Take a deep breath
Last Thursday, while waitressing, I started to feel ill. My manager told me that I looked terrible, which would have been offensive if it weren’t true. My eyes were bloodshot and my face was flushed. My whole body hurt and for what felt like the hundredth time in the past few months, I could not take a deep breath. I hurried home and curled up into a ball on my futon, ready to rush to the doctor in the morning.
I think I’ve been to Student Health more than most students. I would blame my immune system, but I think my mind is truly at fault. I am a hypochondriac. If my head hurts, I have cancer. If I’m hungover, I’m more than hungover — I have kidney failure. Dr. Connelly has diagnosed her only patient with lyme disease, celiac, asthma and stomach ulcers. I joke about my paranoia, but at the end of the day, I truly believe that there’s always something wrong with me.
Friday morning I found myself sitting on a hard-backed grey chair in a well-lit room. I explained to my nurse how I felt: “Just weird and bad. Oh and I can’t breathe.” I also offered my most recent theory. “This might be crazy, but I think I have carbon monoxide poisoning.” The nurse took my preface of “crazy” a lot more seriously than she did my theory.
“Have you ever seen a therapist?” she asked, looking like she wanted to reach out and pat my head. “Well, yeah,” I answered, figuring we’d move on to the whole blood testing thing. I calculated that I only had about 24 hours before the poison did some permanent damage. “Do you suffer from anxiety?” she continued. And I knew I was done for. I knew that before I’d be leaving with an oxygen mask, I’d be shipped off to the psych ward. I took a deep breath — which was not really a deep breath, and nodded my head. She sent me to another room to “speak to a doctor.”
The thing about anxiety is that it makes you feel, well, anxious. As soon as the nurse caught on to my real issue — the one not in my lungs, but in my head — she started asking about my history with anxiety. “How’s school? How do you feel? What does ‘normal’ feel like for you? How’s your breathing right now?” Well, not great, since you’re asking me all of these questions.
So I sort of made the connection right then, sitting in Student Health for an hour. I was surprised I hadn’t thought of it before. I wasn’t sick from carbon monoxide poisoning. I wasn’t really “sick” at all. I was anxious. So anxious that I made myself physically ill.
The doctor talked to me for all of five minutes before prescribing me Xanax. I stared at him. I said, “Oh, okay,” but I thought, “You’re trying to sedate me. Which is kind of awesome but also makes me feel like a nut job.” All I knew about Xanax was that my mother took it when we went on airplanes. And it knocked her out.
I’m not embarrassed or ashamed to admit that I’m a really, incredibly anxious person. The doctor told me that what I experienced Thursday was probably a panic attack. I sat in my car for 20 minutes after this hourlong consultation, wondering what was making me so anxious that I made myself sick. That I had to blame myself for my pain, not my leaking gas stove nor my gluten heavy diet, was kind of scary and sad.
I get a bit of a thrill out of being sick. When I get strep throat I put myself on bed rest and expect sympathy from my roommates. I love it when I lose my voice and can’t taste my food. It’s weird. It’s masochistic. But you know what’s harder than having a stuffy nose, an upset stomach, a lethargic, sore body? Realizing that you don’t have any of those things. Realizing that you can’t hide in your bed all day, that you have to move through life without the shield — the excuse that you aren’t acting a certain way, don’t look a certain way only because you’re sick.
I think every college student is anxious. Some probably handle their anxiety really well. Some probably handle it like I do — which is to say they don’t handle it at all. They come up with theories about why they don’t feel well. My carbon monoxide poisoning stood in for my week of midterms. Those weeks of gluten intolerance really just represented a rough patch with my boyfriend. I had “stomach ulcers” when I just didn’t want to get in a bikini.
I had work again last Friday night. After a day at the doctor’s, I was worried about feeling sick again. It was very crowded and I didn’t stop moving, serving, cleaning all night. One of the bouncers came in and laughed sympathetically at me running around the hectic dining room: “Take a deep breath.” And while the doctor’s diagnosis concerned me, the bouncer’s proposed solution to my current “sickness” didn’t seem so bad. No diet changes, no vitamins, no bed rest, no antibiotics. Just breathing. It’s just a theory, but I think that might actually work.
Connelly’s column runs biweekly Wednesdays. She can be reached at email@example.com.