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The Cheeseburger (Or how I learned to meditate.)

Several years ago I had my first real, full-blown panic attack. The kind where you’re convinced you’re about to die, you’re unable to breathe or think rationally, and you end up in the emergency room. Honestly, I’m always sort of existing in a mild state of panic, it's just how I’m wired. But this was a different breed of panic, not my habitual everyday panic. The cause of the attack was a simple backyard barbecue. More specifically it was a standard American barbecued cheeseburger that caused my attack. I think it was Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, possibly Labor Day? All I know is that it was warm out when the hubs and I had the bright idea of hosting a backyard barbecue for some family and friends. Toward the end of the meal I was taking one last bite when I laughed at something someone said, inhaled sharply, and WHAMMO!!! A cold chunk of cheeseburger, still encased in its gluey bun, got caught in my throat. I started to gag, and then to cough. Mortified by my choking, eyes wide and streaming with tears, I slunk away from our guests, into the house, and into the nearest bathroom. It was then that I remembered a coworker's tale about an aunt who, choking on something and embarrassed to be hacking so indelicately in front of her guests, retired to her powder room, where she promptly passed out due to lack of oxygen…and then died!!! In her own home, during a dinner party, in a first floor bathroom. This would not be my fate.

I stumbled to the kitchen where I found my husband, who had come inside to find me. I told him that I was choking and that we had to go to the emergency room STAT to have whatever food chunk was blocking my airway and causing my distress to be removed. He looked outside to where our guests were assembled and then back at me, shocked. Surely if I was talking and upright it couldn't be that bad? But his doubt, his disbelief, just made the lump in my throat - which I was beginning to convince myself made me unable to breathe at all - hurt more.

“I can’t breathe” I gasped at him in a low and dramatic hissing whisper. “We have to go, now!!!” And so we did, leaving the assembled guests host-less, free to amuse themselves without us. As we drove in silence (I was choking to death after all) my panic started to mount. Not only was I very short of breath and dizzy, but now my heart was pounding too, racing even. And the faster it raced, the more freaked out I got, and the harder it was to breathe. I felt trapped in a never ending loop of ratcheting-up anxiety.

I walked into the ER alone due to the Covid restrictions at that time. The doctor who checked me in told me in no uncertain terms that if I was slowly choking to death (as I believed I was) I would be unable to speak, cough or communicate. The piece of cheeseburger which was “blocking my windpipe” had lodged itself in there over 30 minutes ago. If it really was obstructing my throat, I would be dead by now.

This young punk doctor's disbelief, just like my husband’s, only a made my symptoms worse.

He looked down my throat, asked me to take some deep breaths through my mouth, confirmed that whatever had been stuck in my throat was no longer in residence, and asked me if I wanted to wait and see a doctor or “go home and calm down”. The balls on this guy! “I need to see a doctor and I need to see one now” I insisted. And here is where the story really begins.

A kind nurse walked me (apparently I didn't even warrant a wheelchair, which surprised me) to a room in the ER where I sat on the cold, hard, paper-covered bed and felt sorry for myself. I took my own pulse several times over, and alarmed at the furious pace, wondered if a human heart could burst. And if so, what that would feel like?

Lost in the reverie of my exploding heart and how very sorry everyone would be for not believing me in the first place, I became aware of some serious commotion out in the hall. The sounds were loud, violent, strained, dramatic. Police were certainly involved as I could hear their sharp staccato walkie sounds reverberating along the emergency room's cool, sterile floors and walls.

I peeked around the curtain and what I saw alarmed me. A young woman, probably in her late twenties, hair a mess, makeup smeared across her face, clothes torn and disheveled, was being wheeled into the ER by two enormous male cops. She was handcuffed to the wheel chair by one wrist and her legs were also restrained by what looked to my untrained eye like bungee cords. She was wailing. Wasted. Frantic. Desperate. Drunk and high, most likely in a blackout. She was pleading with the cops, screaming as loud as she could. “Please” she cried, “you don’t understand. My kids are home alone. My kids are home alone and I have to get back to them. Let me go. Please just let me go.” Ignored, she howled “nooooooo” in an agonizing, terrible wail. “Noooooo. Please” she cried again, “someone help me. Help me. You don’t understand!!! I did nothing wrong. Where are my car keys? Where the fuck is my purse?” At this she started to look around manically and then to really thrash, rocking back and forth, against her restraints. The burlier of the two cops, who looked like something straight out of Scorsese’s The Departed, put his hand on her shoulder to calm her which turned out to be a big mistake. This kind gesture set her off and in a millisecond she went from pleading desperation to vengeful rage. “How dare you touch me” she screamed at the cop. “How dare you” she spat at him. “Do you know who my father is? You're gonna find out!! You're boutta fine out” she slurred. “You'll learn your place.”

