Gretchen L. Kelly, Author

Losing My Breath, Ignoring My Voice

Share this post:


“I’d sooner chew my leg off

than be trapped in this,

How easy you think of all of this as bittersweet me.

I couldn’t taste i,. I’m tired and naked.

I don’t know what I’m hungry for,

I don’t know what I want anymore.”

– REM, Bittersweet Me

I had asked for a sign.

I needed a signal, needed someone to point me in the right direction, tell me what to do. I had been in conflict for almost a year. My relationship was over. I knew it but was scared to leave. Just out of college, trying to figure out “what next,” trying to figure out what life was at this point. And the one thing I had was my relationship.

And now I didn’t want it any more.

It wasn’t his fault. He was a really good guy. Smart, loving. I can’t even say he was an ass. But I was falling out of love with someone I had fallen for in an intense way.

We started dating my Junior year of college. I had obsessed over him from afar and then we met. And I tumbled into a crazy romance. He was fun and spontaneous. I called him my “Bobby McGhee.” A bad boy with a heart of gold. But now I wasn’t feeling all the romance of “riding a Diesel Dan all the way to New Orleans.” I needed something, someone else and I knew he wasn’t it.

For months I turned it over and over in my head.

What if I leave him and he’s the last person I ever love?

I would tug nervously on my necklace trying to decipher my true feelings.

Was I freaked out at talk of engagement and looking for a house together? Was it too much in the post college reality check that is real life?

I felt like the choice I would make would impact the rest of my life. I could see living with him and spending a life with him. We got along well, never really fought. We had fun. But was that enough?

Or I could end up spending the rest of my life alone, mourning my one shot at happiness and love.

I would leave my desk at work and pace around the parking garage, my mind racing, trying to gulp in as much air as possible before going back inside.

I could never get enough air.

Each day brought more urgency. He started to question me, he knew something wasn’t right. I shrugged off his concerns, wearing a mask of normalcy.

All the while I felt my throat constricting.

I would encourage him to have nights out with his friends. I would pour a glass of wine and turn on some Hendrix and sit with my notebook, writing and journaling, hoping the answer would flow from my pen or from the fermented grapes that eased my tension.

No answer came.

I was growing increasingly frustrated. I always lived my life by following my instincts and trusting my gut and my intestinal flora was deafeningly silent. I felt like I was going to make a major life decision and possibly hurt a good person who I cared deeply about and I had nothing to base it on.

I started to pray. And I’m not a pray for things kind of person. But I started to pray for a sign.

Just tell me which way to go. I’ll pay attention, I promise. Just give me something. Nothing. No song on the radio, no major disagreement, no “aha” moment. Thanks for nothing.

I was biding my time and running in place.

Then one night I ended up at a bar with the girls from work on a Friday night. I didn’t even feel like going out, but I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting in the apartment with him all night, pretending. One of the girls left the table and came back “Joe’s coming. I called him.” All of a sudden I was awake. He walked in and smiled the smile that lights up the whole room. I tried to not notice.

We ended up playing pool in a back room of the bar. Somehow he and I were locked in conversation all night. We drifted from bar to bar with our work friends, almost oblivious to all the people we were with.

At one bar there was a guy with a guitar and a galvanized metal bucket for tips. I turned to Joe. “We should request a song!” He agreed and I told him I wanted to hear “Lola.” He dropped a generous amount of money in the bucket as he leaned in to speak to the singer and walked back to the table with a satisfied grin.

Soon the group was breaking up, some were going home, some going to dance. Joe asked if I wanted to go grab a beer and talk. We sat at a sticky booth in the only quiet bar in Buckhead and talked about nothing and everything. As he drove me home I started to get nervous. This had started as an innocent night out with friends and ended up feeling like a date.

And now I was going home to my boyfriend.

As soon as he parked the car, I leapt out and shouted a quick “Thanks” before sprinting for the door. Blessedly the apartment was dark and quiet. I crawled into bed and feigned sleep while my heart raced frantically.

The next morning I awoke to laughter. I sat on the couch as casually as possible. I felt like I should be wearing a scarlett letter on my chest.

An Andy Kaufmann special was on t.v. All of a sudden, the room felt like it was pulsating. The t.v., his laughter, it was amplified. I started to sweat. I tried to focus on the show and distract myself. But the t.v. kept getting louder and louder. The voices sounding more manic and my mind racing frantically. My breathing got more shallow and raspy. I got up and started to pace around the living room. I went outside into the parking lot. The fresh air did nothing to alleviate the weight pressing on my chest, the tightening around my neck. By the time I went back inside I knew I needed to go to the hospital. Something wasn’t right.

