I went to the emergency care center, because I was having chest pains. That was when I was first told I might be dealing with an anxiety disorder. I first noticed the pains as I sat to read the Brunswick News and found myself engrossed by the front page story about a baby boy, Antonio Santiago, who was murdered in broad daylight, shot while the mother took him for a stroll. We were in the national spotlight then too.
I played the scene over and over in my mind in a futile attempt to make sense of a senseless act. I tried to switch gears to my work, but try as I might, my mind was caught in this loop, every few minutes jumping back to the infanticide.
I do remember looking out the large window pane of the coffee shop and noticing the bluest blue sky I’d seen in some time. The vibrant green leaves of the trees swayed, betraying the invisible sea breeze that swept through them. I imagined it had to be a perfect day out. I’m sure it was, but when I stepped out, my body was numb, my inner anguish occupied the whole of my senses. My body was trembling and I could not catch my breath.
I went home and collapsed on the floor, feeling the weight of my body with each gasp of air. I do not remember how long this episode lasted, but I eventually caught my breath and my chest pain dulled.
I told my wife that, while I was only in my twenties, I feared I might be having heart issues. My paternal grandfather had passed away at fifty-three from a massive heart attack. So, I’ve always been concerned. Yet, I also have the propensity to be a worrier, a quality from my maternal roots; so, I told myself not to be a hypochondriac and just ignore the pain. It was probably just a figment of my imagination. My wife wasn’t buying the line I was feeding myself and, after seeing me grab at my chest one too many times over the next couple days, she told me to stop being so stubborn and get to a doctor immediately. So, I went. The shortness of breath seemed to worsen as soon as I made it into the waiting room.
My heart was fine, and other than having slightly high blood pressure, I was perfectly healthy. The doctor told me to go see my primary doctor, as my issue was probably anxiety related and a more long term solution should be sought in consultation with a physician who knew my background. I was in luck. That physician was my older brother, but, realizing I was not dying, it took me a few months before I explored the issue a bit deeper.
Yet, with every national tragedy, I’d feel my chest tighten.
Since 2013, I have come to realize that I have been dealing with anxiety all my life. I went to see my brother, and my condition was no shock to him. He diagnosed my with panic disorder and anxiety (I am sure he would have more accurate terminology, but that is what I remember). He helped me develop an action plan, and I’m glad to say I now know how to manage my anxiety and rarely experience panic anymore. I now treat my mental health much like my dental health. Every day I choose to exercise mental hygiene and every six months to a year, I see a counselor to make sure I’m not missing any build up. I usually get the thumbs up that my regular care is working and move on.
What happened on that beautiful September morning as I read the paper is something I know is happening again. At least I am more prepared this time around. At least I have the tools this time to prevent a panic attack, a phenomenon that used to leave me on the floor wondering if I was actually dying. As I read in horror the story of little Antonio, my sympathetic response system heightened my stress enough to uncover my lurking anxiety such that it was expressed in a tangible, physiological response. I had denied my anxiety any outlet for so long that it came out sideways. The panic attack that day shook me to the core.
As I read about George Floyd’s final moments, I had to take quick action to not be drowned by panic. Even so, my heart hurts, or, at least my chest. I can feel it. I’m not panicked, but I’m extremely upset.
As George Floyd struggled for breath, he cried out for his mother...his deceased mother. For a grown man to call out for his mom for rescue, he has to be desperate. For a grown man to call out for his deceased mom for rescue, he has to be broken. These officers did not just murder him. They terrorized him into fear and broke his spirit. Then they killed him in front of the world.
But, I am no where near feeling what my black friends must feel. How so many of my black friends are still holding it together as much as they are is beyond me, not to deny their real pain and the brokenness that is hidden by the wall of social media. I can only pray that grace would carry me beyond my breaking point, as it must be for them.
At the risk of seeming to get off topic, let’s talk about the Corona Virus for a moment in order to talk about breaking points. Trying my best to set my personal feelings aside, I must, at very least, admit my surprise at how fragile our resolve has proven to be. While this enemy does not discriminate, we have taken it upon ourselves to politicize the virus. We have protested calls for precaution. We have blamed anyone and everyone.
For lack of a better word, people feel “oppressed” by COVID-19 or at least by those they think are responsible for not responding how they would like to the pandemic. I’m not above being upset over everything that has happened. I’m not above wishing this never happened. In fact, I do not want to invalidate what we are all feeling. I may not agree with how some respond, but I will never condemn anyone for hating our situation and mourning all the losses we have had, both of life and of livelihood.
The virus has caused a blunt, dull, gnawing sense of fear. It has revealed our fears and has made us vulnerable. So, we tear at each other. I’m even willing to forgive irrational behavior, because we all have our breaking point. What would it be like to always feel this way? We have to move on. We cannot live in fear forever. It’s just too much of an emotional drain. Isn’t that our argument?
This is what the black community has said to us about racism for decades upon decades. They cannot live with the nagging fear any more. Something must give. And many white people have just said, “I’m sorry, but what can I do?” We signal for the black community to get back in their lane. We do not want to share their burden. So, we pretend we have nothing we can do. They have told us they cannot go on forever, but now that racism has caused irrational response, we act like we cannot understand why in the world some would riot.
