There’s this little ball of fluff, soft as sheep’s wool, a wisp of fur with sleepy eyes. It rides lightly on my shoulder, quietly watching, absorbing the world around it. It’s small, nearly weightless, but I feel it in the tenseness of my shoulders, the tendons in my neck. It’s riding there.
And then, for no good reason at all, it crawls around to my chest and sits, gently at first, gradually solidifying. It’s no longer soft and cuddly. It’s a rock, slightly pressing into my sternum, increasing its pressure down, down, down, now a solid weight on my chest.
I’m afraid to breathe deeply because I don’t want to feel its weight. I take shallow breaths so I don’t disturb it. Each lung-filling breath expands its reach, like pressing it into a pancake over my ribs, a rock-heavy pancake. Then each breath needs to be bigger and bigger just to push it up, just to give my lungs room to get air. So, if I don’t breathe deeply, I don’t feel it expand.
It stays there, pressing down. Big or small, it’s there, pushing against my chest.
The worst part is when it transforms again, growing long, spidery arms that envelop my chest, that grip with razor-sharp pain along my ribs, that seek a way in, ready to squeeze and puncture my beating heart. Now, in fear, my heart is racing, my face is flushed, my skin is overly sensitive, my palms are sweating, and I don’t feel as though any breath actually gives me oxygen; it’s all being squeezed out of me.
The anxiety monster, once a little harmless bit of fluff, is now a hard-shelled crab-like spider with gnashing knives for teeth, ripping, shredding, rending my chest, compressing my lungs, killing me, killing me.
And no one can see it. No one else can feel it.
They tell me to take deep breaths (Ha!).
They tell me to visualize something peaceful.
They tell me to use a catch-phrase.
They want me to appease it, to calm it, to shrink the anxiety monster back down, to stroke it and soothe it until it climbs back up to sit quiescent on my shoulder.
I know they’re right, but all I want to do is shoot it dead. I want to kill it so it doesn’t come back. I don’t want this invisible fiend to dictate my days.
But I listen. I take slow, easy, deep breaths and ignore the claws.
I visualize a painting with the tree of life and push away the picture of the gloating monster on my chest.
I tell myself, “Through God, all things are possible,” instead of listening to the monster’s chuckle.
Slowly, slowly, slowly.
It shrinks. It draws back its claws. It softens.
Finally, it leaves my chest.
It snuggles on my shoulder, curls up against my neck, and sleepily watches the world.
And I am left with the aftermath. I am left with a body worn out from the physical fight. My cheeks are still warm; my fingers are still frozen. I am exhausted by the mental gymnastics. I am sickened by the lingering throb in my chest.
I warm my hands on a cup of coffee.
I breathe, experimenting, looking to see if it’s painless yet.
I give myself a little pat on the back for having survived it once again.