The Body, Electrified
“Have you ever loved the body of a woman?”—Walt Whitman
I. Green Tea Extract: “L-theanine, commonly found in green tea, provides strong calming effects and can be used to combat anxiety and stress.”—Anxiety.org
When I was nine my mother set out to find me the perfect pet. Unfortunately the winter of ‘99 was bitterly cold, and not a good time to scout for baby animals. Puppies were in short supply, and deemed too high maintenance for a nine-year-old to tend to. Before my mother settled on a grey tabby kitten (who would one day ruin a Christmas tree and tear open my collarbone in a devilish display of skill), bunnies were discussed.
My mother grazed her small fingertips down a glass pet store display. Behind the glass, two fat rabbits quivered, their brown ears slicked back like a greaser’s hair.
“Bunnies are small and quiet,” she remarked to her then-best-friend, Jenny.
Jenny grew grave. She reached out to stroke one of the rabbits, who flinched away from her touch.
“Rabbits don’t make good first pets for children. If you pick them up the wrong way and scare them, they can die.”
My mom frowned, no doubt imagining me sobbing into a dead bunny. “Why? Are they that fragile?”
“Their hearts stop,” Jenny said, “They beat and beat and then give out.”
Tentative now, my mother pulled her hand out of the bunny enclosure. In a few short years her friendship with Jenny would also end, just as painfully and suddenly as a rabbit’s heart. “Let’s go look at the cats.”
I wonder sometimes what would have happened if my mother had bought the rabbit. If she had lowered a small grey puffball into my arms, its heart beating a staccato rhythm against my chest. Would the shock of recognition have silenced me? Here was a small creature, its heart beating wildly, fear glazing its dark eyes. It, too, is never quite calm. It, too, startles in the night, the sound of its own breath damp and heavy in its ears.
II. Melatonin: “Consider melatonin sleep help for occasional insomnia…”—hopkinsmedicine.org
At fourteen, it starts as a restlessness. Some burning thing inside me compels me to go, to move, to do. From there, it moves into sleeplessness. It’s as though my brain is a glistening light and moths beat and beat and beat against it.
I write by the cracked light that comes through my bedroom door on a yellow steno pad. I pretend to go to the bathroom and curl up in the tub, reading a book, listening for the sounds of my parents approaching in the dark. I lay in bed and cup my elbows close, singing: camp songs, hymns, choral pieces I learned at school.
My brain is both a comfort and the problem—an endless jungle gym of thoughts, a great tree that I climb and climb as it sprouts more branches, into oblivion.
My mother hears me singing one night and opens the door. “You have to go to bed now, it’s late.”
I want to sleep, I almost say. I want to tell her that the moths keeping me awake have turned to sparrows, circling my head, beating their wings. Soon they will be crows, muttering in the darkness. Their feathers slicing the air with tiny puffs of sound.
III. Hydroxyzine: “Hydroxyzine is used for the short-term treatment of nervousness and tension that may occur with certain mental/mood disorders…”—rxlist.com
I dig my fingernails into my forearms. When you’re panicking, no one tells you how it can feel like you’re dying, your heart crumpling like a crushed pomegranate, your breath leached away.
“Twenty minutes, twenty minutes, twenty minutes,” I mutter to myself. I’m twenty one, and it’s a familiar benediction, a promise to myself. Twenty minutes is the length of the average panic attack. I’m not really dying. I’m just waiting for the dying sensation to cease.
This time, I actually have a reason to be frightened. Somewhere out in the sticky summer night, my ex is roaring around turns in his souped up silver car, getting angrier with each Hot Chip song that blasts through his speakers. He’s been texting me invectives all day, as frightening as they are unoriginal. “You’ve ruined my life.” “You stupid bitch.” “Fucking whore.”
He’s a screamer, a beer bottle thrower, a convert to his own cult of genius. Thankfully, I have a few secret weapons. My best friend Laura takes me upstairs to the highest room of the dirty, clapboard house and sits with me. She hands me a round white pill; I take it solemnly, like it’s a communion wafer.
It takes a few minutes, but relief comes in a wave of dizzying blue. My breathing slows. I am confused, dizzy, and exhausted, but the hammering in my chest has stopped. Laura tucks me in like I am a child.
The three anarchists who live in the house with Laura and I sit out on our concrete porch. Steven, the angriest, finds a baseball bat. Ian, the scariest, props his feet up on a lawn chair. They wait.
Only the next morning, once I pull myself from a corpse-like sleep, do they tell me how he roared past the house in his silver car. How they stood up all at once, hearts hammering in their chests. How his red tail lights disappeared at the end of the street, and didn’t turn back.
IV. Meditation: “...meditation can significantly reduce anxiety in patients with generalized anxiety and depression disorders.”—pyschologytoday.com
My body is staging a rebellion. My heart leads the charge, stuttering, screaming out speeches of dissent from between my ribs. Lungs are so gullible; they follow wherever the heart leads. Mine breathe shallowly, like they are treading water, unsure about the business of breathing.
