anxiety

What It's Like to Have a 'Hummingbird Heart'

Read 'Naming' a personal essay on anxiety by New Zealand writer Bonnie Etherington.

by Bonnie Etherington
17 October 2018, 10:56pm

This essay is an excerpt from Headlands: New Stories Of Anxiety edited by Naomi Arnold, published by Victoria University Press.

I learned how to swim underwater before I learned how to swim at the surface. As a child, I regularly dived into the deep end of the community pool and sank on purpose to the bottom, learning how to control the release of my breath, slowing my heartbeat down. I imagined my brainwaves un-wrinkling as I did this. Sounds seemed far away. My muscles relaxed and were calm, my jaw unclenched. I was safe in my own world. Other fears—other people—no longer seemed as important. But, always, I had to return to the surface and return to those fears.

My best friend died when I was five. His name was Boni, which is a homonym of my own name, Bonnie. In fiction that would be implausible. Almost every day, I remind myself that he died and I didn’t. He was male; I am female. He was Papuan; I am originally from New Zealand. He was only a little older than I was when he died from malaria. I have had malaria many times, as well as other childhood illnesses with consequences that have lasted into adulthood. But I am alive because I was privileged enough to have a nurse for a mother and access to medication. I carry all this information around with me.

I understood that Boni was in the small plywood coffin in front of us at the funeral. In West Papua—called Irian Jaya at the time—death was and still is something you cannot hide from. Boni’s family killed a pig for his funeral feast. While it was cooking, some other friends and I blew up the pig’s bladder and played with it like it was a balloon. I understood where the bladder came from. I understood that my friend was no longer there to play with. Still, I played. I don’t think I cried.

When I first went to see a counsellor I thought I had to figure out which one thing in my life had caused me to be the way I am. A part of me thought that Boni’s death might be top of the list. I wanted to identify one thing that explained why I have what my mum calls a ‘hummingbird heart’, why I can’t wear headphones outside in case someone comes up behind me, why I have an exit plan for any room I happen to be in, why sometimes I do not leave my apartment for weeks at a time. Why the nightmares, why the excruciating migraines that make me wilt, why I have never, even as a child, been able to sleep well. You’ve just always been a bit anxious—a worrier, so alert, says my mum. But being ‘a bit anxious’ has taken many forms.

As a teenager, my anxiety manifested as an eating disorder. I remember one night after showering, at the height of my illness, I caught a glimpse of my back in the mirror. All bones, my body did not feel or look like it belonged to me. The sensation wasn’t new: as a child, sometimes I believed I was floating above my body. I would look down and see the top of my head, the rims of my glasses. It was a way to see the things that happened to me but not feel them. Later, when I used the eating disorder to escape my body, I imagined myself shrinking into smaller and smaller spaces. A suitcase, an empty tin, a postage stamp. I could feel safe for a time, like I did in the pool, though again, the feeling never lasted.

Ever since then, I have been learning to fit back in my body, fleshing out each corner. This can be a painful thing. Part of learning to live with the hummingbird heart is in naming what separates me from my body like this, what makes me shrink. There’s the anxiety, which has always been with me—a gene passed down a long line of women who have all managed it in their different ways. And then there is this thing called ‘complex post-traumatic stress disorder’ which grew out of all that. It is not the best of names, but what it describes is PTSD caused by a long-term build-up of things, like snow rising before an avalanche. Over time I concluded there was no one thing; it was not Boni. He was not even the beginning.

I do wonder if naming—identifying or diagnosing what and how I feel, using labels such as ‘anxiety’ and ‘PTSD’— is always helpful. Are the names just another way to shrink me down and distance myself from my own body and brain? I do not know the whole answer, but I do know there are days when a diagnosis offers me room to understand myself and other days it does not. At the moment, I live in the United States, and too often the evening news blares with the sounds and images of mass shootings. The conversation inevitably turns to mental illness: did the shooter have depression, anxiety, PTSD—you name it. If the answer is yes, everyone has a place to lay the blame. This, I think, is harmful use of the medical terms so many of us live with our whole lives.

It is also important, especially for PTSD (which, for me, is general anxiety’s close relative), to know that this label is not only for one kind of person who has had one kind of experience. These disorders can be strange and often amorphous things. Perhaps another answer to the question of naming’s worth is that if more of us who live with these disorders as our companions start to name them, then perhaps others will see the expanse of our experiences and we can breathe more easily within these zones of our lives, too—with our knowledge of our dead, our hurts, our many terrors.