At that a doctor came in to see me. Which was funny as I was so completely engrossed in the hallway drama that I almost didn't know what I was even doing there, sitting in the freezing emergency room on a warm and balmy summer evening. This doctor was kind and compassionate. She listened to my symptoms and looked concerned, all while the Godawful scene played out across the hall in Room B. I was in Room A. She looked in my throat. We did some breathing exercises and she told me to stay in the room, to count my breaths with my eyes closed, and concentrate on lowering my heart rate so I could go home. What was she talking about? I was choking to death. Or maybe….I wasn't.

The doctor left and I started to do the “box breathing” exercises as instructed. Inhale for four long beats. Hold for four. Exhale for four. Hold for four. Inhale for four. And so on. I did try, but honestly I could not help but be totally riveted by what was going on across the hall.

The cops had called for backup. A young orderly had shown up and the three of them removed the girl’s restraints, picked up her and dumped her onto the bed like a sack of really drunk potatoes. As they tipped her onto the bed and she landed face down, but with her her knees bent so her essentially naked ass, high up in the air, could be seen by all. She was so exposed. So very vulnerable. She was in a pitiful state. I shamelessly eavesdropped on the doctors and cops attending to the girl. I heard the whole sad story. This young woman had been busted giving oral sex to someone in a car down by the train tracks. It seemed like a simple prostitution bust but even the hardened cops seemed to have pity for this woman. They had checked out her lament about the kids being left alone (they had her address from her wallet) and found them safe and sound with the grandmother, which made everyone breathe a little easier. Except for the children's mother. She just kept on ranting and raving and sobbing and hiccuping and burping loudly. She would be arrested soon but as she was so impaired by drugs and alcohol the cops had brought her to the ER lest she die of an overdose at the station. Her “client” was being booked there right now.

Once they got her in the bed, and re-restrained her (this time both legs and arms were tethered) she started wailing and trying to thrash again - crying, sobbing about her young children who she still believed were home alone. “Help me” she pleaded to every new person that came into her room. “You have to help me. No one understands, I have to get home. Please please please please.” She moaned and screamed in every tenor and volume imaginable until it just became a pitiful warbling hiccuping trance-like invocation. “Please please please please please. Please help me. Please help me.”

Eventually a nurse came in and they gave the girl a “nice big dose” of Valium to knock her out. Intravenous Valium, the good stuff. I wanted to poke my head out of the curtain and ask for the same, but I didn't think they would oblige me. “She's gonna need several hours to sleep this one off” the nurse told the cops. “Y’all can leave her with us.” “Okay, but keep her restrained” they said. “Of course” the nurse replied. “We won’t let that one loose in here.” At that they all laughed and the cops got ready to sign whatever paperwork they had to deal with. Gathering up their police gear with all those leathery, jangly, masculine sounds they left, rendering Room B and indeed the entire hallway, much quieter than when they had first arrived.

