I’m a big fan of 911. As a kid, I watched Rescue 911 religiously. When my little sister shoved a Lite-Brite peg into the depths of her nasal passage, my first responder six-year-old ass had the phone off the cradle and the 9–1 dialed before my mom could say “tweezers.” If I see a person laying face-down on the street — or anywhere people typically don’t choose to lay face-down — I’m calling 911. If you’re driving like you’re drunk, an asshole, or a drunk asshole, you better hope I’m not on the road that day. Because if I am? You know who I’m gonna call. (No, not Ghostbusters. 911.)
I don’t know CPR, self-defense, regular defense, or anything else that would render me useful in an emergency (I do, however, own an impressive assortment of Band-Aids). Thing is, I can’t just ignore an emergency, either. Having lived most of my life in big cities, I’ve learned there are times it’s best to mind your own business, and there are other, glaringly obvious times when you need to call in reinforcements. I’ve only called 911 five times, and I have a visceral memory of every situation that warranted it, as they were all fucking terrifying in their own special way. Like the time I watched an older, probably-drunk man take a few stumbling steps down the sidewalk before cracking his head open on a black iron gate (the kind with the pointy tips), followed by the reddest blood I’ve ever seen covering the whole of his white dome. I’m not talking blood-red, either — this was a primary color situation. In moments like that, I don’t have to think twice about what to do. A 911 emergency is like porn, in that way — you know it when you see it.
At least, it works that way when it comes to other people’s emergencies. As I learned yesterday, identifying one’s own emergencies is not nearly so straight-forward.
Ever done cocaine?
…Me neither. I’ve heard mixed reviews. Anyway, cocaine has nothing to do with my story — just the drip part. On Election Night, I was watching the results come in (outdoors, on a projector, with my pod) when I started to feel an odd sensation. One minute, I was eating a slice of pizza; the next, it felt as though the pizza was uh… inside of my face? Perhaps in my sinuses? I don’t know how these things work. The best way to describe it is, it did not feel like I had chewed and digested a slice of pizza; it felt like I’d chopped a slice of pizza into a line, snorted it off a mirror, and it was now dripping in thick gobs down the back of my throat. I started to feel light-headed and generally Weird, so I Googled “food nasal drip” and “food inside my face.” Shockingly, this returned no comprehensible explanation.
A few weeks into an ebb and flow of odd symptoms — raw throat, food-drip, heartburn — I went to get a Covid test and used the opportunity to tell the clinician about my symptoms. She was pretty confident in her diagnosis: GERD. GERD is a gastrointestinal disease that basically amounts to chronic acid reflux. It’s also a disease that not only accounts for my recent symptoms, but a few long-standing ones I’d basically written off as idiosyncrasies. Like: I can’t eat anything without a glass of water nearby because, having a long history of choking on my food, water has become the unofficial hall monitor of my esophagus. I know not to eat too much, or too fast, and I can chew just fine — but it’s almost as if my brain forgets what it’s supposed to do after that. Swallowing food has basically become a conscious process for me (it’s not supposed to be, if you were wondering). I also have the constant sensation of a lump in my throat; when I swallow saliva, I can feel the entire architecture of my mouth and throat. This may not be related to GERD: I’ve had both issues since childhood, and swallowing disorders are a thing in their own right. But the nasal drip, the constant taste of battery acid in my throat, the heartburn and resulting chest pain, my inability to fall and stay sleep: All signs point to GERD.
Which brings me to yesterday. I’d had a rough night — difficulty sleeping, and my stomach constantly feels how it might after vomiting (minus the actual vomiting). But I was in a surprisingly good mood by the time I took my last call for the day, which was naturally when things turned. Mid-conversation (which I took laying down — not great, for keeping your stomach acid where it belongs), I accidentally put too much pressure on my stomach. Suddenly, it felt as though things were no longer flowing the way they were supposed to. I tried to return my attention the call, laughing at my coworker’s genuinely riveting story, but my laughter was labored and painful. So was talking. I didn’t seem to have enough breath to comfortably do either, and my mouth was drying up at an alarmingly rapid rate. Each time I spoke, it felt like I was using up the last air on Earth.
