Okay, so I have a confession. I was that oddball in school who loved Shakespeare. No. Not all literature. I half-assed Spark Notes all the other required literature in school, but Greek tragedies, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare had me. I was also a nerd who loved the poetry unit. But as a poet, I can admit that 99% of those assigned poems were boring, overanalyzed and a complete waste of time. Anyway, while I thought Romeo and Juliet were idiots, I contemplated that one line in the play for years. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”
After contemplating this line for some time, I began to truly understand the influence of perspective and semantics. As a writer, I already had an appreciation for words, but Romeo and Juliet taught me that perspective was everything.
There is power in a name, in calling a thing a thing.
I remember the day I learned I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. It was odd, putting a word to the little quirks I had previously passed off as everything but what they were. And once the word was said, I realized I had never been okay.
Once the word was spoken aloud, I could not remember a time when I did not have anxiety. Then I realized doctors and I had danced around my anxiety for years. Until adulthood, it was never acute enough to diagnose. There was always something else. After all, I was a healthy, mostly happy, tenacious kid. So, it isn’t so far-fetched that random bouts of abdominal distress were passed off as fluctuating lactose intolerance. I mean, I really liked cheese, but cheese did not like me back. Tension headaches were attributed to allergies or having too much homework. Insomnia was overlooked because I have always been a night owl. Sporadic attacks of nightmares were correctly attributed to stress, but nothing more. And my favorite, the dizzy spells were not diagnosed as panic attacks because I was anemic and had always had low blood pressure.
It was, in fact, the timing and frequency of the dizzy spells that gave me the diagnosis.
The second year after my mother died was strange for me. In many ways, my sister and I had settled into our new lives, but starting high school and grad school seemed to throw us off balance. I went to the doctors no less than three times that year. Typically, I only need to go once for my annual physical. Yet, in 2009 I’d made multiple trips to my primary physician.
First, I had more backaches than usual and a few debilitating spasms. Between my primary and my specialist, they determined there was nothing different enough in the health of my back to warrant the severity of the spasms. So, I tried yoga and took more breaks at work. Then it was digestive issues that were diagnosed as stress. My doctor recommended a ten-mile run, to which I laughed hysterically and asked her if she would put a bear behind me first. I am not a runner. Not then, and definitely not now.
By the third visit, my doctor was giving me major side-eye. My stomach was getting worse, I wasn’t sleeping well, and I dreamed about zombies weekly. My hair began shedding like crazy despite drinking herbal tea, doing yoga, and adding more fun and quiet time to my schedule. It wasn’t alopecia, but my hair was dry, shedding, and completely unmanageable. And there was also sporadic tingling in my face and lips and a frightening number of dizzy and lightheaded spells.
Lightheaded must have been the trigger word because she shook her head at me. “Lady, you’re so much in control you won’t even allow yourself to faint.” To which I replied, “I do not faint. Why would I faint?”
My doctor then educated me on the signs of an impending blackout, and we talked through my other symptoms. And just like that, I knew that I had been battling panic attacks for years. It was crazy because the year before, my friend had been sent to the hospital twice for panic attacks. We’d talked about them extensively. Her job was stressful, and driving her crazy, causing her to have two panic attacks at work. Even as my doctor talked, I doubted that I was stressed enough to have panic attacks. Yes, my stomach hated me, and my hair was acting up, but panic attacks and blackouts seemed a bit farfetched and, dare I say, kind of dramatic.
Yet, the truth was undeniable. I have a vivid memory of slumping against the wall at home one night as a teenager. I remember needing space and wanting to get away so bad it bordered on desperation. Then I got dizzy, and my vision went dark for three terrifying heartbeats. My eyes were wide open, but I could not see, and my breathing became frantic gulps of air. I slid down the wall and focused on my breathing, whispering, “You’re okay,” to myself like a mantra. Just like that, it went away.
Anxiety and panic attacks.
Dr: You need to take care of yourself. Your body is telling you to make some changes. Running is cheaper than a gym membership, and you can do it whenever you need to relax.
Cece: I’m working out. Despite the crazy schedule, we’re still eating healthy.
