3 years ago, on July 20, 2014, I lost my breath.
I was swimming in the cold Atlantic, for the fourth time, in a triathlon. But this time was different. Something was not right. I couldn’t catch my breath. I had to stop and hang on to the safety kayaks several times. They almost brought me to shore, but I refused to give up. I made it out of the water. Then I biked 13 miles. Then I ran 3 miles. And collapsed into the medical tent. I told the medic that something was wrong and I couldn’t breathe. They shook it off, “Well, you just completed a triathlon, it’s hard work.” But I knew this was more than exercise fatigue.
For 3 more days, I could not take it a full breath. I couldn’t walk across the kitchen without feeling like I was running sprints. I finally went to the doctor, and was diagnosed with vocal cord dysfunction. She said she saw it mostly in teenagers, and it was caused by stress, probably exacerbated by strenuous exercise. “So,” I asked her, “it’s mostly in my head?” “Yes,” she answered. “You’re gonna be fine.” I felt embarrassed but relieved. If it was mostly psychological, I could figure it out. And, strangely, within hours of leaving the doctor’s office, it was gone. Suddenly I could take it a big gulp of air, and move on with my day.
As I thought more about the psychological aspect of my inability to breathe, I realized I had been having dreams, or nightmares, really, of pulling yarn and wires out of my throat. Of being chased and not being able to scream out. When I’d wake up, my throat felt so tight.
It was quite a simple metaphor for what was happening in my daily life:
I had no voice.
2015 was the worst year of my life. It was the climax to the storm that had been brewing for years. For over a decade, in fact. Slowly, slowly churning underneath the otherwise calm, beautiful waters. As I climbed out of the cold ocean in my wetsuit, finished the triathlon, and sat in the medical tent having my vitals taken, I did not see my husband anywhere. He had driven down with me that day, and said he’d meet me at the finish line, just as he had in years before. In fact, he was first supposed to meet me after the swim, where I’d pull off my wetsuit and throw it to him on the sidelines. He was my partner. He had taught me to swim, and where was he now?
It turns out, Joe was in the car, sleeping. He had slept through the hours of prep and pre-race activities, through my swim, through my cycling, through my run, and through my medical emergency. Sleep, though, might not be the right word. You see, Joe was an alcoholic – is an alcoholic – and so his brain was shut down even further than sleep. He was not conscious, not with it, not awake, hung over, going through withdrawal, sick, sad, lost, gone. My husband was gone.
This wasn’t the last straw, but it was close to the end for me, and my body knew it. It was fighting to scream out, but it couldn’t. And so I internalized my pain, my voice, my thoughts, my needs. I had done this for so many years, but the storm was finally here.
On the day I left Joe, I got into my car, and howled in pain. I screamed “NO”, with an ache and sorrow I hope never to feel again. It was the kind of loss that I imagine one feels when their spouse dies. And he was dead, in a way. He was certainly not the man I married. His laughter, his spark for life, his passion, his hobbies, his love and devotion to me, were all gone. It was both the hardest and easiest decision of my life to leave. It had to be done. I couldn’t breathe. But to shut the door on the love of my life, a twelve year relationship and seven year marriage, was heartbreaking. My heart is still broken, 3 years later. I’ve kept much of this inside, and pushed ahead with my work and relationships. From the outside, I’ve been doing amazing. And, for the most part, I really have. But, there’s a lot of heartache and painful and good memories buried deep inside that lately have been making their way back to the surface.
This morning, my throat felt tight. This time, though, I know what to do to let myself breathe. I must speak.