There are many strange and scary things happening in the world right now which have caused a ball of anxiety to take up residence in the centre of my ribs. Sometimes it gets quite large and obnoxious, amplifying the sound of my heartbeat and making it impossible for me to take a deep breath. At other times it shrinks into the background, not forcing itself into my conscious mind but always there if I inadvertently happen to think about it.
The pandemic is undoubtedly unfamiliar, but the tense and unsettled feeling in my chest is not. There have been two other times in my life when I have felt this level of protracted anxiety. The most recent happened in 2014 when I endured two years of searing nerve pain, unrelenting nausea and intractable insomnia. I was mostly convinced these were all side-effects of my cholesterol medication, but nervousness and dread became my constant companions since there was no way to be absolutely sure that this was the case.
The most worrisome of these symptoms was the pain. I was diagnosed with small nerve neuropathy by a doctor of internal medicine and he warned me that nerves which had been damaged as extensively as mine, with persistent burning over my entire body, would take at least two years to repair themselves. The doctor’s words became my mantra as I waited for the pain to lessen, reminding myself to be patient and trust that my nerves were truly on the mend. The knot of anxiety above my sternum meanwhile had formed a feed-back loop with my amygdala. My brain would float the idea that I actually had fibromyalgia and was doomed to suffer the rest of my life, signalling the ball in my chest to tighten, which in turn strengthened the perception that my pain would last forever, and round and round it would go. This horrible cycle eventually dissipated along with the pain, and I was overjoyed the day I noticed them both gone. As terrible as this experience was, it did leave behind one lasting gift – I now consciously feel grateful for my good health every single day I feel well, which thankfully is most of the time.
The first time I experienced persistent anxiety in my chest was some twenty three years ago when my marriage fell apart. I began dating my future husband Douglas when I was an insecure 17 year old, overjoyed to be embarking on my first adult relationship. In the beginning he was highly attentive and admiring, drawing me in with flattering words and fond looks. Soon he had me completely besotted, and then his true nature emerged. Like all narcissists he became controlling and manipulative, often withholding his affection and heaping me with scorn, but eventually doling out just enough kindness to keep me hooked. I was like a fish on a line and he the master angler, repeatedly giving me sufficient slack to fool me into believing I was autonomous, then violently reeling me in if I become too independent in thought or action. Being the victim in an abusive relationship is like being held hostage; you simultaneously love and fear your captor, and they keep you in this unbalanced and enthralled state by continuously undermining your sense of self, making the mere thought of leaving seem impossible.
Douglas and I eventually had two children, and as they got older I began to have concerns about how he treated them. He would play with them when he felt like it, but if they approached him when he wasn’t in the mood he became disproportionately annoyed and dismissive. Over time I began to notice my children, Max in particular who was 6 at this point, looking more and more dejected and upset as their innocent requests for attention were rejected with increasing aggression. Eventually I came to recognize that the pain I was seeing in their eyes was a reflection of my own, and I decided I needed to save all three of us from this man.
I didn’t come to this decision all at once, but rather over time and with the help and support of my therapist and some very good friends. Douglas petulantly moved to another bedroom when I finally worked up the courage to suggest we should divorce, and then began an aggressive campaign to try and convince me to stay. It wasn’t that he loved me or couldn’t live without me, he was simply furious that I had made a decision without him and that he would now have to suffer the humiliation of a broken marriage. Narcissists need to be perceived by everyone, friends and strangers alike, as commanding, competent and above all, absolutely in charge. The dissolution of a marriage is a highly public and totally undeniable failure.
His strategy was to badger me into submission using dire predictions of how horrible my life would be without him: I was too stupid to make it financially, I was too fat to ever attract another man, and I was too inept to effectively raise two children alone. When I remained resolute in the face of this abuse, Douglas decided to change tack. Up to that point he had mostly made sure our children were out of earshot when he yelled at and belittled me, but now he began doing so right in front of them. I assume he thought I would agree to stay if he would just stop traumatizing the kids, but this new behaviour only strengthened my determination to get the hell away from him. I quietly endured his fury knowing that eventually he would realize the futility of his vitriol. At some point he would turn the whole situation around until it seemed as though the idea of getting a divorce had been his in the first place, a maneuver I had seen him employ numerous times throughout our marriage.
