last winter break*
I woke up abruptly, my chest gripped and tight. My face felt hot but my arms stung as if frostbitten. I gasped for air that wouldn’t come, like I had a plastic bag over my head.
If I’d had a bad dream, in waking, it had become a collection of vague, menacing shadows, not memories.
I hadn’t had a panic attack in ages, but you never forget the feeling. I reached dizzily for my backpack, beside the bed, which contained an albuterol inhaler. I managed, between gasps, and a puff, to turn on a small bedside light.
It was an indecent hour but between jerky breaths, and a second puff, I performed the series of flicks and touches that initiated a FaceTime call. My brother Brice is in med-school at Johns Hopkins University. He studies a thousand hours a week, I doubt he actually sleeps at all.
Brice answered on the second ring, his gnarled, blonde, wheatfield of hair was unmistakable, even in the dim street light. One glance at me was all he needed. “Breathe,” he said, “just breathe,” his deep, warm voice was as reassuring now as it had been when I was a child.
He made a dismissive motion to whomever he was with, indicating he was leaving and they should go on. “Ok,” a guy said, “Sure.” A girl's voice said, “tomorrow,” but those voices faded as they were left behind.
“Did you use your inhaler?” He asked, when I nodded yes, he began our old routine, “Alright,” he said, “name things you can see.”
“My.. phone,” I said, haltingly. A moment later I added, “my iPad,” I gasped, “my purse.”
“Oh, your favorite things,” he whispered and when I honked a coughing laugh he said, “sorry.”
After some brisk walking, on his end, I heard the distinct beep of an access-point card-reader.
“The sky,” I added. The sky looked dark, jam-like and starless from Lisa’s 50th floor windows but there was a blurry line of blinking lights - jets queued for landing at Newark Liberty, or Teterboro airports. Life was going to go on, it seemed, even if I couldn’t breathe.
“Uh huh,” he said, in affirmation. His camera went dark and I could tell he was climbing stairs.
My body wanted a full breath, or three and was in a full water-boarding like panic.
I continued with my herky-jerky naming, “my suitcase, a ceiling fan.” He was in his room now.
“Good,” he murmured. “Now focus on 4 things you can touch.” I slowly and purposefully touched my backpack, water bottle, phone and bedside table as Brice quietly watched and waited. I’d stopped hyperventilating and I could feel my eyes relaxing and the room coming into focus (a symptom of anxiety is tunnel vision).
Brice knows me, maybe better than anyone. We finish each other’s sentences, we’re steeped in intimacy and knowing. We watched each other silently for a minute or two as my breathing became normal. His stupid, brotherly face was reassuring. He seemed in no rush, and finally asked, “What brought this on?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, hesitantly, but I had my suspicions. I was on vacation, having a terrific time with Lisa and her family, and I’d made the honor roll, so my anxiety wasn’t school related.
“Mom left me a Christmas message,” I began, “and there was an explosion in the background, I think. I played it over and over,” I said, frustratedly, “was it thunder - or something else? I played it for Lisa - over and over. She said she thought it was thunder, but Lisa’s not a good liar.”
Feelings are never simple, they're multilayered, strip some off the top and they’re others underneath. If my parents' (Doctors without Borders) Ukraine war work was the stressor, there was little we could do about it.
Brice reminded me that the background noise was equivocal - it could have been thunder - and since this panic was an isolated event, we decided to keep it to ourselves.
As the call wrapped up, he made me promise to stop playing that message and avoid war news. We agreed to stay in closer touch (knowing that, with our schedules, it probably wasn’t going to happen.)
Still, I like knowing he’s out there - like a rescue inhaler - just a few button clicks away.