By Angela Giles Patel
They always begin the same way: a sudden flash of heat is followed by a cascade of electricity that deftly makes its way through my body in a quick, cruel wave. As soon as it hits my collarbone, I feel my face begin to flush and immediately put my hand to my throat, a quick reflex to try to cool my neck, a strangely protective measure. Then the chill begins. I focus on breathing. I keep my hand at my neck. If I can feel a pulse beneath my skin, I am still ok.
The first attack occurred on May 29th, 2001, exactly thirty days after my sister died, twenty-four days after she was buried, seventeen days after I returned to the east coast, seven days after I went back to work and four hours into my workday. The official diagnosis for what I experienced was ‘air hunger.’ But I didn’t feel a hunger for anything. There was no sense of lacking something or of needing anything. I wasn’t hungry, I was being invaded. I was being overrun. Something was winding through me that I couldn’t control.
Until that moment, I honestly thought I had crossed through the worst of the pain.
My sister had died unexpectedly.
She was twenty-eight.
We buried her next to my father.
You can never prepare for hurt, and heartbreak can happen in small degrees or with a bang; when a part of my common history was lost, it was an explosion. After the initial shock, after the effort of the funeral, after the sharp edge of grief softened a bit, I tried to settle into the unkind quiet that followed. I didn’t understand that the quiet was white noise, masking a scream that hadn’t stopped.
Those first seven days back at work were hard. I kept hearing the same tidy phrases — ‘Life moves on.’ ‘It gets easier over time.’ ‘You must be relieved she didn’t suffer.’ I thanked people for their kindness. I answered questions about how my mom was doing and told them how I was doing. I was tired of being asked if I was ok. I was tired of saying that I was. The bathroom was my sanctuary. The locked stall door gave me a place to regain composure. Rather than talking to people about what had happened, I wanted to say
“Please stop telling me you are sorry for my loss.”
“Please don’t tell me I will eventually feel better.”
“Stop asking for details.”
Being gracious hurts.
But on that day I was forced into an understanding that I was nowhere near the boundaries of my grief and the topography before me was vast and shadowy.
I was at my desk, drinking coffee, and something in me gave way. I suddenly felt hot, then cold. My hands and feet felt frozen and heavy. A ripple of painful energy cascaded through my body. Then came an electric stab. An icy steel thread was rising from my core. Snaking its way through capillaries, veins, and arteries, it moved until both ends were straddling my chest where they began twisting together in a vicious double helix. Breathing felt unnatural. I was aware of a strange sensation in my fingertips. The back of my neck bristled. It seemed as though ice crystals were forming under my skin.
Objects around me that were familiar and clear just moments earlier took on muted tones. I had the impression that I was not fully present, that I was disengaging from my perceptions. I could see a dark cloud moving in at the edges of my peripheral vision. I was being closed off from the world and sealed in an unfamiliar place.
All of this happened in less than a minute and no one had noticed. I have only a hazy recollection of pushing my chair back and telling whoever was closest that I didn’t feel well, that I was going to my doctor’s office down the street. Insisting I could make it on my own, I stood up and headed to the elevator. I didn’t think to take anything with me.
As I left the building, my mind raced to determine what this experience was, to catalogue the sensations. I couldn’t, I had no frame of reference. The jolts of electricity kept coming and they were so painful that I would hold my breath. I had no idea what was happening to me. I was convinced this was how my sister felt just before she collapsed, so I knew I had to keep moving. For two blocks I moved, one foot in front of the other, determined to make it to the doctor’s office.
“This is not my day to die.”
“This is not my day to die.”
I had hit some unforeseen capacity for hurt. I was being redone by my own heartache. I was being refined by grief. Teeming with fear and an undeniable dread, each step forced me to acknowledge that I was now different.
The two blocks felt like two miles. I remember the hollow sound of my heels on the pavement and the satin lining of my skirt swooshing against my legs as I walked. I never wore that suit again.
Once inside the office, I held onto the counter, repeating to the registration attendant that I was not well. That I knew something was not right. That I had to be seen. I refused to move and they finally relented. I was escorted upstairs, placed in an evaluation room and told to wait.
I sat on the examination table and wrapped the fingers of my right hand over the edge just to have something of substance to hold. My left hand was keeping the plastic oxygen mask over my nose and mouth as I tried to take in steady and even breaths. I was asked a number of questions. My answers sounded muffled through the mask.
The doctor finished her assessment and told me that I was suffering from ‘air hunger.’ She said someone more experienced with ‘this type of thing’ was waiting for me upstairs in ‘Behavioral Health.’ I quickly realized that ‘air hunger’ was a phrase designed to calm, that ‘this type of thing’ was meant to make what I was feeling seem normal, and that ‘behavioral health’ was another way to say I was far more broken than I knew. And I was.
I was so broken that the person I had been before my sister died didn’t exist anymore. For a month I had tried to cope by doing a crude imitation of myself. I was just going through the motions and acting enough like my old self that I thought people might stop asking how I was. I couldn’t answer that question. I had no idea.
I assumed that if I faked it long enough, the fake part would become real and I would be ok. If I could slip into old routines, I could become my old self. At the time, I didn’t know that the dull ache and constant feeling of nausea that began the night my mother called to tell me my sister collapsed and died was just the beginning. I was emotionally altered. I was psychologically altered. I was physiologically altered. While the world moved on, parts of me were now fixed in the singular moment when I lost more than I ever comprehended having.
I had been rattled to the core.
I still am.
The attacks continue.
I cannot predict when they will occur.
I should be more used to them now, but every time they start, I come back to the same astonishing realization: warm blood really can feel like it is running cold. This unnerving sensation puts me more on edge. I am here but not here. When they begin, I become my own shadow again, cast long and dark by a hot sun, looking for definition at the edges, and all I can do is try to be focused and composed until it fades.
I was told later that I have acute general anxiety disorder, brought on by the trauma of my sister’s death. This diagnosis feels as clinical as the initial assessment felt trite. But I like unintentional elegance of ‘air hunger.’ From the moment she died, I did have a hunger. I hungered for my sister. I hungered for time to wind itself backwards. I hungered to relive moments that were insignificant when they happened, but had become tinged with regret. I hungered to fill the hole inside me. I still do.
Angela Giles Patel has had her work appear in The Healing Muse as well as on The Nervous Breakdown and The Manifest-Station. She tweets as @domesticmuse, and when inspired updates her blog, Air Hunger. She lives in Massachusetts where she conquers the world, one day at a time. She is one of the editors of The Manifest-Station.