That is exactly what happened a few months later, and now that he had gained control of the situation things began to move forward. He decided to keep our marital home which was fine with me because I couldn’t wait to get away from a place laden with years of unhappy memories. He got the house appraised by a friend who undervalued the property by a good $10,000, but I was so desperate to get out that I took what was offered and used it as downpayment on a small bungalow. By now I was emotionally exhausted and decided to visit my cousin in Seattle for some R and R, and to try and alleviate the angst and sadness that were crushing my sternum. On the Wednesday of my week away I got two phone calls; the first was from my real estate agent saying that my new house had closed and I could move in at the end of the month, and the next was from Douglas telling me that he had gone to the hospital the previous day suffering from severe shortness of breath and the doctors had found a grapefruit sized tumor behind his heart. As soon as I hung up on that second conversation the fear and tension which were just beginning to dissipate again took up residence in my chest, crashing in like a pair of obnoxious and unwelcome houseguests .
It turned out that Douglas had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a form of cancer which is highly treatable in children but pretty well a death sentence for adults. He never told me his prognosis but my sister-in-law, an oncological nurse, advised me that most people with A.L.L. usually died in less than a year. Unsurprisingly this information caused my anxiety to ratchet up several notches.
I moved out of Douglas’s house shortly after returning from Seattle, and no sooner had I left then he started dating an eccentric new-age woman named Brenda. She liked to do weird things like lie in holes in the yard to get closer to mother earth, and stand outside on clear nights and howl at the moon. My 4 year old daughter Hannah took an immediate shine to Brenda because she smelled nice – she reeked of patchouli, a scent I cannot tolerate to this day – and wore brightly coloured chunky jewelry.
My son Max on the other hand instantly disliked her. He found all her new-age antics off-putting and embarrassing, and was annoyed and confused that a strange woman was sleeping in his parent’s bed mere weeks after his mother had left. I think he also sensed that his dad was dying and resented having this odd woman hanging around when any visit with his father could be the last. Douglas insisted on having Brenda there whenever the kids came over despite Max and I both asking him not to, (“No 7 year old’s going to tell me who I can have in my fucking house!” were the exact words he shouted at me on the subject) and over time Max decided he didn’t want to go. I then had to determine whether it was better to honour Max’s request to stay at my place even though he might later resent me for denying him precious moments with his dying father, or to make him see his dad in the limited time that was left despite how uncomfortable he felt with Brenda hovering about. Eventually I chose the latter. I experienced terrible guilt and doubt whenever I left Max on his father’s porch, with the coil in my chest tightening a little every time I drove away and watched his sad figure receding in my rearview mirror.
Things continued in this fashion for the ten months it took for Douglas to succumb to his disease. I had always assumed that facing the end of one’s life would bring a person clarity and make even the worst among us realize the error of their ways, like Ebenezer Scrooge after his night with the spirits. The truth is that people become exponentially more like themselves when they are dying, so rather than transforming into a man displaying compassion and a generous heart as I had hoped, Douglas simply became unabashedly selfish and mean. He rebuffed in the most callous and unkind way anyone who questioned his decisions or behaviour, including his brother, his parents, and my brother, who had been his best friend since boyhood. My heart bled for each of them as they were successively dismissed and discarded by a man they loved. In his last few months Douglas surrounded himself with an entourage of toadies who were willing to bow to his every whim, most of whom he neither liked nor respected – the narcissist demanding absolute compliance and adoration to the bitter end. I was of course sad for those who loved him when he died, my children in particular, but my overwhelming emotion on hearing the news was one of relief. He could never hurt me or anyone I loved again.
It took many years and a great deal of hard psychological and emotional work for me to fully get past the trauma of this experience, but in time the anxiety it caused did dissipate and in its wake left a more compassionate and open heart. My hope is that things will resolve in a similar fashion when this pandemic is over, only rather than just awakening one individual to the over-arching need for love and forgiveness, it will bring millions to this realization. Imagine if our shared fight as a species lays bear the stupidity of tribalism and the absurdity of prejudice. Imagine if we finally learn that every life is precious and we are all in this together. Imagine.