An Open Letter to My Body
Do you remember that panic attack I had last year in an airplane factory? (Fight or flight--that’s a good one. Leave it to a poet’s anxiety to be both elegant and ironic.)
I sweat thinking about it still. Present were the usual suspects, all the warning signs: enclosed spaces, far-too-open spaces, heights, a large, hurried crowd, foreboding, half-crafted 787s, an old freight elevator. Thousands of miles away from home, no phone, no food, no bathroom, no escape. Turns out one man’s dream vacation is another’s most horrific nightmare.
I wasn’t even asking you for a good time--the low-grade sense of doom you propagate took that away from me a long time ago. All I wanted was not to panic. But you would have none of it. Right on cue, you sent up your signal flares: we’re not safe here, we’re trapped, this damn industrial airplane museum must be where nice young moms go to die.
First, my mind went. Then you betrayed me, somehow slowly and suddenly all at the same time. Time stretched across the afternoon as you assumed your familiar primal position: fluttering heartbeat. Gasping for air. Trembling extremities. Blurring vision and churning stomach. Again, I was a victim to my body. In a freaking airplane factory.
I trudged through that underground tunnel across the largest building in the country desperate for escape, desperate for air, desperate not to be betrayed by my own skin and bones. At this point, I wasn’t sure which scenario was worse: being trapped in a freight elevator with a crowd of sweaty tourists or being trapped inside of a body that won’t take care of me.
I’ve given you everything I can think of to convince you to work--medicine, counselors, exercise, obscure Chinese herbs. I’m getting tired. Please, will you just tell me what you need?
I’m simply doing what I have been taught. That’s what bodies do.
When we were nine years old, caught in the spiral of your parents’ divorce, your child-mind taught you a way to survive. Without consulting me, you spent our elementary years building a world you thought pain couldn’t penetrate. You used me to fabricate stability in a world where there was none.
For a very long time, you let your mind run ahead of you to warn me of illnesses and emergencies that would never come. You set me into an unsustainable pattern of hyper-vigilance, one the very fibers of my muscles rehearse to this day. With our fingers, you flicked light switches up, down, up, down. With our mouth, you repeated words and asked endless questions. With our feet, you ran toward anyone or anything that made you feel like the child you wanted to be. The child you were supposed to be.
That’s why we tremble. That’s why our heart races, why we don’t sleep. That’s why our shoulders ache, why our temples pound, why we stay behind closed bedroom doors for entire summers. We have spent so many years together hunting for trouble that we’ve forgotten how to coexist any other way.
Still, because I love you, I have always done the work you asked of me. I stirred up the life of a brave and powerful boy when you didn’t think I could. I produced warm, thick milk to feed and nourish him for thirteen months. I carried us through four months of desperate sickness. And for nearly six months I’ve kept another little boy hidden inside of me, safe. You’ve spent your life persuading me to stay out of death’s way. Can’t you see all the life I’ve given you? Perhaps I’m not as damaged as you think. Perhaps you’re not the only victim.
I’d like nothing more than for us to thrive together, but I need your permission to take a break. Nine years old was a very long time ago. Look around you, Ashley. We are safe. Let’s keep reminding each other of that.