Hell, we think we can overcome a virus with pure American resolve or delusion. We think we can tell a virus to go away by sticking our fingers in our ears and yelling, “la, la, la, la, la” , but we cannot deal with the disease of racism? One is outside of us. One is a matter of individual and collective will. But we will tell an actual virus, “No,” before we tell a disease of the heart “no”?
One may kill our body. The other will kill our soul.
My point is this: we have all learned recently how horrible it is to have an ongoing threat loom over our lives. We want to deny it a place, if only by the most ineffective means of ignoring its reality. The threat of COVID-19 has made us act irrationally., with protesters threatening police in front of government buildings. But, the black community is just supposed to live with the threat of racism and play nice, because “we live in an imperfect world”? And if they act in a way we do not approve, we just say, “This won’t solve anything.”
We can do better than that.
Maybe we do not have to approve, but we can offer something better than parental finger wags and patronizing moral platitudes.
I know my words are harsh. Not all will feel they are ignoring the issue. I know. I am so glad many of us are speaking out, some of us as a continuing effort and some of us for the first time. Don’t be offended if you don’t have to be. But, I’m angry, and I’m angry with my own sin. I’m not just speaking out. I’m speaking in. I have caught myself saying, “that makes no sense,” when, in fact, while it is not justifiable, it is understandable. I’m just uncomfortable. Plain and simple. I hope voices such as those of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Killer Mike find purchase for the black community in their pain. As for white people, we should leave it to those leaders. As for us, we have to ask, “Can we do better to prevent such conditions?” That is the question Dr. King asked us all those years ago. It still hangs in the air.
Deep breath. That is a technique I use.
I know what it is like to live with constant anxiety. Yet, my anxiety is a disorder. It has no external cause. It’s conjured by my mind that has to remain constantly disciplined to remain in tact. The fear and anxiety of the black community is real. My fear is irrational, and by telling myself such, I save myself a lot of grief. But, a black person cannot do this, lest they risk their lives by doing the very thing that saves mine. If they pretend their fears are unfounded and let their guard down at the wrong time, it is over. We have proof.
Living in constant fear takes a toll on the body. I was told I had to get over my constant fear, lest I continue to damage my mind and body. So, I do. But, our black friends cannot. Until the external problem is resolved, the inner conflict will persist.
Only when white people are freed from hate and prejudice will black people be freed from violence that inevitably swells from such hate and prejudice. Our salvation is their’s. Maybe you are like me and do not allow racism in your life. Or, at very least I should say, you work, like me to find it where it lays in hiding and attempt every chance you see it to root it out. That is good, but not yet good enough. I have to work to root it out of my culture as well.
I have low grade pain in my chest today. I know why. A young black man was hunted down in my local community where I serve as a pastor and was shot with buck shot. He was rounded up by circling vehicles, one man even hopping in the bed of the truck with his weapon to get a better vantage point like I did when I would hunt rabbits growing up. Ahmaud was hunted like an animal, and I cannot imagine his human fear, realizing his life was coming to a violent end. A black woman was shot in her bed as her home was mistakenly raided in Kentucky, the only other state I have called home. A black man in New York was threatened by a white woman who used his skin color to incite conflict, putting his life on the line, because she felt called out. And, in Minnesota, a black man begged for his life, called out to his deceased mother, and was robbed of breath as he was being terrorized, and this is just another wave.
How can we tell the black community to calm down and catch their breath as the waves keep crashing in on them? My father was a lifeguard, and one lesson he taught me early on was to be wary of a drowning victim. As they struggle for their life, they will often irrationally attack those who try to aid, clawing to get to the surface. The black community is catching wave after wave. Drowning in hate is ever much drowning as is drowning in water.
And you want to know something that breaks my heart: I get to choose to feel this pain. My anxiety has taught me that I can often choose when and where I hurt. Since I’m not black, I have the luxury of waking up each morning and choosing to care or not. That is a terrible privilege, and, make no mistake. It is privilege.
I do not condone riots, but, if I lived in such fear every day, I might give into the fear. Some of us could not even handle masks and social distancing, and so these people threatened action, as they wore military style gear and carried rifles. But, we just scoffed at them. Oh, look at Bubba trying to act all big and bad. I am afraid that racism has taught us to be afraid of angry black people, because we do not see the anger as human, as we do Bubba's. Bubba is just being Bubba, but that black man better calm down, because he is making me uncomfortable.
If we condemn riots, then let us act to end them. Let’s end them by tearing down the conditions that cause people to act irrationally. Deny racism its place. Protect your brothers and sisters in their distress. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. asked of us decades ago. We have had enough time to consider his plea. Now, let’s respond.
And, do not let up. Things may seem to get back to normal for those of us who do not live in this fear all the time. It will be easy to lose our resolve. As I said, it is thin for many anyway.
If chest pain is all I can count on to keep me focused, I do not want to be healed of my pain. I will chose to hurt and know that is not enough.