B. Betty, RN

Full blown panic attacks by proxy of other people’s experiences can invoke PTSD, making it difficult to be a good nurse, a good friend, a good parent, a good wife, or good anything.

I think the chronic ringing in my ears is really the electric humming of my nerves. I’ve become so used to the white noise of my internal high pitches that when they do occasionally stop ringing, the silence is like a hole I fall into giving me vertigo. Like a transformer on a hot summer day, I bet I could shimmer and crackle in the right kind of light.

If I don’t text or call, if I make excuses for missing events or lunches, if I, god forbid, run into you and seem fidgety, distracted, sound curt or you notice me visually scan the room for an exit, if I can’t look you in the eye, it’s because I am anxious. I am ashamed of my anxiety. I am also super pissed at my goddamn anxiety. I am now more anxious knowing you know I’m anxious.

I am full to the brim of too much feeling, too much noise, too much stimuli, too much small talk, too much over-analyzing, too much nuance, too much double entendre, too much public posturing, too much shallow bullshit.

I have often been told, “Smile more.” I used to feel ashamed of my face and vowed to smile more and concentrate on looking “nicer.” I used to concentrate so hard on my face, I would forget what was being said and just stare blankly, awkwardly, appearing aloof, bitchy or stupid. It made me anxious. To avoid this anxiety, I now avoid circumstances where I need to look or be pleasant.

If I don’t look you in the eye, you can’t tell me to smile. I am not smiling because it’s all I can do not to flee. Sometimes it’s too much energy to scan areas for exits, to think up new creative reasons why I need to leave early, or why I didn’t show up. I’m anxious when I show up. I’m anxious when I don’t.

It comes and goes, these feelings of being too big for my skin, feeling too big for any given occupied space. Like a balloon over expanding and sucking all the air of a room, squealing in protest, I bouncing off surfaces until popping with a bang so violent, we all cringe involuntarily.

It has gotten exponentially better since I left the cult of healthcare where I was told that I’m am sole savior during my shift, solely responsible, and whole incompetent while other people’s lives are one hundred percent in my hands. If they survive, I’m lucky to keep my job. If they code, I either didn’t follow protocol or didn’t use my nursing judgement, or both. I’m also worth less than my training or paycheck and a quarter century of my best years. I was worth nothing but a 401k contribution. I was told I was lucky to be there, not worthy because my anxiety won’t let me do anything but attempt countless acts of proving that what I do and who I am have meaning.

I realize these days that I’ve always been anxious. I’ve always absorbed the emotions left behind in empty rooms. I could tell you if the last people there fought or cried. I chain smoked for something to do with my hands. If I took long sighing drags in a defiant stance with half lidded eyes, if I looked like a bad ass, people left me alone. I spent my teens and twenties battling bulimia. (That’s a lie. I didn’t battle it. I made it my life.) My nails have always been bloody nubs.

Since I have been old enough to drive,I have spent most of my days hidden behind causes greater than myself. I’ve rallied, protested, marched for those who were invisible or targeted because it was the only way I could in some convoluted way, fight for myself. Don’t tell me to smile while others are being oppressed. Don’t tell to smile when I am, in reality, my own fiercest oppressor.

Anger is the elixir of bravery for the chronically anxious. It is served by enabling bartenders who free pour the mixed sweet and bitter drinks of misconduct that invoke angry righteous indignation. Give me a double shot, on the rocks. Put it on my tab. Knowing full well I willingly linger until last call, paying no mind that the hang-over of anxiety and isolation is always payment for the liquid courage it takes to fight for others with the dark secret hope that maybe someday, an anxious stranger does the same for the times when even one small empty room has too much space filled with other people’s emotions.

There will be no peopling tomorrow. Once the kids are in school, I look forward to silence, goats, chickens and dogs. I need a deep breath. I need to inhale life that requires nothing from me but small bites of food taken eagerly from my outstretched hand. Where all that’ matters is my quiet presence of being without the human requirement of having to justify the use of communal oxygen.