“You can’t be anxious in a relaxed body,” one therapist advises me gravely. They give me a meditation CD. I try it once and then discard it. They give me a different one. I find it years later, untouched, at the bottom of a suitcase.
I download the Headspace App. It sends me reminders every day at eight AM. I ignore them. When I do try to meditate, my thoughts scatter in a thousand directions like droplets of water. My heart rate increases. I think about every single thing I’ve ever done wrong.
I used to think that if I sat still too long, something would come for me out of the depths of my subconscious. A leviathan uncoiling—a frightening truth that was never supposed to emerge.
I meditated with a beautiful girl once in front of a Hindu shrine. It was decked in magnolias, surrounded by a grove of proud bamboo. I don’t think I can be blamed for my lack of focus, then. Her arm rested only a few inches from mine, the air electric between us. I snuck glances at her as her chest rose and fell, the sunlight throwing gold on her dark hair.
V. Theophostic Counseling: “(Ed) Smith says people are being delivered from phobias, depressions, anxiety disorders, obsessive–compulsive disorders... post-traumatic stress disorders, and homosexuality through Theophostic principles.”—wikipedia.org
I am nineteen. I cannot sit still. My hair forms a dark aureole around my face, frizzy and unwashed—the opposite of a halo. My eyes are the bottom of an algae lake where no life can thrive.
My parents whisper behind closed doors: Nervous breakdown. Withdraw from college. What to do? I curl up on the kitchen floor and gasp for breath. Fish out of water. Secret keeper. Rainbow daughter. My mother clutches the crown of my head and tries to cast demons from me. I weep. Her hands shake. She avoids my eyes.
Finally, my father drives me up a twisted, tree-lined drive, to a Victorian house on a hill. Inside, Marsha and Dave place their papery hands on my shoulders and brow (don’t touch me, leave me alone). We are alone in an inner room, surrounded by bibles.
“Have you been impure? Are you still pure in the eyes of the Lord?” Marsha asks.
“You’ve been given the gift of mercy,” Dave murmurs.
As they anoint my head with oil from Jerusalem and begin to speak in tongues, I wait to feel something. Mercy. Relief. The lightning strike of divine intervention, zinging down my spine.
They remove a crucifix from the wall and try to cast the demon of depression out of me. I endure. I tell them nothing. I count the heartbeats in my fingertips—hold my hands in front of me in a semblance of prayer.
VI. Diet: “...specific foods have been shown to reduce anxiety.”—health.harvard.edu
I eat walnuts and flaxseed and spinach, a rabbit’s diet. My hands shudder as I cut the salmon into four pieces, baptize it with sage and lemon pepper. I nibble on dark chocolate, choke on cashews, eat high fiber and brew myself four cups of pomegranate green tea a day.
I buy special tea in brown paper bags. Lemongrass. Chamomile. Bitter brew, steaming cup after steaming cup. Choke it down. I lick clean a plate full of shame, swallow the lime and ginger taste of my self-loathing. I think about the things I would do if I didn’t have this loud and frightening creature trapped inside of me. I would drink coffee in the evening. Gorge myself on sleep and silence. Sip and sip and sip on oxygen, until I was sure I always had enough to spare.
VII. Exercise: “Depression and anxiety symptoms often improve with exercise.”—mayoclinic.org
“Running might really help you,” my sweet lady doctor advises. She has dreadlocks and speaks lovingly of her old life in Colorado. “That’s what I do, when I’m anxious.”
I strap on my tennis shoes and resolve to try it, because my doctor is cute and earnest. The problem is, I feel like I can’t outrun it, no matter how hard I try. My heart rate skyrockets as I beat my heels against the concrete. My thoughts circle furiously above, a murder of crows. Waiting for me to say when.
VIII. Acceptance: Mantra a therapist gave me: “I am more than my anxiety. My anxiety does not define me.”
I’m saying when. I’m saying what, and how, even if I don’t know why. This is the body I work in, the skin I wear. Its rebelling today, quiet tomorrow. Now I lay me down to sleep, but no, now it’s three AM and I am learning to read instead of pace, to sing instead of weep. To say: Okay. Okay. Today, we are a rabbit, our heart fit to burst. Tomorrow, lion. Tomorrow, a bird that defies gravity, and leaves every heavy thing behind.
So take these nerves that sing like plucked piano strings, take these bones that ache whenever they taste the air fill with rainwater. Take the tiny craters I’ve picked into the whorls of my fingerprints. Take the rosebuds blooming inside my mouth from where my teeth have not been tender. Take my neck muscles that are as gnarled and tight as a coastal pine.
I am in a state of rebellion, fires burning in the city of my body as I listen to its song. It’s electric. It’s gritty. My body is saying: We’re alive, even in staccato. We are beating and beating and beating until we go out.
Laurel Dixon lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing at Oregon State University. She has been published in The Southampton Review, Pollen, and New Limestone Review, among others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and recently received second place in the Frank McCourt Memoir Contest.