Is It Just Me – Listening to Our Cells

Stone ThumbnailIt was a Saturday morning in mid-February, and both my sons had the pallor of vampires and the energy levels of sloths. Charlie and Harrison had been fine all week at school, but this weekend morning they woke up sick. There were swimming lessons and birthday parties to attend, not to mention shopping for new, better-fitting shoes. But, it was bitterly cold outside and there was a Jim Carrey movie marathon on television. I needed to make a decision.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes when our responsibilities lessen during a holiday or weekend, crazy fatigue or an awful flu rear up and incapacitate us like a tsunami? “Just my luck to get sick during my time off,” we might think, but maybe a more apt reaction should be gratitude that we possess bodies with minds of their own.

Often, our physical selves figure out what’s wrong with us or what we need long before our brains do, and they don’t try to sugarcoat the problem. Getting sick or feeling the physical effects of anxiety can be a body’s way of saying: slow down, relax, remove some stress, I’m warning you.

When I was thirty-four, I worked and played with gusto, but one night I woke up breathing erratically, my heart threatening to leap out of my chest. The dread in the pit of my stomach was so deep that I couldn’t even stand up straight. I felt that I could die at any moment and that moving too far from my bed could put me in mortal danger. I remember my husband convinced me to come outside for a walk. I held on to his arm for dear life and refused to go around the block – I needed to keep our house in sight; I needed to see my safe place. After nearly a whole hour during which the symptoms refused to subside, we drove to a hospital emergency room, where calm is as alien as bacon at a bar mitzvah. Once it was ascertained that I was not having a heart attack, my husband and I settled in for a long wait and a lively sideshow of humanity, watching sick people brought in on stretchers and in handcuffs.

Eventually, the attending physician, a calm, pony-tailed man wearing clogs, examined me and explained that I was merely, merely, suffering from a panic attack. He asked me if I was experiencing any particularly disturbing stresses in my life. I felt puzzled. There were issues at work, arguments with friends, nothing unusual. He gave me a pill called Atavin, a short-term medication that fends off the effects of anxiety. I was instantly relieved — until the next time.

After visiting my family doctor and procuring a prescription for my new go-to drug, I became a semi-functioning victim of free-floating anxiety. I did not understand what was causing this ugly beast to jump out of the shadows and I never knew when it was going to pounce. I spent gross amounts of energy working to hide my struggle from colleagues and to downplay it with family and friends.

The unpredictable attacks prompted me to take Atavin before situations during which a panic attack would be difficult to hide or explain. If I had to attend a big meeting or a family function, I took a pill just in case, a preemptive strike against the possibility of anxiety. By all objective measures, I was an intelligent woman, and yet, I shrugged off concern about my growing psychological addiction to medication. I acted as if my panic attacks were part of a phase that would run its course like puberty or a love of flannel shirts.

My body knew what was wrong with me, but like a dog that barks at a seemingly empty yard, it couldn’t tell my brain exactly what the problem was. Finally, after a year of this nerve-wracking condition, I attended a seminar by a pioneer in holistic health education. When Jack Schwarz (google him; you won’t be sorry!) stated that “all of your body is in your mind but not all of your mind is in your body, I began to learn how to pay attention to myself. I braked for the red stop lights illuminating my insides and realized that I needed to leave my career in book publishing. The politics and pace had become too stressful and the personal rewards had vanished. I also realized that I needed to try to have a baby because time was galloping on and the fear of not trying was literally making my body crazy. Fortunately, my husband’s income allowed me to resign from my job in order to have time to reflect on these realizations. I quit the pills cold turkey, dug up our back yard, built a garden, and six months later I became pregnant with our first son. My panic attacks stopped.

These days, I am very mindful of my body’s warnings and the warnings that come from the bodies of my children. Every cell in us has intelligence to which we should listen. When either of my boys becomes sick, they take time off school and I resolutely feed them chicken soup and love. I occasionally cancel their extra-curricular activities for a few weeks and focus on hanging out at home, creating opportunities for down-time and not worrying about what they’re missing. They have caught the stress bug and I try to give them what their bodies already know they require, time to be still and time to recover. That Saturday in February, we all stayed home and watched Jim Carrey contort his facial features. We laughed and made nachos. Wrestled and nestled. I am hopeful that the lessons I learned as an adult can be passed on to my sons now so that heeding their own bodies’ warnings will be the only medicine they ever need.

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Please remember that the advice given on this blog is not meant to replace medical advice or the direct advice of a mental health care professional.
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