By Ryan O’Connell
When I was 19, the summer between freshman and sophomore year of college, I stopped knowing how to breathe.
No, like, I am not kidding. I unlearned it. I went to bed one night feeling “19 year-old fabulous” and woke up as an old man with emphysema, desperate for some air.
I didn’t know what was happening to me. I just couldn’t get a full breath in. I would sit with my friends and behave like a psycho, sucking in air and trying to exhale. I looked like Flounder in The Little Mermaid. I told my parents that there must be a problem with my lungs, which they immediately believed because my father has severe asthma and requires an inhaler 24/7.
So off I went to a pulmonary specialist in Oxnard, California where the doctor made me do all of these tests to see what the strength of my lungs was. After a few hours of huffing and puffing into various things, he looked at the results and informed me that they were positive. I had fine lungs! Nothing to worry about here!
“I think what you’re experiencing is anxiety,” he told me, “I can recommend a psychiatrist for you, if you’d like. ”
Anxiety? ANXIETY? What the hell could I possibly be anxious about? I was 19, motherfucker. I spent my days doing some bullshit internship and my nights getting drunk with all my hometown friends. My life was the literal definition of idyllic.
So I told the doctor, “Um, no. That’s incorrect. I am a perfectly happy and well-adjusted college student. Good day sir!” Then I probably did a dramatic head turn and stomped out of there.
Later that night, I told my parents what the doctor said.
“Can you believe it? What a quack! I guess I should go see someone else, right? Because I clearly don’t have anxiety!” I screamed to my parents while possibly hyperventilating into a paper bag.
“Um, sure honey.” My mom rubbed my arm. “But maybe you should go see a therapist. Just to, you know, do it.”
“No thanks, Mom. I’m fine!”
The next week, I went to ANOTHER pulmonary specialist, still in complete denial that a 19-year-old gay boy who can’t seem to breathe properly might have some kind of mental health issue. This one was fancy and had an office in Los Angeles, which somehow made him more credible in my shallow eyes. He offered me some Fiji water and then we did the same exact things I did with the last one. I waited with wheezing breath to get the results.
They were the same.
“I think you have anxiety. I can prescribe some Val–”
No thanks, goodbye! I refused to listen to him because I was hell-bent on believing that there was something physically, not mentally, wrong with me. I was used to dealing with ailments. Growing up, I had, like, 10,000 surgeries (long story, might explain later) and had grown accustomed to battling some injury. If I had anxiety, however, that would make this a whole different ballgame. Anxiety would be more vague and, in my mind, harder to treat than a lung problem.
I also was completely convinced that I was happy, even though I had just come out of the worst period of “depression” of my life. Regardless, I stopped seeing pulmonary specialists because my parents were like, “um, no” and resigned myself to never being able to catch my breath ever. Then, in the middle of summer, I said goodbye to my ex-boyfriend who was moving to Seattle to live with his current boyfriend and all hell broke loose again.
“I think I’m dying,” I told my roommate. I couldn’t breathe at all and felt like I was on the verge of passing out and/or having a heart attack. We went to the ER and I saw a doctor who, again, could see nothing wrong with my lungs.
“Answer me honestly. Have you done any drugs recently?” The doctor asked me.
My body immediately stiffened up because I had, in fact, done a line of cocaine two days earlier at my ex’s goodbye party. (“You have fun with your new boyfriend! I’ll be over here with alllllll the coke!”) I reluctantly told him the truth and his face immediately scrunched up in a frown.
“Oh, well, that’s why!” he hissed at me. “You just have residual coke stuck in your lungs. Don’t do that stuff. See ya!”
Okay, I’m no Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, but I don’t think a line of coke causes a complete loss of breath two days after the fact. I understand that now but scared and in denial 19-year-old me believed the doctor and felt like a fucking idiot.
“I did this to myself!!! I did a line of coke and it nearly killed me!!! Do I need to go to rehab?”
After that night, I never experienced a panic attack again and eventually I learned how to breathe, although I’m not sure how. Today, I would call myself an anxious person, but I don’t know if I’m someone who legitimately struggles with anxiety. Everyone in their twenties says, “OMG, I’m gonna have an anxiety attack!” like it’s NBD but chances are they’re full of shit and just experiencing the normal levels of stress that come with being a human being in this weird world.
To this day, I’m not sure what triggered my summer of anxiety. It certainly wasn’t all the coke I hadn’t been doing! But I’m thankful that it’s never been that bad again. For the last two weeks, I’ve walked around with a pit in the bottom of my stomach and have had trouble sleeping. I definitely have been feeling very anxious and it’s starting to worry me. But then I remember this summer. I remember all the pulmonary specialists who told me, “Your body is fine but your brain might be crazy!” and then I remember the first and only panic attack I’ve ever had, and I get a grip. These aren’t bonafide anxiety issues I’m currently experiencing. I’ve had those before. This is just what happens when you pay attention to life.