While all this was going on, people had been coming in to see me. A nurse. An orderly. To take my pulse. To check in. To see if I needed anything. But I didn’t need anything. The whole time I’d been waiting for someone to confirm that I was in grave danger I had been watching my attention swing wildly between our 2 rooms. Room A and Room B. I would focus intently on my breath and lowering my heart rate and then some agonizing desperate plea from Room B would grab me and I’d be over there. Where I would stay. My breathing exercises, my racing heartbeat and my possibly fatal choking? All were forgotten as my attention was sharply focused on something else, the drama in Room B. I stayed there, in that unwelcoming emergency room for over 2 hours - 2 hours that I spent throwing my attention between room A and my breathing and Room B and the Netflix drama unfolding over there. I became acutely aware that I could focus my attention on any given thought and, with some effort, hold it there. I started swinging my attention back and forth, back and forth, cleanly, crisply. Like a flashlight’s beam searching for a missing child in a dark forest at night. Room A. Hold. Room B. Hold. Room A. Hold. Room B. Hold. Then, after awhile of doing this quite successfully I started to branch out with my focus. Moving from thought to thought, memory to memory, from Room A to Room B to room A to my apartment when I lived in Italy, to my cat who was waiting for me at home, to my left foot, my right foot, my right hand, my left hand, to the viability and legality of raising a bobcat as a pet (a long-held dream of mine), to Room A, Room B, and so on. It was in this way, with this experience, that I saw for the very first time that I can be in charge up there. That I have the power to choose what to focus on. I was trying, and was able, with some effort, to pull my attention, my consciousness, away from the show across the hall.

Why did I care so much? Why couldn't I simply keep my attention in Room A, on my breath, on lowering my heart rate so I could go home? Honestly because what was going on in Room B was much more exciting and dramatic than what was going on in my sad room. Room A was just some middle aged white lady having a panic attack because she imagined something was blocking her windpipe. Room B on the other hand made my heart race. And I liked that. I liked that surge of adrenaline. I wanted to get involved. I wanted to be helpful. I wanted to step across the threshold of Room B and straight into that made-for-television scenario. I wanted to take that poor young woman's hand and let her know that she doesn't have to live like that. I wanted to vampire off of the energy in that room. The drama, the pathos, the tragedy of it all. But why? I was trying to lower my heart rate while actively focusing on something that was causing it to spike. Ah, the nature of an addict, the angel and the devil forever bickering on our shoulders, fighting for our attention, our concentration, our energy and our souls

When I was finally cleared to go home with 86 nice steady heartbeats per minute, I was calm. What had really happened? I had briefly had something caught in my throat. It cleared itself but my initial fear that I might choke to death caused a panic reaction. My heart raced, my breathing became shallow. The physical panic reaction increased as I convinced myself I was in danger and the whole thing snowballed from there. But alas, apart from the initial piece of cheeseburger stuck in my throat which I had swallowed, or coughed up in one of my Oscar-worthy, neck-grabbing, throat-clearing coughing fits, it was, as hubs had implied, all in my head.

I realized then and there, while signing myself out of the hospital, that I can choose where I put my attention. This was a beautiful revelation. That I can focus my attention, like a laser, on whatever I want. Habitually I have put that attention on the worry, the fears and the “what if” scenarios that rule my mind. “What if World War Three starts tomorrow? What if something happens to a loved one? What if I can't ever have a bobcat as a pet?” But my experience in the ER the night of that fateful barbecue taught me that I have this amazing power. The power to put my attention and keep it where I want, when I want. For me, an anxious and inveterate worrier, this realization was a real and welcome breakthrough. That was how I learned to meditate.

Now I meditate everyday. Because I can. And because I like it. I am so much less reactive now that I am often shocked by my own reactions to events around me. I still get mad, but before I open my mouth to give whoever it is a piece of my mind, I can go inside, get still, watch my own reactivity, laugh at it, and move on. Anger gone, I can now be effective. I can sit still and unhook my mind from my thoughts, very much like unhooking a hook from a fish's mouth. I can be in the now and meditate on gratitude or on nothing at all, just the energy of the present moment. And slowly I am breaking the bonds of my mind. A mind which habitually would like to focus on the problem (real or imagined) and the escape, rather than the solution. I'm certainly glad I didn't choke to death on that humble cheeseburger. A small cold cheeseburger that sent me rushing willy-nilly to the emergency room but that also afforded me a spiritual awakening.

If I hadn’t panicked, I never would have made it to the emergency room and I never would have learned that contrary to what it would like me to think, I can be the boss of my mind. I can be the boss of what gets lodged between my ears. And if my mind doesn't like it? Too bad. Now, thanks to my first (and hopefully last) full-blown panic attack and my subsequent dash to the ER, I know that I can always make the choice to concentrate on what I want to think about - NOT what my mind wants to think about. The choice is mine. I can choose to focus on the light or the dark, the good or the bad, the problem or the solution. All I need to do is get still, go inward, breathe deeply, and focus.


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