I don’t know if I stayed conscious during the car ride. By the time we got to the E.R. I was pretty sure that something horrible was happening. I imagined some obscure allergic reaction. I talked, in between gasps for breath, giving instructions.

You have to tell my family I love them. Promise me you’ll tell them. I thought I was passing along my good-byes by proxy.

They ordered XRays of my chest and my throat. I was floating in and out of consciousness when the Doctor returned to talk to us.

“You’re fine.” I was fine. “Physically, you’re fine.” Oh. Ok. No one’s ever made that qualification to me before. But ok.

He proceeded to explain that I was having a severe panic attack. He explained the power of the mind to make the body feel very real sensations. I felt like my worst fears were coming true, I had always had an intense fear of mental illness. As a young girl I had visions of living life strapped to a bed, a life spent contorted in a straight jacket or watered down on pills. I lamented the lack of a physical ailment to explain my symptoms. I was kind of freaked out and in shock. I know what I felt was real physical feelings.

My throat was closing.

I couldn’t breathe.

But it was all in my head.

That night I insisted that he go out with our friends. I was too tired from ingesting my first taste of Ativan and experiencing a perceived near death to do anything. He insisted on staying with me.

Why does he have to be so damn nice?

But I made him go. I needed to be alone to process the day.

I craved solitude.

Thankfully he acquiesced.

I sat in the silence of the apartment trying to sort it all out. What the hell was going on with me? How did this happen? I started writing in my notebook. I let my hand take over, writing the words, shaping the phrases. I didn’t even know what would show up on the page, I just let it happen. And there it was. I need to leave.

I needed to leave. Not because he was awful. Not because he was bad. But because it wasn’t right for me. What had once been so right was completely wrong now. And I needed to leave. My body had been screaming at me for six months. My throat had been in a vice, tightening a little more each minute. And I ignored all of it. I searched, I prayed, I listened for the silent voices. All along I was forsaking the only voice that mattered. The voice that was getting muffled with each day of trudging on, with each day of looking somewhere other than the one place the answers resided. The voice that would stop my breath before it let me ignore it. The voice that I would realize, so many years later, was more vital than water.



“Lola” The Kinks. ‘Cause who doesn’t love this song?

 Have you had issues with anxiety? Have you ever ignored that “inner voice” that speaks to you? What were the consequences? Do you have a favorite song you request?

16 Responses

    1. I really hope you don’t ever have to deal with it. It’s a horrible, very out of control feeling. I never thought about it possibly having a genetic component… I only recently can talk about it without the sensation of my throat closing. And I can’t watch anything with Andy Kaufman. No joke, I really can’t.

  1. Anxiety is a daily thing with me. I have it mostly under control but when it doesn’t, look out. My body’s latest “trick” is breaking out into hives. Lovely, right?

    1. Oh my god, that is awful. I dealt with it daily for a while, then more sporadically. Now it is just a few times a year and not nearly as severe as that time. It’s a tricky thing to say the least. Dealing with it, trying to figure out the reason for it… and it’s so frustrating. And hives? That’s horrible!

  2. I’m familiar with these feelings…Everything from the anxiety to coming to grips with having a mood disorder. Thank you for writing this, Gretchen.

    1. I hate that so many people can relate to it. After I had the big panic attack, people started telling me about anxiety they had dealt with and panic attacks they’d suffered. I never realized (at that point in my life) that so many people struggled with it. Now I think it’s more shocking to meet someone who’s never had severe anxiety or a panic attack.

      I’m sorry that you’ve had to deal with it, too. It can make life so limiting when you’re in the midst of anxiety. My daughter has had some minor issues with it. She wouldn’t leave the house when she was younger for days after we got stuck outside on a boat in a horrible storm. She would sit at the window by the front door watching all the other kids play. I finally had to drag her by force outside. I never considered that she could get it from me, but TwinDaddy mentioned it running in the family… yikes.

      1. Yes, it does run in the family. I’ve got other family members with similar anxiety issues, and although I try to keep Little Jedi from seeing most of my anxiety, I see a lot of me in him, a lot of my sensitivity and anxiety, even at a young age. We’re careful about how we chastise him and such because of that.