Some people have told me I write and think about death too much. They’re probably right: the maxim is to write what you know, and I know death. I did my first years of primary school via correspondence, and every day we had to write a story or journal entry. A couple of years ago, I came across these old stories when I was deep in revisions for my first novel—a novel that includes a fairly high death-count because it is set in West Papua and, as I mentioned earlier, to live in West Papua is to be close to death. To be clear, it is also so much more. I am always trying to balance death with life in my writing, but maybe not succeeding. One of the stories I’d written for school was of a man who went to check a pig trap in the forest. He found a pig in the trap, but it had been there for a few days and was very hungry and angry. The man shot it once with an arrow but the pig, instead of dying, broke free. It killed the man and ate part of him. Later, the man’s relatives came and killed the pig. They then ate the pig.

This was a true story. I was about seven when it happened. My correspondence teacher did not know how to respond, and she placed a ‘Wow!’ sticker on the page and mailed it back to me. I find this funny now, but I also put a similar scene in my novel so that I did not feel so alone with this experience. Writing such scenes feels like another way of naming, of asking people to witness and sit with me, just for a short time.

At a literal level, writing makes space for the names of those whom death took. If I do not write about them, then their names come out in other ways, like to an Uber driver or a hairdresser. Even if the hairdresser is nice about it, I’m probably not paying her enough to hear the names of dead people.

But naming can’t solve everything. I habitually shower at night but recently, when my husband started working late shifts, I found myself barely able to use the bathroom or the shower when alone in the apartment at night. I was sure that the falling water would mask the sounds of an intruder sneaking up behind me. These were some of my lowest months with anxiety. One day, my husband and I decided to adopt a pet from the animal shelter. A calico cat with wounded back legs, notched ears and half a tail stood out to us. Then we noticed the name on her cage: Bonnee. I laughed.

This one, said my husband. She’s the one.

I was doubtful she was the one. The name seemed like too much of a coincidence—and not a good one. When we brought her home it was clear that she had anxiety issues of her own, resulting in puddles of piss every time she was scared, hiding at every sound. We renamed her and set about loving her as best we could. A few months later, I realised I could shower at night again, even if no one else was home. This was a victory. Just the cat’s presence and breathing in the same room as mine made the shadows less hostile, the sounds less loud. The cat changed, too. She learned to talk to squirrels outside the window and she likes wedging herself in between my computer and me. The puddles of piss gradually stopped.

Several years ago, I tried scuba diving while in Indonesia. Predictably, before I tipped into the water, I shook and my heart rate was high. But, once submerged, again I felt the sensations that had drawn me to the deep end of the community pool when I was younger. Perhaps it is the pressure of the water or the controlled regular breathing—in and out, never holding air for long—which keeps anxious thoughts from intruding that far underwater. On that first dive, right as I passed over a crowd of angelfish, my equipment malfunctioned at the same time as I inhaled my next breath. My lungs filled with seawater and pain. I remember looking up, seeing how far away the surface of the water was, thinking I would not make it up in time and feeling strangely at peace with this. Without the sound of my breathing I could hear the crackling of parrotfish, the hum of boats somewhere above, the bump of unseen bodies and objects. Around me, the angelfish clustered close, as if they knew. As I started to pass out, lungs still filled with water, our instructor appeared and was able to get a spare air source to me. Later, recovered at the surface, the instructor said she had never seen anyone so calm in a near-death situation. I do not know why then, of all times, I did not panic like my body seems primed to do. Perhaps it was the press of the fish bodies, like my cat presses against me now, easing the anxiety brought on by things I could not name. There are no tidy endings when it comes to living with anxiety, but there is comfort in other bodies willing you to share their breath and life. There are some things that can be named, in amongst all the things that cannot. There are ways not to feel alone. The bottom of the pool and the bottom of the ocean are just the places that first gave me the space to discover these things.

My husband, my cat, and I—we jokingly call ourselves the PTSD family. We’re learning to live with it. Together, we work to name and to fit ourselves back inside our bodies. For me, it feels like being underwater but looking up.

This essay is an excerpt from Headlands: New Stories Of Anxiety edited by Naomi Arnold, published by Victoria University Press.

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