Saturday, September 22, 2012

Breathe, Dammit

Well, there's been a bit of a wrench in the works this week.

I can't breathe.

Like, I can't fill my lungs completely and get a good, full, satisfying breath. It's been going on for a little over a week.

I am getting enough air to function. I am getting enough air. I keep telling myself that. I. Am. Getting. Enough. Air.

But it keeps drawing my attention, obviously, and once I'm thinking about it it gets worse, and when it get worse I start to freak out, and then I have to calm myself down all over again and remind myself: I can breathe. I can breathe. I am getting enough air.

This has happened to me before. A lot, actually. The first time, I remember, was right after I started dating T. Sometimes it continues, on and off, for a day or two, sometimes for a week or two. Sometimes it goes away for a year or more, other times it comes back every few months, just to keep me on my toes.

It's never been this severe, though.

I am yawning constantly, trying to force my lungs open. Sometimes I can't even get enough of a breath to yawn.

Last night, we were out to dinner with a friend and having a great conversation, and suddenly, right in the middle of things, I started to lose it-- something that has never happened before. I started to get dizzy and sweaty, like  I was hyperventilating, but I wasn't breathing heavily, I was struggling to get a full breath. 


I started envisioning ambulances, oxygen masks, a night in the emergency room. I was trying to keep my cool but my husband and friend both noticed and talked me down a little, and then sent me outside to walk around while they collected the kids.

I thought at the time that I would have freaked out completely if it had seemed a more convenient moment. That would be just like me: to have the iron will to repress even a full-blown panic attack rather than inconvenience the group.

I took a little Ambien last night and got the first deep, uninterrupted sleep I've had in a while (this has more to do with having two three-year olds than anything else), and woke up this morning breathing full and easy breaths.

Now, unfortunately, I am not. This is really getting old.

I've talked to Dr. Oz about this before, and showed her the spot in the center of my abdomen where things feel tight and restrictive.

"Those are your boundary muscles," she tells me every time. I never remember exactly what that means, but I've been thinking of it as a metaphorical term for my ability to open myself to change or vulnerability.

That tightness and restriction are my body's way of insisting: no, no way, keep out, move along, nothing to see here, we've got this, retreat, retreat! 

This shortness of breath often comes during times of high anxiety, although it doesn't always. At least, not anxiety that I'm aware of in any conscious way. I have no doubt that I experience all kinds of anxiety physically rather than emotionally, being as disconnected as I am. This breathing thing could be the result of an overloaded system, and I've just missed the early warning signs because those pathways don't work.

I would have thought that impossible before the whole "I can't communicate with my own legs" thing. Now, all bets are off.

Anyway, I've been examining this quite a bit, as you might expect. There isn't always a clear cause, but right now there are a few things that could be contributing to some particularly high anxiety.

First of all, I increased my dosage of Wellbutrin a few weeks ago. Doubled it, in fact. A dosage that's too high can cause anxiety.

But I've also had quite a bit of upheaval in my self-imposed low-stimulus life in the past week and a half, after the publication of that essay I told you about last week. Stepping out of the shadows and posting it was a big deal for me, first of all, and then there's the whole matter of having stated an opinion on the internet and subjecting oneself to public scrutiny.

That's been nerve-wracking, to say the least.

I've received many, many positive and supportive comments, which are wonderful and validating and definitely the coolest part of this whole thing. That stuff is overwhelming to me, being, as it is, outside of my very tiny little safety zone, but I can at least acknowledge that it's a positive thing and there's no risk in trying to take it in.

And then last Sunday, holy moly, my article got tweeted by Lenore Skenazy, she of "Free Range Kids" fame. She is the mouthpiece for the "anti-helicopter" movement, such as it is, and a very brave woman. She's had to endure death threats for standing up for her opinions on this subject. She is also the person who inspired me to think of the way I'm raising my kids as more than just instinct, but as a strategy. I thought of her when I was writing the essay. So imagine my shock and awe when I saw that she had not only read it, but tweeted it out into a much bigger world than I ever thought it would reach!

Lenore Skenazy. You have got to be KIDDING me.

So. Imagine the woman who freaks out when she has to make a phone call to someone she knows receiving THAT little piece of news, and you might get an idea of how overwhelmed I was at that point.

And then the number of shares I was getting exploded-- I had 1700 new shares the next day, and have had nearly that many again since then, bringing me up to a quite-respectable-for-this-tiny-local-website 4200 shares.

I'm speechless at that, I really am. This is by far the largest audience I've ever had for something I've written.

