Sunday, July 01, 2007
MARTI ZUCKROWV "Dance on Paper"
"Breathe, Sky Blue"
We were somewhere over Texas. Turbulence was turning our smooth journey into a bumpy ride. The woman in the center aisle was close to a panic attack. Tall, African American, and stunningly gorgeous, this woman looked ready to leap out of her seat and run through the cabin screaming.
The man seated near the window made light of her nervousness, and tried joking. His humorous words landed on deaf ears. Defeated, he buried his face in a book.
I reached for her hand. She wrapped her fingers around mine greedily. Her palm was icy cold. “It's OK, it's just turbulence,” I tried to reassure her. Her pleading eyes met mine, begging me to make it OK. In her terror, I recognized a state I have experienced more often then I care to admit.
“Just take a few nice deep, breaths,” I suggested, aware that my own breath needed tending to if I was going to help her. We sat there and suddenly I became her coach.
“OK, so breathe in, and breathe out, nice and slow.” I began to breathe with her, centering myself as I guided her.
The choppy ride continued a few minutes longer.
The captain's voice came through the cabin promising smoother skies as soon as we reached a higher altitude.
I sat back in my seat and encouraged the woman, Chandra, to do the same.
Reluctantly, she leaned back and looked over at me. “I have panic attacks,” she whispered, her eyes dark with shame. Her jaw unclenched and her grip on my hand loosened.
“I get them, too,” I told her.
“Really?” she murmured, biting her lip and clutching her purse. She was staring at me with disbelief.
I nodded. “Really, although flying doesn’t trigger them. Other things do. There are lots of us out here with anxiety. The cool thing is that unless you are in the throws of anxiety, nobody knows. The sad thing is that unless you are in the throws of anxiety, nobody knows. And our secret keeps us ashamed.”
I remembered the first panic attack I had. I'd been starving myself for months, slave driving my body and demanding it to perform the physical feats of a 30-year old (I was 60 at the time). I was over exercising and ignoring the chronic fatigue and pain I was experiencing. My digestive tract was beyond spent and the acid reflux I had developed was serious enough for medical intervention. No matter, though. I continued to refuse to listen to my body. I continued to punish myself, giving into the brutal dictates of my eating disorder: thinner, thinner, thinner, hard, harder harder, no mercy.
Given the physical, mental and emotional stress I was subjecting myself to, is it any wonder I was diagnosed with hypertension? It happened during a routine appointment with my doctor and it should not have come as a shock.
WRONG. Disbelief. Denial. Panic. Me, Ms. Fitness, a woman whose blood pressure had been that of a teenager even in my late 50's. Oh no, doctor, you must be mistaken. At my request, the doctor took it again. My blood pressure climbed higher and higher. My body began shaking uncontrollably, my legs went rubbery and I was sure I would collapse. I was freezing, I was burning up, and I couldn't catch my breath. My heart was pounding, I was dizzy, nauseated, I felt totally out of control. I didn't know what was happening to me. All I knew was that I was about to die. Or so it felt.
The nurse gave me a blanket. She turned down the light. “You're freaking out,” she said. “But it will pass. Try to calm down.” Alone in the darkened room, fear washed through every cell in my body. The 20 minutes I lay there jumping out of my skin felt like 20 years. Eventually, the adrenaline shooting through my body tapered off and the pounding in my chest lessened. Bathed in sweat, I felt lifeless. But I was still breathing. I was alive.
The fasten seat belt signs went off. Flight attendants resumed their beverage service and the pilot promised smooth skies for the duration of our flight. He kept his word. Chandra's body relaxed and she released my hand. We ordered water and pulled down our meal trays. We talked about our kids, my grandkids, and the visits ahead of us. We landed at the Jacksonville, Florida airport and said our goodbyes.
“Thanks again,” she mouthed back at me, heading toward baggage claim.
“Take care of yourself,” I yelled back, knowing the work she had ahead of her. And rooting for her, because I know the long road so well. Learning how to manage anxiety ain't easy. But it is possible.
If you are prone to panic –and so many of us are—you might want to try this simple exercise.
Close your eyes. Just sit there, wherever you are (except of course if you are driving a car, you might want to pull over :).
Let every muscle in your body go ragdoll limp. Let your arms dangle from your shoulders. Let your head hang. Let your tongue loll. Let your thighs sink into the seat beneath you.
Take a long slow breath in. And out.
Now repeat that. But even more slowly. While you do, start to watch your breath. Picture it coming into your nose. Give the breath a color. Fill it with pink light. Or make it sky blue. Or gold and orange like sunset.
Now watch that beautiful color slide into your nose, down your airway.
There it is now filling filling filling your chest. Watch it go out to your shoulders. Press it against your back. Force your belly out like a balloon and make air go there too.
Then when you are filled to the brim, release the breath, very slowly. Watch the breath empty from your lungs. Watch it pass out of your lungs, nose and mouth.
Repeat this. See if you can do this breathing thing five times in a row. Very slowly.
So are you calmer now? Can you think more clearly?
When your heart starts hammering, and your palms go sweaty, go back to the breath. It helps bring your body floating back down to earth.
Writer Marti Zuckrowv is a California-based writer. A lifelong dancer and performance artist, she now teachers movement classes to people with disabilities.