The first time it happened, I jumped out of bed and ran to an open window. I pressed my nose against the screen and inhaled a long, slow breath. It was a dusty, windswept air, the kind that comes from living on a barren plain between two mountain ranges. The air currents that move through Laramie are so strong, kicking up gusts of arid dirt, until one isn't just living upon the earth, but breathing earth. The feeling of suffocation that gripped my chest moments earlier, passed. I guess it was a nightmare.
The second time it happened I ran all the way downstairs, opened the front door, and stuck my head outside. I stood for several moments, leaning out our front door in my pajamas. I was grateful for the chill in the air that meant winter would soon be upon us. When I told Micah about how I'd been startled awake, yet again, by a feeling of suffocation in the middle of night, he concluded:
"It sounds like a panic attack. What's that all about?" It's the sort of question one asks when one wonders how my low-stress life could possibly warrant two panic attacks.
"I have no idea."
Months passed and I forgot all about it.
Then a few of weeks ago it happened again. Not wanting to wake up Micah, I ran down the hallway to a nearby bedroom and opened the window. Or, I tried to open the window. It had frozen shut! It's OK, just breathe it out. Our cat Morrie stared at me as I took several deep breaths. I repeated a mantra that had something to do with being at peace. My chest opened up. I could breathe again.
Years ago I ministered to a woman who began having panic attacks long after her children were grown, right around the time one sets one's eyes on retirement. It's a chapter of life that's supposed to be filled with happiness and contentment. Instead, her chest would be gripped by anxiety on some random afternoon as the washing machine entered the "Spin" cycle and a peach cobbler cooled on the kitchen counter. I recall the shame and the fear she felt. And how a doctor prescribed medication because there was something wrong with her.
I think of all the milestones in our lives we're told should inspire happiness and contentment: our wedding day, the birth of a child, a new dream job, retirement, when we come to the end of a creative project, or when we take the first step toward a long-held dream. But what some of us actually feel is panic, fear, dread, anxiety, or apprehension. I finished writing my book and instead of joy I felt anxiety for what lay ahead. Not just the process of getting published, but the part where I willingly leave behind a quiet, solitary life. My panic attacks are not a sign that something is wrong with me. They're growing pains, a sign that my life is shifting and changing. My spirit needs only to catch her breath, to know it's OK to be afraid.