        1. I know what you mean, I go to great pains to hide it from my children. One time I smiled and talked to them nonstop through a two hour flight so that they wouldn’t see that I was really freaking out on the inside!

          1. I have really bad situational anxiety, and being in big, new places is one of the things that triggers me, as does meeting lots of new people at once. We just moved to NOLA a little over a year ago, so I’ve had to do a lot of pretending not to be nervous as we’ve adjusted to our new home and to getting around the city.

  3. That panic attack you described. I have been there…too many times. I have had to pull off of the interstate, with my kids in the car, afraid I was dying. That day I had to call my husband to come get the kids because I couldn’t feel my feet or hands. I was stranded in the midst of panic.
    I have driven to the hospital parking lot and waited outside in the parking lot….just in case.
    I drive, shaking and afraid, to sit on the couch in my husband’s office quietly until the panic passes because I’m afraid to be alone…just in case. I am blessed. He just turns to me and smiles, knowing. And I quietly sit while he works. It feels normal and pulls me through.
    This is an extreme summary. There have been many more instances and I hate it. With everything I have in me I hate it.
    It’s an awful thing to live with but fortunately I have learned the impending signs and can usually talk myself down. Sometimes it’s too much and for that, there’s medication.
    Thank you for sharing such a candid, personal story. It’s not easy to admit what some will see as a fault, when in reality it’s just a common side effect of life.
    I get it, Gretchen. I do.

    1. I know, it’s awful that anyone should have to feel ashamed of dealing with this. I always saw it as a weakness. But only with myself, with others I have understanding and sympathy. And it is so common, but so many people don’t talk about it or admit it because of shame.

      Since the incident in the hospital, I too have had to pull over on the highway, dizzy and fearful of passing out because my breathing had become so shallow. I have been at the store and have had to leave to come home because my husband was here and I needed to be near him *in case*. It sucks. And some people don’t get how limiting it can be. I had family who didn’t understand why I couldn’t drive 6 hours to go to my Grandparent’s anniversary, but it was right after the hospital visit. And the thought of getting on the highway was too overwhelming at that point. Your comment mirrors so many of my own experiences. Thank you for saying you get it, even though I’m sorry that you do.

  4. I know that feeling all to we’ll and ended up on the ER for the same thing. It is crazy how powerful the mind is and how stressful situations can cause such intense physical manifestations. I think I have had anxiety issues since college, but didn’t really understand what they were until two years ago, when they spiraled out of control after my mom had a bad accident. Fun stuff. Ugh.

    I was sympathizing with you the whole way through…not just with the anxiety, but also with the fear of hurting someone who doesn’t deserve to be hurt. Makes you feel like an awful person, doesn’t it. But you obviously did the right thing for both of you…staying wouldn’t have been fair to either of you, OR healthy for you.

    1. Yes, I think my first panic attack was in college. But I had no idea what it was at the time. It totally freaks me out how powerful the mind is, even though it’s actually kind of cool that our minds can do so much for us physically. Now I just need to learn how to use my mind for good instead of evil 🙂 I have actually been wanting to try meditation, but I never get around to it.

      And it is awful to know that you’re going to hurt someone. I almost think I’d rather be the one getting dumped. Especially when it’s a good person. But you’re right, it would not have ended well if I’d stayed.

  5. I had really bad anxiety when things got bad with the ‘psycho ex.’ It was right around the time of the hearing for the restraining order and I would have panic attacks while I was sleeping… scared the shit out of me, I can hardly even think of it now.

    I’m glad you listened to that voice, many people do not.

    1. I can only imagine how hard all of that must have been. You went through some stuff that would have completely broken a lesser person. I’m so glad you made it out of that and have found some peace for yourself. It’s bad enough when situations and life put you in that anxious place, but to have it brought on by a sick individual… I don’t know, that’s on a whole different level.

      I worried that it seemed melodramatic to get to this point about ending a pleasant relationship with a really nice guy. I mean, it doesn’t exactly justify getting to that level of anxiety. But I know now, after examining my “issues” all these years later that it was a build up of not dealing with stuff throughout my life. I only recently could talk about or write about it without feeling my throat close up. It’s some crazy shit, that’s for sure.

  6. Anxiety. Does anyone NOT have it? Your mind knew deep down inside and it worked together to with your body to bring you attention to what needed to be done. The last paragraph is very powerful, may you always have your “voice.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Articles