I still remember the first time I lost control of my breath. I was standing on the ice during a figure skating practice session when my then-coach approached and chastised me. I’d taken a quick break to talk with a friend after our lesson, and he was appalled. He told me that I wasn’t working hard enough, that I didn’t take the practice seriously. As he skated swiftly away, shame washed over me. And there were flickers of anger, too, at the injustice of his words (I’d taken a very brief break, after all). I struggled to maintain composure, but I’ve never been good at keeping my emotions under wraps; a few tears trickled over my cheeks. Worse, I felt my breathing accelerate, and I couldn’t seem to slow it down. Panicked, I moved off the ice, and spent the next few minutes trying to calm myself enough to breathe normally.
At the time, I didn’t know what “hyperventilate” meant. All I knew was that losing control over my own breath was very, very scary. I still remember the visceral terror of the first time my emotions hijacked my ability to breathe. And of course, the fear I felt only made the hyperventilation worse.
Today, I wonder if my brother Willie’s meltdowns are at all akin to that. There are times when Willie chooses to behave disruptively, but there are other times in which his actions seem outside of his control. After those meltdowns, he seems truly shaken up by his behavior, just as I was shocked by my hyperventilation that day on the ice.
Recently, Willie had an assessment appointment with a new doctor, so my parents and I have been talking about possible new treatments. As always, we’re trying to discover what support might help Willie manage his own behavior. We don’t fully understand what triggers the outbursts. There’s definitely a physiological component, yet we don’t know how much stems from anger he can’t express in a healthy way. In the past, I’ve judged my brother for his inability to control that anger. But I know myself a little better now. Thanks to Willie, I’ve smashed a guitar; I’ve run away from home; I’ve dealt with the effects of leaving normal. That anger that he feels? That anger is in me, too. I can’t deny it.
Recently, I had an opportunity to taste what it’s like to be Willie—to struggle for composure and fail in the attempt. I’d spent an hour working on a revision. Ideas were flowing; I was feeling good about doing the work. And then my Word program crashed twice, taking the majority of the work with it.
We’ve all been there, but that doesn’t make it any less infuriating. Staring at the computer screen, I wanted to throttle something. How could my work have vanished? Why hadn’t I double-checked my autosave settings? My anger started boiling. And of course, my kitten Bootsie chose that moment to leap into my lap. As I picked her up, she lunged and shifted her balance. She reached toward me, trying to prevent herself from falling. One claw caught the skin near my collarbone. Pain shot through me. It was all too much. I started crying and yelling, and the cat panicked too. By the time I managed to detach from her, I had officially lost it. I chased after the cat, my anger ablaze. She cowered as I yelled things that would make my mother want to wash my mouth out with soap. It was not my finest moment.
As I stood in the bathroom bandaging my chest, I felt my breath careening out of control. With an effort, I did the breathing exercises that my parents do with my brother. By grace, I also remembered Anne Lamott’s line from “Bird by Bird”: “Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth.” In other words, order to get to the truth, you have to get into the messy parts of yourself, the things you’d prefer to disown. (I hate that.)
Once calm, I stared at my reflection, and shook my head. Willie, I said to myself, I’m sorry that I ever judged you.