Remembering to breathe

*Trigger Warning – mental illness, self-injury*



tattooI was 4 years old when I had my first panic attack. I didn’t know what it was. I just knew that I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I continued to have panic attacks throughout my childhood and teen years not knowing what they were. I’d try to explain them to people . . . . how words and even thoughts would start sounding funny, like they were speeding up and slowing down at the same time and how my heart would beat and the world would just feel wrong. They never understood. It wasn’t until I was 21 that I finally had a therapist put a label on what I was feeling.

She put labels on me too – generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. It was kind of terrifying to hear those words. It was also incredibly liberating. You mean I’m not just some wacky freak show? There are, like, other people who deal with this too? And I can get better? It won’t always be like this?!


I was 14 years old the first time I cut myself on purpose. I think that’s a really unfathomable thing for a lot of people. The idea of self-harm doesn’t compute. For those of us who do or have self-injured, it makes sense in a way that can be very difficult to explain. Our reasons vary, our triggers vary . . . . but there’s a thread that connects us . . . . that makes the unfathomable not only fathomable but natural.

When I was 17, I started my first period of recovery. I didn’t self-injure for nearly 5 years. After that relapse, it was another 6 years before I would do it again. Since then I have started calling myself a “(mostly) recovering self-injurer.” I seem to fall every couple of years . . . . . sometimes just once, sometimes several times over a few weeks . . . . and then I pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep on going.

I almost fell a couple of weeks ago. It’s been a rough summer, and for about a week, I forgot to take my medication. It was completely out of my system by the time I started again, which means it needed to build back up. Anxiety and depression overwhelmed me. Since finding the right combo of psychophramaceuticals, I’ve been a completely different person . . . . . I’ve almost felt “normal” (in the functional-can-do-“normal people”-things kind of way, not the no-longer-a-total-geek-and-weirdo kind of way, which would be totally boring). Losing that “normal person” feeling was a crash I haven’t felt in a very long time. And I wanted to burn myself.

Around 12:30am, I went for a walk. After about 30 minutes, I found myself at a Wawa. I contemplated my purchase the entire way. I walked in, sweating, sore, and tired. I knew I’d have to walk home. I live in the suburbs now and the buses actually stop running at a certain time every night. I grabbed a soda and cheese and grapes. I still hadn’t made a decision. I made my way to the register . . . . and bought a pack of cigarettes (with matches) instead of a lighter (I quit a year and a half ago).

I consider that a success.


I’m 36 years old now. My diagnoses have been changed and tweaked over the years. The specific labels are not incredibly important on their own, but they are a part of my self-identity, and that makes them important. I have depression, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. I’ve been seeing the same therapist for more than 2 years. I’m on the just right combo of meds (now that I’ve readjusted back on them). Overall, I feel pretty damn good.

But I still have my moments . . . . the ones that make it difficult to get out of bed, not because I’m tired but because the idea of facing the world is just way too much pressure. I have my moments when the idea of speaking to another human being makes me want to crawl into a cave and become a hermit.

It’s in those moments that I need to remember to breathe.

Yesterday, I got a new tattoo to remind me to do just that. Many of you may already be familiar with the Semicolon Tattoo Project. The idea is that semicolon is used when a period would be sufficient, but the author decides to pause and keep the sentence going instead of ending it. That’s my reminder – to pause and breathe. In addition to the semicolon, I got the word “Love,” also a symbol of mental health awareness inspired by To Write Love On Her Arms. It has added special meaning to me because we used an old Christmas card to get “Love” in my mom’s handwriting. (Last week was 20 years since she died.)

I also found out last night that yesterday was National Suicide Prevention Day, which just makes this all the more fitting.

This tattoo is more than a piece of ink on my arm. It’s even more than my reminder to breathe and a tribute to my mom. It’s a catalyst. I have big things coming . . . . and this time, I won’t get distracted, and I won’t make excuses.

Life is too important. *I* am too important.

Emotional overload and poetic symmetry in numbers

Numbers 2I have a thing for numbers. I like even numbers . . . . and numbers that end in 5 . . . . and palindromic numbers . . . . and prime numbers. I like poetic symmetry in numbers. My mom (who died when I was 16) was born on January 18th (1-18). My daughter was born on November 8th (11-8). I chose my phone number way back when because the last 4 digits rearrange to form the year my mom was born.

My obsession with numbers carries over into an obsession with dates. I calculated the day in which I would have lived more of my life without my mom than I had lived with her (it was September 19, 2011 – about a month after my 32nd birthday). The following August, I turned 33 – the age my mom was when she died. When I turned 34 the next year, I was officially older than my mom. These were all extremely difficult days for me, and I acknowledge that I mostly created them for myself. It’s what I do.

This year will be another particularly difficult year. It’s one of those 0 anniversaries – On September 4th my mom will have been dead for 20 years. I can say “dead” now. I feel like I’m sugar-coating when I say “passed away,” not that it doesn’t still slip out a lot. Dead is real . . . . it’s what it is. She’s dead. She’s not coming back. 20 years is a really long fucking time . . . . and I (hopefully) have a hell of a lot longer to go. It really sucks.

I also just moved this past Sunday . . . . for the 20th time in my life so far. See? Poetic symmetry. Moving is always difficult. I come across pieces of my mom – pictures, trinkets, old greeting cards, stuffed animals, her social security card, her 5th grade report card, you get the idea – and I hurt all over again. I relive all of it. The pain leading up to the hospital visit. The misdiagnosis of a compression fracture. Her holding my hand while the doctor told me it was cancer. The 4 months of treatments and late night vomiting and oxygen machines and hair loss and morphine-induced delusions and, of course, the morning she died. Most days I can think about my mom’s life without thinking about her death. I can’t seem to do that when I’m moving.

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There’s more numerical poetic symmetry to this move. Maybe it’s not exact, but it’s pretty damn close . . . . . The day my mom died is the day I told my dad that I did not want to live with him and was instead moving in with my aunt and uncle. And on Sunday, I moved in with my dad. It’s weird. It’s a mutually beneficial situation. I can save some money; he gets live-in help with my 10-year-old sister. And I think this is a really good opportunity for us to connect to each other. But it’s still weird to be nearly 36 years old and living with my dad . . . . . and to have it be almost exactly 20 years since I told him I didn’t want to live with him makes it even more weird.

The past few days have been overwhelming. Moving is stressful all by itself. To add all of the extra emotional bits . . . . not helping. I was standing in my new room for a grand total of 3 minutes before I had a panic attack. And there has been little to no sleep, which has left me in a consistent haze. I’ve fallen asleep sitting up several times over the past few days. I don’t do that. I need a dark room (or natural light) and my bed or the couch and at least 2 pillows and a blanket even if it’s hot.

I hated my house, but I am finding myself missing *my* shower and my space and my routine and my access to public transit. I thought all of the prep leading up to this would help me cope with the changes. I was wrong.

BoxesOn the bright side, I can hopefully build a better relationship with my dad. We’ve never been very close (potentially the understatement of the year), and there are still resentments that linger. This is a great opportunity to move past them. I also get to spend more time with my sister, which is awesome. My daughter is ecstatic. I’m around the corner from my best friend since 5th grade. And apparently, if a package arrives when I’m not home, nobody will steal it. That’s pretty cool.

I’m trying to focus on all of that. I really am. And then I sit down in my tiny lil’ room, and I look at my life in boxes, and I wonder if I’ll ever find a “forever home.” And then I knock on wood and cross my fingers and hope that my final move doesn’t end up as an odd number.

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