Dr: Yes, but you are not relaxing. And you are holding on to everything that is bothering you. That’s why I keep telling you to run. Ten miles and you’ll be so exhausted you won’t be able to ruminate over all the things that are bothering you.
While I never did learn to like running, I did learn to pay attention to my body’s signals. It was like learning to the sounds of a car to be able to decipher which sounds were personality, and which were cause for alarm.
I learned there were three different meanings to tingles in my face. One was the excess positive energy after I meditated, wrote, or prayed. This happened infrequently and felt like joy. The second was alcohol-induced, and the third was anxiety. I learned the difference between tension, exhaustion, dehydration, and sinus headaches. And I learned that my dreams were the most accurate indication of my mental state.
The difficult thing is finding my limits and learning not to bump up against them. As this is obviously a moving scale, I discovered it was easier to learn to create balance so that I could stay centered as much possible. To be honest, I am still learning.
Sometimes determining triggers is like answering the chicken or the egg question. I do not always know what’s wrong. And I often find that, while rare, panic attacks can hit for no discernable reason, sometimes hours after the triggering event. It is as if the attacks serve more as a release of trapped, anxious energy than a response to a trigger.
I was working from home one Friday. The house was silent, and I was in the zone. All of a sudden, my whole body began to tingle and vibrate. My breathing shallowed, and I felt an intense urge to escape my own skin. I texted my coworker, who advised me to take a walk and text her when I returned. I thought I could wait it out, but my brain started scrolling through everything that wasn’t perfect in my life, and I began to panic. Eventually, after a walk and some soothing music, it passed. But the thing that frustrated me was that the day was actually very good until then. The rest of the week had been nerve-racking, but I was thoroughly enjoying my Friday.
My anxiety sometimes likes to create new fears just to keep me on my toes. We had a safety training when we moved into our new building. After the active shooter training, the security official discussed other safety hazards and showed accompanying videos. By the end of the 2-hour training, my coworkers were dismayed that our new floor plan left us like sitting ducks in an emergency. Meanwhile, I was rapidly developing a fear of house fires. The facilitator showed a news report about how quickly houses with synthetic fabric burned, and I was petrified. I could not focus at work, and could not sleep for days after viewing the video.
As a bonus, my brain is kind enough to use that new fear as the mechanism for keeping me awake when I’m stressed out. Fun fact, your Fitbit can record panic attacks.
Me: Oh my goodness, I have so much to do. I don’t know how I’m going to it all done on time.
Brain: Yes, and your house could burn down. After all, you use the dryer every week, right?
I cannot say that life has gotten easier since putting a name to my symptoms, but it has helped me better navigate my world.
Over the years, I have had to call out many other ailments, including depression, abandonment, perfectionism, fear, grief, burnout, and boredom. Each time was like opening the blackout curtains in a hotel room. I could finally see clearly.
The adage is true. The first step is to name it; admit that something is going on. Call it out. The name does not matter. You simply need to name it.
Contrary to belief, naming your obstacle does not give it power over you. Instead, it gives you context and a point of reference in which to work. It is hard to give power to something that already exists because its very existence holds some sway over you already.
When I was younger, my aunt suffered from chronic stomach pain and digestive issues. For years this pain and other symptoms would come and go, causing her to gain and lose weight and be miserable. Doctors did scopes, exploratory surgeries, there was a bowel resection, and at one point, she was on a feeding tube. It took them years to name the problem and treat it properly. Until then, she was always in pain, could not enjoy food, and missed a lot of days at work and time spent with her child.
Can you imagine how her quality of life may have improved if they could have named her condition sooner?
A rose by any other name would still be beautiful. I would still be me if my name was Sky. Yet, no matter the name, words have power. The real power is not in the word or meaning. The power lies in how the word is used. Saying the word anxiety as a means of explaining a cluster of symptoms is far different from using it as a shortcoming.
Whether it pertains to your mental, physical, or emotional health, just name it. Tell the truth and shame the devil. If you feel sad, say, “I feel sad.” Because once you can name it, you can take steps to handle it.
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood