As I move through this journey into my new life, I’ve tried to write and document my experience along the way. Not only because writing helps me to process the whirlwind of experiences that is happening, but also because I feel the need to share my story, and what insights I have gained, with others. Because I need people to start looking at their lives, and our culture, and really look. Because we all need to make some changes, before it’s too late.
Hindsight is 20/20. Such a cliché but sometimes it’s necessary to start there because sometimes clichés are the only things that make sense. Let me start with a few other things that make sense.
Long QT can be caused by (to name just a few things) 1) extreme physical stress and trauma 2) certain antibiotics or antihistamines (which probably explains why benadryl always made me feel crazy) and 3) electrolyte deficiencies, or the body missing certain processing pores that allow your heart to absorb and transfer these nutrients.
While I never took more than the very occasional benadryl, I’m focusing on the other two bullet points because they’re highly relevant to my story.
Just a few short years ago, I started having what I thought were near weekly panic attacks. I would go to bed with my brain whirring with all the things I had left to get done before the end of that week, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night feeling like a giant sat on my chest. I couldn’t breathe and nothing I did helped. No amount of child’s pose, or relaxing baths, or meditation, or trauma therapy or yoga helped. Nothing. I would sit bolt upright out of a dead sleep, feeling like I was suffocating.
I was working at a job at a university that was incredibly high stress. So high stress in fact, that I often found myself in tears after work over how much work I did that day and how much work I still had left to do. Because no amount of work I did in 50-60 hour work weeks was ever enough.
The problem was, there was absolutely no one else at work to help me. Singlehandedly, while still relatively new to the job, I was doing the work of what used to be a staff of six experienced employees (some who’d worked there for decades) and a handful of student office assistants. One of the ladies had quit unexpectedly, the others had slowly retired away before I was brought on board, and my boss absolutely refused to hire any more help. I begged for months and was told repeatedly that I just didn’t know how to handle stress. I tried employee counseling, talking to HR and still heard the same tune. The message was clear according to my employers: I was not working hard enough and I didn’t know how to handle stress.
I planned and executed, singlehandedly, roughly 15 events per year, wrote, edited, designed and managed printing for the annual newsletter, website content, quarterly e-newsletters, handled student and faculty travel arrangements and approvals, credit card payments and reconciliations, basic accounting, social media accounts, filmed seminars, photographed events, answered questions for 20 faculty and 120 students, ordered lunches, arranged student presentations, attended meetings, managed office assistants and interns, entered student appointments, coordinated scholarships, etc. My bare bones task list for just 1 of the 15 events I planned each year was over 6 pages long, single spaced. That event alone used to have roughly 8 people running it, with plenty of student assistants and volunteers. Now it was just me. With no one around to help.
There were certain event days where I was literally sprinting around with my laptop in one hand and a camera in the other because I was trying to simultaneously put out fires, order faculty lunch for the next meeting, take photos, coordinate with speakers and check email at the same time. My boss once told me that a severe car crash was no excuse to not order faculty lunch that day.
Not to mention all the cruelty and criticisms and sexism and elitism I encountered within academia and had to deal with on a daily basis through a barrage of emails, people ignoring the significance of a closed door, and just plain rudeness.
That’s just the brief summary of that job. Not even scratching the tip of the iceberg. I once wrote down everything I did in the office and it covered pages and pages in a college sized notebook, written in teeny tiny print squashed two lines between each ruler line.
So yes, I was freaking stressed. Yes I felt overwhelmed. Yes I felt completely justified in my weekly cry sessions. That’s when what I thought, or rather, completely dismissed, as panic attacks, began.
Panic attack after panic attack after panic attack after panic attack. The attacks went on several times per month, month after month.
Only now I realize, in light of everything that’s happened recently, that they WEREN’T panic attacks.
I was having miniature cardiac episodes, multiple times per month. I hospitalized myself from severe dehydration, because my body wasn’t processing nutrients like it should. Due to stress, my body had basically shut down and was completely freaking out. Yet my boss told me that I wasn’t working hard enough and that I didn’t know how to handle stress. And everyone else around me told me I just had to pay my dues, and that was part of it.
Let’s talk about what’s fucked up in that scenario, aside from the obvious.
My body was screaming at me that something was wrong. Yet I shushed it like an angry librarian, convinced I wasn’t doing enough to please. Busting my ass and literally, not-so-slowly as it turns out, killing myself for work. Trying to make people like me, trying to please my employers, trying to do a good job. And feeling, almost every moment of every day, like a complete and total failure.
Instead of recognizing the bad situation for what it was, I tried to focus on stress management. Which, with the help of my supervisor, I was convinced I was not any good at. It was obviously some moral flaw on my part and nothing to do with the inherent shittiness of the situation. I threw myself into yoga. Into meditation. Into taking walks at my lunch break. Into riding my bike more to work. Thinking that maybe exercise could help calm me down. Induce a more zen-like state. Help me better manage my stress.
But the problem is, if your body can’t absorb electrolytes properly and you increase your exercise, well, that’s exactly the opposite of what you need to do to prevent Long QT from becoming a serious problem.
My “panic attacks” grew increasingly worse.
I couldn’t talk to anybody about them because I knew (or I thought I did) what they were from. Years of sexual and physical abuse. A domestically violent relationship. Terrifying encounters and near escapes. Extreme poverty and overwork and near-starvation as I struggled to pay bills and make enough money to live. It was the experience of nearly every millennial woman in the midst of a horrific economic depression. Why should I feel sorry for myself? I wondered.
Let’s break all this down for a minute. The pain and seriousness that comes when we dismiss our own experiences and shut down our intuition. When we start to think that panic attacks, that not being able to breathe, that sobbing repeatedly from complete overwhelm are NORMAL. When we start thinking that meals and liquids are optional depending on our workload.
The truth is, we cannot – I repeat – cannot keep ignoring ourselves and treating ourselves like this. The practice of self-compassion, of kindness, of listening deeply to our bodies has never been more important than it is now. In a world that tries to prevent us from slowing down and listening to our inner voice, we need to listen to that voice more than ever.
We need to see ourselves as something we can either love or lose. Not dispensable worker robot humans.
This is the only life we will ever live like this. Maybe it should mean more than allowing ourselves to be abused. Than abusing ourselves.
While I know I cannot change the past, I find myself wondering what would’ve happened if I could have listened to myself more then. I eventually did quit that job, choosing to go part time and face an enormous loss of income rather than such a loss in health. But by then it was too late. The damage had already been done.
Years of overwhelming, stressful trauma had taken their toll. Now I have to live with the consequences of the damage.