I am doing this at the risk of people who may criticize or question me, because at least some part of me knows: If I don’t, something worse will happen to me, and soon.
I’m not supposed to be here. Especially not now.
Last night, I clawed my way through my first panic attack in years. For over an hour, I sat alone in the corner of my living room, my knees pulled to my chest, desperately trying to convince myself that I am not done living. The upheaval of my brain sending emergency messages through my body left me feeling unsafe, and uncertain.
Recalling how impossible it feels to bear this alone, I eventually sought the company of people who nurture me. I called my parents, who immediately came over, fed my cats, asked me which lights I wanted left on, and drove me back to the house that I will always know as home.
So, I am writing this at my parents’ house. On a workday.
The house I own, and love, is 15 miles from here, but I cannot be there, cannot be alone, right now.
But I also cannot go to work. My high school students, who I call my lovelies in part because they bring me more joy and fulfillment than nearly anyone else in my life, can’t even make me feel better right now. Despite how profoundly they have uplifted me on other hard days, I simply cannot fathom how I would even feign being an educator while feeling this way.
Although I have written vulnerable essays before, I had not planned, or wanted, to write this one. I have been transparent about my struggles with disordered eating, people-pleasing, and feelings of worthlessness, but typically after having had time to process the impact of, and insight gained from, these challenges. Although my writing is always honest, I have also granted myself the courtesy of contemplation: Is this something I’m ready to divulge? Am I sure that this is how I want to share this part of my story?
I’m writing about this particular experience, on the other hand, as I’m still wrestling my way through it. While I have lived through numerous panic attacks, during all of which I believed I was going to die, this is the first attack that, in its aftermath, I did in fact feel considerably closer to death. Because this just happened last night, I do not yet know what this means, or if I will feel this way again.
This is also the first time I have allowed myself more than the occasional mental health day off of work. Instead, I am taking this entire week off of school, which, in the sector of public education, is virtually unheard of. But my therapist immediately affirmed that this time off is more than recommended—it is vital. Later, when I hesitantly asked my primary care doctor to write a note excusing me from work, she repeatedly assured me that I am making the best choice for myself.
Even with these trusted, qualified healthcare providers supporting my decision, I am not fully confident in it. Never having done this before, I find it questionable that there will not be repercussions to taking this leave of absence, even if it is brief. I especially worry because, like every time I miss school, my lovelies have been sending me concerned texts (“Why aren’t you here? You’re fine, right?”) that I do not fully know how to answer. Although I finally acknowledge the necessity of taking care of myself so I can take care of them, I still feel irresponsible leaving my lovelies for an entire week. We only have so many of them together.
Right now, all I can do is speculate about what returning to school next week will be like, and hope that this truly is the right choice. I’m writing this without knowing any answers about what will happen, or when, regarding far more than just my job. For the first time, rather than reflecting on memories as I write, I am doing my best not to succumb to doubts. I am presently willing myself to believe in the power of self-compassion, even if it is still unfamiliar to me.
In spite of all these uncertainties, though, I am writing this because those of us who endure anxiety are brave and resilient. Those of us who regularly perform mental acrobatics to, at best, remain calm, deserve to be recognized as conquerors—by others, as well as ourselves. We especially deserve this in the moments of our most debilitating apprehension, dread, and struggling.
So, even though I do not ultimately know how things will turn out, or even how I will feel tomorrow, I am writing this to (publicly!) celebrate this pivotal level of self-compassion: I am allowing myself more than a mere moment to recuperate. I am temporarily removing myself from my professional responsibilities, and intentionally reaching out to loved ones, and letting myself be looked after. I am doing this at the risk of people who may criticize or question me, because at least some part of me knows: If I don’t, something worse will happen to me, and soon.
Also, truthfully, I am writing this because of a remark I happened to hear author Glennon Doyle make in an interview moments before my panic attack. “The one thing that you don’t wanna write about,” she said, “That’s the only thing we wanna hear about.”
Certainly, some people will read this essay, and not understand why I afforded myself the luxury of taking five days off of work after my mind essentially played tricks on me. But, my hope is that others will fiercely want to hear this story I did not want to tell.
Specifically, I hope that those of us who chronically, and maybe even quietly, survive anxiety, who never take a reprieve from the fatiguing day-to-day, read this and realize they—you—too, are entitled to self-compassion. I hope you recognize your remarkable ability to stay stalwart in the face of incessant hazards, and that you tell yourself, finally, “It’s time I took a well-earned break.”
That’s what I’m going to tell myself—this week, and next, and even the next, until I eventually believe it—because that is what I deserve, too.
Kerry Graham lives, teaches, writes, and runs in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Three Quarter Review, Gravel, The Citron Review, and A Quiet Courage, among others. Connect with her on Facebook.