anxiety to find its opening.
Your breath gets caught in your chest while your heart feels like it might beat out of it. Your mouth becomes dry and your palms are sweaty. The trigger becomes a flashback and suddenly you are lost inside the moments – the seconds – that brought you the most pain you’ve ever experienced. You inhale sharply and momentarily lose the ability to exhale. Your heart beats faster while your mind relentlessly streams your worst memories on repeat. Your body suddenly remembers to exhale but it provides little relief when you instinctively gasp for air soon after. You know you’ve almost reached the threshold where you will no longer have the power to overcome the panic on your own. And then you see your children’s school in the distance.
You run through your repertoire of techniques and are flooded with relief as (this time) they start to work. Your heart rate slows down and your breathing normalizes. But then the panic gives way to grief. A grief you weren’t expecting to feel that afternoon when you left your house. It’s the kind of backhanded grief that feels like a betrayal of your own spirit because today, you thought you had this. Your eyes blur with tears and you wish so badly that you hadn’t left your sunglasses at home. You park your car, wipe your eyes and wish the bell would ring so you could pack up your children and get home. For once you are thankful nobody comes over to chat with you because you know that whatever is holding you together in that moment is delicate and unstable. And then you wait.
I waited. The boys finally appeared and for a few blissful moments, I was distracted. I was consumed with jackets, backpacks, car doors slamming and questions about snacks and dinner. If I had been smarter, I would have gone home a different way. Autopilot took over and, of course, I went right back past the construction site. I knew better than to look at it this time around but driving past it again brought my focus back to the anxiety, the flashbacks and the grief. Thoughts I would have to try and ignore until later because for the next few hours I had mom life to get back to.
So now it’s later and I’m sitting here deconstructing my panic attack and all of the aftermath. In the moment, a panic attack is terrifying and debilitating but even once the worst is over, it lingers like a bad hangover. Emotions remain close to the surface and the sporadic inability to catch my breath leaves me on edge. It seems as though my grief and anxiety have become so intertwined that I can’t have one without the other. There are a lot of scenarios where I can anticipate the difficulty and prepare for it. But being hit with the unexpected means you cannot preemptively deploy your coping mechanisms and those feelings of trauma and loss blast through your resolve. In the end though, it is just another panic attack to add to your catalogue; another thing to come back from.