I had my first panic attack when I was 13, in a religious studies lesson. I was worried I had got my period in class. We weren’t allowed to go to the toilet until break time. My worry turned to hot panic as I imagined a red stain spreading across my skirt. My vision began to swim and sweat beaded under my school shirt. I felt trapped. My breath sat still in my chest and my fingers lost all feeling, and then everything went dark. I didn’t faint, I just couldn’t see.
By memory and feel, and without a word to the teacher, I made it outside the building where I slumped to the ground. I felt the chill of brick on my back, my fingers threaded through grass, and the cool of the outdoors moved through my body. I hated my body and mind for conspiring together against me, but I breathed in fresh air and let myself cry until I could see clearly again. Still, the only true remedy for my panic is to be outside.
“This is how it starts, my anxiety: I split a bit more at my seams with each breath, so I limit my breathing.”
This is how it starts, my anxiety: I split a bit more at my seams with each breath, so I limit my breathing. I hold air in my lungs for whole minutes, gnawing at my lips to keep them closed. My chest screams for air and I feel light enough to float right out of life.
This summer in the city I couldn’t tell if autumn had come early or if the trees had been burnt by the sun and pollution. They looked as exhausted as I felt. When the breeze rattled the browning leaves outside my window, they sounded like baby teeth in a tin. I wanted to be somewhere fresh, I wanted to walk until the air would make my lungs sting.
My lungs hurt a lot these days – the virus wrecked them back in March. I feel lucky but I worry about the new aches and pains. I want exertion and the stinging grip of lactic acid in my muscles but I doubt my body’s strength now. Insomnia visits intermittently. Damp weather has me wheezing for air and anxiety hits more often. I know I should go to the doctors.
“In the hills, the grass is nibbled velvet-smooth by sheep with long woolfish tails. Mossy fingers of rock rest stoically amongst the green as if to say: I have always been here, always will be.”
Instead I go to the countryside and I walk. I almost cry at the greenness of it all. I go to the beach and I swim in the sea, where it is easy to cry, so I do. Each beach walk leads to pockets heavy with stones: wave-smooth pebbles; flat purple slate; white-veined quartz-sparkled lumps. I bring them home and place them around my flat. I remember where each one came from. Back home I will cup them, smooth and constant in my hand, and think of the waves’ sound, like breath, water rasping over the rocks.
After so long looking at the four walls of my flat, I felt sick with the beauty of everything. In the hills, the grass is nibbled velvet-smooth by sheep with long woolfish tails. Mossy fingers of rock rest stoically amongst the green as if to say: I have always been here, always will be. The grass is blonde in the sun, and grey when the sun slips behind a cloud. Little dials of white lichen bloom on rocks, looking like gum on pavement. I pick a point on the horizon and I walk towards it, wading through a valley of boggy ground, scattering sheep with my exhausted tramping.
“I layer memory on memory, raking through my infrequent trips to find beauty.”
To write about nature is to walk well-trodden paths, paths not meant for city dwellers and tourists. I just show up a few times a year on a sort of serotonin reconnaissance mission and get a bit weepy. When I’m back in the city and my own breath becomes an enemy again and I can’t wash my hair, I write it all down. I layer memory on memory, raking through my infrequent trips to find beauty. I store it all for the moments late at night when I think I might suffocate on the close air of my bedroom.
My mind and my body have always seemed separate to my personhood, somehow – two rebellious factions that I couldn’t keep in check. This year my body has felt more and more like a strange thing. Fat fell from my bones frighteningly quickly when I was ill in the spring, until my body’s landscape recalled my years of self-starvation. The flesh has returned but the strength has not, and the faith I have in my body to walk for miles has dimmed. My mind feels heavy and slow, skirting around a depression but never truly sinking.
I think we make a hobby of breaking ourselves apart. I’ve been focusing on trying to bring myself together. Putting one foot in front of the other, feeling my skin burn in cold sea water, trying to recall the names of the birds I see is an attempt to reunite myself.
Ali is a long-term Londoner and works in communications for a non profit.
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