So there's all of that overwhelm, and then there's the kind that comes from the natural consequences of posting something online: the dissenters.

That one's been a little harder to deal with.

I haven't had very many negative comments, relatively, but there have been several, some of them pretty mean. This kind of thing throws off my careful equilibrium like nothing else. And although I've shortened my refractory period over the past week, each new negative comment does throw me for a while. 

That's the overwhelm that makes me wonder if I'm ready for this kind of exposure. Too late now, I suppose.

Since the breathing thing coincides with the posting of this essay, it could very well be the experiences of the past week and a half that are causing it. I hope so, actually-- a psychosomatic response is still a lot more malleable than a chemical one, even if it takes a while to get a handle on it.

And then there's the whole set of realizations from my conversation with Dr. Oz that I talked about in my last post. This could be the cause, as well-- or maybe it's the thing that filled my little tolerance cup to the brim, so that the very next thing that came along made it overflow. That happens.

Or maybe it's a combination of all of the above. I do tend to just keep pushing things under until they explode and pop out all over the place, so that could very well be what's happening now. Ugh. Whatever it is, I need to find a way to make it stop before I end up in the emergency room.

The other night my husband suggested that I try some trigger point massage to see if that had an effect. 

I don't know if you've ever tried trigger point massage, but you should. If you have any kind of pain issue-- anything at all, even if it's already been diagnosed and you feel certain that trigger point work will do nothing for you-- you should get The Triggerpoint Book, because it shows you how to do trigger point massage at home, and this stuff works better than any body work I have ever tried.

For real: this book changed my life, and my husband's, and my sister's. It's amazing.

It shows you how knots (trigger points) can form in your muscles that can cause referred pain in your body, sometimes in seemingly unrelated places. There's a great one in the back of your calf, for example, that can alleviate severe lower back pain that is often misdiagnosed as disc or sacroiliac trouble. I know, because I've done some work with that one, and seen my back improve in one day more than it did during five months of physical therapy.

Anyway, I was skeptical that trigger points could affect my ability to breathe, but I shouldn't have been. Trigger points affect EVERYTHING. So I took a look, and sure enough, there are a bunch of trigger points in the pectorals, the scalenes (along the side of the neck), and along the bottom of the rib cage that affect one's ability to draw a full breath.

And guess what? These particular trigger points are caused, variously, by severe whiplash, an imbalance in the way you hold your head, shallow rather than full belly-breathing, and emotional tension and anxiety.

Which, if you could look that up in a dictionary, would be exemplified by a picture of me.

So I've been poking around at these trigger points over the last couple of days. The helpful thing about this kind of body work is that you can tell if you need work on a particular point if it hurts (a LOT) when you poke it. If you're feeling around in an area and don't find a really tender spot, that's not the trigger point you're looking for. 

If it is, you will know. Immediately. This is not for the faint of heart, but man, does it make an immediate difference.

So I keep massaging the trigger points along my rib cage and below my collarbone, and I'm covered with bruises from all the pressing (I'm like a banana. And extremely pale. So this stuff shows on me). These are stubborn ones-- there's a lot of history here-- but they do seem to be helping a bit.

I want it to help a lot. It seems to address the problems I'm experiencing exactly, so I really want this to be effective. I'll let you know if I make any progress.

This post seems a bit disjointed, for me-- you know how I like a nice pretty bow at the end-- but I think I'll leave you here and go poke at my ribs some more. I'm self conscious that all my gasping and yawning is drawing attention to me here in the coffeeshop, and that is counterproductive to taming the anxiety.

Hopefully, I'll return next week with a belly full of air and a bruise-free abdomen!


  1. What you've been experiencing sounds a lot like panic attacks. Check out this site and see if you don't see yourself in the description.

  2. Dude.  Panic attacks.  They sound awful.  Much sympathy.

    On the other hand:  Lenore Skenazy tweeted about your essay!  That's phenomenal.  I've admired her work in "The Funny Times" for years.  Congratulations on getting validation from somebody whose work has meant something to you.  You should be very, very proud of (a) how you're raising your kids and (b) the way you've written about it.  

    Any powerful idea is going to detract dissent.  Some ideas are Kansas, flat and unremarkable (sorry, Kansas), and others are some wonderful little tree-covered mountain just outside of Chiang Mai.  People for whom Kansas is heaven are not going to want to climb up that mountain.  The fact that your shares have gone up so dramatically suggest that a lot of people are finding your work exciting and validating, and to hell with Kansas.  

    On your say-so, I just ordered the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook.  I've barely ever heard of trigger points, and am interested to find out more.