We cut the call short. I stood up to get a glass of water, but I was too dizzy to move. I crumbled to the floor, instead, and texted two friends: to talk myself through it, and to alert them that I may actually be dying. I tried to inhale and exhale for a bit, which was difficult and naturally made me panic, leaving me in a sort of cycle of breathlessness. Then my hands and forearms began tingling (internally) and vibrating (externally). I’m used to some numbness in my hands and arms, thanks to… exactly what I’m doing right now (typing stuff), but the vibrations continued to spread through both arms and legs. Five seconds away from going full Supernova, I crawled to a water glass and took the tiniest sip: a test of sorts. I was hoping I would vomit it up and validate my increasingly urgent desire to call for help, and also that I wouldn’t drown myself in the process. Instead, I felt the water in my sinuses, the brief sensation of breathing underwater. (And now, I know what water smells like.)
At this point, my mouth and throat felt like they’d lost a staring contest with Medusa. I had no saliva left. As a veteran weed smoker, I’m well-acquainted with the discomfort of cottonmouth — but this was not that. I was Sahara-dry: mouth, throat, lips, everything. All moisture had left the building, and it legitimately felt like my body was shutting down. So I took another drink of water — this time, with Alka Seltzer. Even in that moment I knew it was dumb, but I guess I was trying to force the issue. My heart did a two-step as my acidic insides erupted like a science fair volcano.
I sat on the floor. I Googled “women heart attack.” I remembered that, while I’m still relatively young, I’m not young enough that my having a heart attack is an entirely ludicrous proposition. I thought of my brother-in-law, who was about my age when doctors had to put him in a medically-induced coma after his own heart attack (he’s great now, if you were wondering!). With that, I was ready to 911 this thing.
I’ve never felt more insane than waiting for the perfect moment to call 911 and asking if they might rescue me from the jaws of death. I wanted to be alive enough to dial the numbers and talk, but close to death enough to make sure this thing was legit. I guess I have an almost pathological aversion to asking for help. I’ve gotten better at seeking support from a few core people when I need it — including the friends I texted, both of whom showed up just after the EMTs did — but on the whole, I found it far more difficult to dial 911 for myself than I would a stranger on the street. In this case, some of my hesitation was Covid-related; I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time on…whatever the hell was happening to me. And I didn’t want to believe that whatever was happening required trained paramedics. There was also this whisper of self-doubt — was it really that bad? Was I sure?
The EMTs didn’t think it was so bad. They were kind, but they were also pretty confident I was having a good ol’ fashioned panic attack. To be clear, I agree for the most part. I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder about a decade ago, and I’ve had my fair share of panic attacks — just none as extreme or as physical as this one. I actually hadn’t had a true panic attack in years before this — not to say this wasn’t one, more to say that, as I’m dealing with new health issues, it wasn’t the first or even second prospect to come to mind. If it had been, I would’ve popped a Xanax and called it a day instead of calling 911.
At the EMTs’ urging, I did pop a Xanax once they left. I wish I could say that did the trick — of course it helped, but it took hours for me to move from, “I’m going to die with no will and testament!” to “I feel like hell, which is apparently now my baseline!” I’m hoping a trip to the GI will give me some clarity. If this was a spontaneous panic attack that had nothing to do with my physical state, I’ll accept it. But if the two are connected — say, if the pressure on my stomach sloshed some acid into my esophagus and left me short of breath (thus, triggering the panic attack) — that’s information I’d like to have. So I can not do it again.
One of the friends who came by — we were roommates in college and again in our thirties — told me that I looked blue when she arrived, that she’d never seen me like that. Given the number of compromised states she has seen me in, that was somewhat alarming. But really, I’m most curious about how quickly I lost all moisture in my mouth and throat, which was honestly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was like watching a climate change time-lapse, starring my mouth as the barren riverbed. When the EMTs left, I ran a finger across my lips and it was covered in… dandruff, basically? (Is this gross? Is this whole thing gross? I’m trying not to be, but this feels like an important detail!) What is that? Do you know? I don’t. Google doesn’t either.
All I know — all the EMTs know — is that my vitals were mostly normal when they arrived, and that I had a panic attack. They know I’m sorry for calling them, and I know they probably get calls like mine all the time. I think all three of us would agree that, regardless of what was happening physically or mentally, I needed rescuing in that moment. Of course, I do feel kiiinda dumb about the whole thing… but I don’t wanna have to call them again, so I’m trying not to stress it. EMTs’ orders.