I have anxiety attacks. I didn't know what to call them when they started, when I was around 14. I didn't know that it was my heart causing the world to feel like it was falling down around me. I couldn't explain it. All I knew was that suddenly, nothing felt safe, and I would dissolve into panicked, sobbing tears, unable to go on.
When I learned at 31 that I have a heart murmur and mitral valve prolapse and I started reading about the effects of these conditions on the nervous system, it suddenly made sense. It's a vicious cycle, though. Stress or lack of sleep leads to poor eating and poor self-care, which makes my heartbeat irregular or more irregular than usual, which makes me think the world is ending, which makes it hard to sleep or care for myself properly... I get edgy and I yell a lot. I cry.
There's not a lot that can be done. Exercise helps, if I can actually do it. Crying relieves some of the pressure, but not always, and not always enough and it's not acceptable in all situations. Mostly, I have to wait it out.
For much of my life, I figured I was just too sensitive, that I was weak and should be able to handle life. Everyone else seemed to. I am learning, though, to name what is happening and to take steps, tiny steps, to ameliorate the situation before it becomes too much to bear.
Recently, a woman in an online group I'm in said, to someone else, "Your intensity is your gift." These words hit me right in the gut, and in the heart. For so long, I've considered my intensity a liability, a failing, a wound. But the mystics say, Your wound is your gift, and your gift is your wound. And somewhere inside me, those words are echoing. The defect in my heart, though small, is a wound. It makes me hyper-aware of my heartbeat with its skippityhoppity rhythm. Lubdub lubdub lub... Lub... Lubdubbydubbitydub. Lubdub. When I feel for my pulse, when I slow down, I can feel its dancing beat. My heart is not a steady drum, it has the breakbeat, the complex rhythms that make the music more alive.
In "Finist the Bright Falcon", the girl who loved Finist, and whose sisters forced him away from her window with glass shards and knives stuck into the frame, must seek him in the Thrice-Ninth land, in the
Thrice-Tenth Kingdom. That's Russian fairytale-speak for, "the other side of the earth, the end of the world, the underworld, the farthest shore." When she arrives, one of her tasks, as she tries to free Finist from enchantment and betrothal, is to wash blood from his snow-white shirt. It is not water she uses, but tears. Only tears can wash blood away; laundry experts recommend salt for bloodstains, but this is not just about laundry. It is the same as the quote from Isak Dinesen, "The cure for everything is saltwater: sweat, tears, or the sea." For anxiety, it seems the only cures are salt. Tears, baths in hot saltwater, yoga in hot rooms, sweat. But also, the wounds of the past cannot be cured by hiding them away. The girl in the story washed away the stains of the past with tears. She freed herself of that part of the enchantment, proved herself with her tears.
Fairytales tell us that weeping is not weakness, that youth and foolishness are not curses, and that the very qualities in us that mark us as wounded in the eyes of the world, are our greatest strength.
Your wound is your gift, and your gift is your wound.
Sara is a storyteller, writer, artist, teacher, wife, mother, and singer living in Minnesota. I write about storytelling, and about living a life with stories.