Have You Ever Tasted Fear?

Terror has a taste. It’s metallic. Medical professionals theorize that it comes from the fight or flight response causing your gums to bleed or the intense anxiety causing your sense of taste to go into overdrive. Writers describe the copper taste of fear filling their characters mouths, and readers wonder if it’s a metaphor. It is not. Let me tell you today that fear has a taste, and you never want to be that afraid in your life.

I remember the first time I tasted fear. It was 2016, and I was driving my 2001 Nissan Maxima down South Monroe Street. My friends talked enthusiastically, three of them squished together on my cracked faux leather seats in the back. It was 80 – 85 degrees in the Florida summer, and my a/c only kind of worked if the car had been sitting in the shade for a little while. It was basically worthless in any hint of sunlight, so my windows were down. I debated attempting to turn on my a/c anyway, feeling awkwardly inadequate because I couldn’t make my friends comfortable, which was strange because, one, they didn’t have cars, so they were grateful for the ride, and, two, they didn’t care one way of the other. We were used to roughing it as a group of mostly first generation college students who came from working-class households. But I digress.

Suddenly, the scent of gasoline wafted through the air. I could no longer hear my friends’ banter. My body completely tensed. My heart-rate spiked. My stomached lurched. My lips tingled, and my face went cold and bloodless as I genuinely considered opening my car door in the middle of moving traffic and jumping out like Jack Bauer from 24 while my friends were chatting away completely unaware of any of this mental battle seeing as it all happened in under a second. Clinging to the only thread of reality that told me my car was definitely NOT about to explode, and I should NOT jump out into oncoming traffic leaving my friends in a driverless car, I fought down the fear, and we arrived safely at our destination.

The experience baffled me, and I didn’t talk about it for months because… it’s crazy? But little did I know, this was the beginning of my seemingly impossible battle with anxiety and panic attacks. Over the next few months, I would show up in every local clinic, emergency room, and urgent care center who would take me, convinced that I was dying of something. My heart was beating too fast; I was having a heart attack. My arms were going numb; it’s a stroke! My stomach had a weird, gurgly feeling; internal bleeding! Incessant headaches; I am clearly having an aneurysm. Why is everyone acting so calmly!?

Every medical professional would give me the same emotionless, unconcerned response: “It’s just stress.” How? How could it just be stress that it causing random spots on my feet and legs to feel like a hot comb is 2 inches from them?

The Medical System and the Uninsured

As someone with no health insurance and no primary care doctor at the time, over the next few months, I learned a lot about the health care system. I learned that if you don’t have a primary care physician, instead visiting the ER for non-emergencies, you can visit the Urgent Care component of a hospital in the day time, and even if you have no insurance, it’s fairly inexpensive. It was $50 in my case. I learned that local clinics physicians are way overworked and understaffed, but they do their best to ensure every patient gets what they need, but the receptionist will treat you like you spent the night before in VIP, popping bottles while you owed her $100. This was true at every local clinic. I learned that you could call an ambulance to your apartment, have them check you out, but decline to be taken to the hospital. I also learned that you could call an ambulance while pulled over on the side of a street, have them check you out, and they will strongly insist you go to the hospital if you are running around like a mad woman in a Whataburger parking lot when they get there… and it will be VERY expensive.

I can laugh about it now, but it was definitely not funny at the time.

Anxiety: The Misconceptions and the Myths

Anxiety is a largely misunderstood disorder. Everyone feels anxious at some time or another. It is a natural response to stress. In many cases, it keeps us safe. If a small child was about to fall off of a high bed, you want your heart to pump more blood to your muscles, so you can run and catch the child before she falls. That’s anxiety doing its job. Fear jolts you into action.

But in my case and other’s who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, our stress levels are extremely high, beyond the normal threshold, which is different for everyone, and our minds trigger the fight or flight response at the slightest hint of danger. In the example above, we would catch the child, take a breath, and calm down. But with anxiety disorder, because it’s a false alarm in the first place, there is not action to take, so we’re suck in this terror limbo, our bodies on edge and ready to respond to an emergency that does not exist. That is why I almost jumped out of my car into moving traffic.

For a long time, I didn’t understand when medical professionals told me the symptoms I was experiencing were all caused by stress. It wasn’t until I got health insurance through my job in 2017 and saw my primary care physician that I began to understand the enormous impact stress can have on a person’s life and body. Another thing I learned about the medical system: it can take up to two months for you to see a physician for the first time even with insurance, but having a good primary care physician makes all of the difference.

She wasn’t overwhelmed by an unusual surplus of patients, so she had time to sit and calmly explain to me that my chest pains, headaches, and other weird sensations were a result of my always physically tensing my body because my mind was sending it signals of danger. I would get a headache from clenching my jaw all day. Then, my overactive fear response would convince me that it was an aneurysm, and I would have a panic attack and rush to some medical professional who would tell me “It’s just stress,” and go about their day. Afterwards, my mind would tell me that the physician or nurse was just too busy to inspect my situation thoroughly, and they were probably wrong, so my mind would keep sending my body those signals, causing other sensations, in a never ending loop of panic and terror.

My primary care physician ended this loop. She referred me to a therapist who gave me even more information on anxiety coping mechanisms, like muscle relation techniques and how to calm anxious thoughts by setting aside a specific time to worry throughout the day. I hope to divulge all of the methods I discover throughout my blog posts, as they all benefited me greatly—some more than others.

I spent all 2017 and some of 2018 struggling desperately. I cried a lot during that time, wondering if I would always be like that, unable to calm down, vividly imagining my death in various ways. I watched my significant other struggle to decide if he should take me to the hospital again or try to calm me down. What if it wasn’t a figment of my imagination this time? What if I was really dying this time?

But I’m happy to say, I haven’t had a panic attack I couldn’t handle since the spring of 2018. I still see my therapist, and I still take steps to keep my stress levels down. That included cutting some people out of my life, stepping back from others’ drama, and realizing that I couldn’t save the world. But that’s another blog post, though.

Peace, love, and happy adulting!