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Silencing the War Drums

As told to Esther Ilana Rabi

You tell me to snap out of it, as though I can control my racing thoughts, my pounding heart. Don’t you realize that’s the problem?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

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WORRIED STIFF “Going out with two friends. Birthdays. Reading. Talking on the phone. All these activities leave me panicked and anxious.” Anxiety affects 40 million people in the US, two thirds of them women. Researchers find that anxiety sufferers spend more than five hours a day worrying — five times more than the average person

I ’m hunched in a blue chair on the third floor of Macy’s, willing myself to either calm down or disappear. The latter seems more likely.

A saleswoman sees my body quivering, asks if I’m all right. “Yesyesyes,” I babble in a panic. I’m having a seizure, I’m thinking. Or a heart attack. But I know better. I know it’s a mounting panic attack because my heart starts beating hard. Not faster — harder, like war drums giving the signal to attack.

Not now! Not here! The war drums grow louder, fiercer. I get light-headed. It’s like my brain is using the wrong kind of battery; there’s energy flooding it, but it’s 220 volts, overwhelming my 110-volt brain. It’s a nervous energy that flashes and fuses my neurons together into a tangled, smoking clump of goo.

Am I having a stroke? Once my brain comes up with that morsel of anxiety to chew on, my fingers and toes start tingling. My mind and body merge to create a whirlpool that will spin me around, out of control, before dumping me in the depths of Gehinnom.

I take slow, deep breaths. Down my second pill of the day. I struggle to reassure the saleswoman so she’ll leave me alone. “I’m with my husband. He’s here somewhere. I’m just… there are so many people here. So many people. It took me half an hour to walk the couple of blocks here and I’m… so many people. I’m just… hiding. Until he comes.”

Baruch Hashem, there he is. My husband nods her away and sits down next to me. He tries to distract me with chitchat. Sometimes that works. I want to sit with him, take strength from his presence, enjoy the reassurance of his voice, but my body won’t listen. There’s intense pressure in my head, in my hands. My stomach hurts. I need to move. I jump out of the chair. I pace. Tears come. Broken, dry cries. There’s no way I’m going to live through this — it’s too much!

The crying doesn’t help. Nothing could help. Dread fills my throat and head. I get angry. Mad at this feeling. Mad at myself. I pound my head with my fists. I bang my head, over and over, against the corner of the wall. The pain is a relief. It takes my mind off the terror that’s been crushing me. I crave pain. And that scares me even more. Real tears come now.

Then the pill begins to work. My tension ebbs. In its place comes overwhelming sadness. I sit still, waiting for the attack to be over. Finally, it is. My sanity eases its way through the fog of my brain, and I sag with relief and exhaustion.

My husband tries to disperse the crowd — so many people! — watching this spectacle. Watching me. He hands me my jacket. I’m too distracted to cooperate. Why can’t you make it through a simple shopping trip without making a scene?! I berate myself. The panic attack is over, but I still have a firecracker pulse. Toxic thoughts explode out of my brain and rot me from the inside out. How did this wonderful, understanding man get saddled with a wife like me?

My husband has to shepherd me home; I’m still twitching and sick to my stomach. I cower under my blankets and tell myself how useless I am until my body shuts down and I sleep. But anxiety can sneak up on me at any time — even in my sleep. I may wake up in near-screaming horror and it will all start again.

Or it might not. I might be able to keep it at bay, if I wear my comfy, soft, fuzzy, neutral-gray hoodie, and we don’t need anything from the store. I can make the beds, and then daven and have breakfast…. Uh-oh. We’re out of milk. We can’t have coffee without milk. It’s only 30 seconds from my front door to the corner store. Can I make it?

Up to 30 percent of those who suffer from anxiety never seek help — don’t let that be you. Worrying is normal, but no one has to live in a state of perpetual anxiety

Sometimes, if I run really fast, I can outdistance my thoughts. But today, the thought of leaving our cocoon crushes my lungs and tightens my skin. I try to put on some lipstick so other people will think I’m a functioning human being, but my hands shake and I have to try again. And again. Then my shirt needs to be ironed. The geraniums need water. And I should check my e-mails. Or do anything else that will keep me from having to open the front door and face the world on my way to the store.

The coffee will be black today.


Anxiety has been my constant companion for as long as I can remember. In fifth grade, I slumped into a corner, bawling while my friends were playing handball, because I’d missed a question on a math test and now my teacher would know I wasn’t as smart as she’d thought I was.

At my high school graduation, I convinced myself that the sirens I heard in the distance must be fire trucks rushing to the smoldering ruins of my house because I forgot to turn off the iron. All my milestones — birthdays, graduations, awards — are etched in acid on the wall of my stomach; thinking about them gives me cramps as I recall the anxiety they caused me. My mind struggles to fill in the blanks with the bits of joy I can remember.

Part of what brings on panic attacks is that I never learned how to process unpleasant events. A teacher humiliated me in class once, and I just buried the experience instead of processing it. Then when a kid said something mean, it hit me with double force — my feeling bad about what she’d said combining with how bad I’d felt about what the teacher had said. So I buried that feeling, too, until the next time someone hurt my feelings. Then it all exploded.

Now my body is used to panicking and anxiety, and negative comments send me right into a nosedive. Emotional discomfort morphs into physical pain, so automatically, that sometimes when I’m feeling anxious, I do stretches to see if I’m suffering from actual physical pain or just hurt feelings. The rest of the time, I go around burdened by a vague feeling of anxiety.

When I’m not panicking, I’m worried that I’ll start to panic. I panic that people will find out I’m panicky. I panic that the rest of my life will be a constant state of panic. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 536)

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