I had a major panic attack in Cuba. I guess it’s as good a place as any.
It started with the nightmares. Although somewhat normal for me and my odd relationship with sleep, these were different. In every dream, I was dying. I actually felt the numbness take over my body, and I’d wake up just as the act was nearly completed. It left me with a dark, ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach, and even daylight couldn’t chase away the shadows from the night before.
They scared me so much I wrote home, checking in and making sure these nightmares weren’t some sort of harbinger for bad news. All was fine (although I’m pretty sure I freaked out my big sis in the meantime). I didn’t quite connect what was causing these feelings until I was talking with M, my amazing Cuban house-mom who deserves a post all her own. Was it the food I ate? Some show I watched? Tal vez…tal vez… Perhaps. But it felt like there was something evil lurking just beyond my reach. And then my brain finally locked in on the answer and I knew in my gut what was causing these terrifying pesadillas. The email.
Ah yes…the little, seemingly innocuous email that had shown up in my inbox a few days before. The email I had semi-known in the back of my mind was coming, but was feigning ignorance because I wasn’t quite ready to come to terms with it and make a decision.
Subject: INTENT TO RETURN FROM PERSONAL LEAVE OF ABSENCE
Please review the attached letter requesting your intent for the 2017-18 school year…”
Already?? And almost no time to mull it over–it’s due the day after I (briefly) return to the States this week. I had an overwhelming urge to delete the email immediately, denying its existence, but instead (and for reasons I am still trying to understand) I kept it in my inbox. And every time I logged in, I saw that subject line glaring at me in bold caps. And so the nightmares began.
Fast forward a week and I’m away from my loving casa in Havana, just passing through Che’s city of Santa Clara for a night as a transition between Cuban coasts. I had been feeling somewhat off for a few days. My eyes feel weird. My eyes felt like I’d been given glaucoma-testing drops, and I had a constant twitch in my left eye. I’m so tired. I had been giving myself plenty of rest days, but couldn’t shake this complete exhaustion that consumed my body. I can taste my tonsil. Ok…the f*cking tonsil seriously deserves a post all its own as well.
I had arrived on a morning bus, settling into my temporary digs before slowly starting off for the first of various Che statues adorning la ciudad. I quickly tired out, and returned to rest. The next attempt to venture out was about the same. I bumbled along toward the Che memorial (yes, this dude is everywhere) and by the time I was on the return path I could hardly manage to put one foot in front of the other. And so I came back to the room to rest. Again.
After a few hours of complete and utter boredom (no books left to read, no TV, no familia to talk to, no wifi), I felt rejuvenated. I was even dancing around the room a little bit, feeling like my old self. God, I’m starving. Food. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
I headed straight for the main square two blocks away, where I knew I’d have various menus shoved in my face. But a few steps before reaching my goal, my heart stopped and my legs gave way. Oh God, this is it. My heart is giving out, I thought to myself. This is how I die.
I stumbled over to a bench to sit, and scrambled for a pulse. It felt weak and rapid, but it was there. Ok, that was weird. Breathe. Are you breathing? Remember your yoga…as long as you’re breathing, you’re alive (yoga and I are currently on a break–yet another post).
After a few minutes I felt better, and thought maybe I just needed to eat. I circled the block looking at a few menus, but again felt so out of it and so certain I was about to collapse that I headed straight back for the tiny, dingy apartment that was my accommodation for the evening.
And so I spent the night sprawled across the bed, one hand on my pulse, another massaging the tightness in my heart, certain I was about to die in a dank, mildewy room in the middle of Cuba, and nobody would know for days. I want to be home…I just want to be home. I felt like Dorothy in some f*cked up Tim Burton version of The Wizard of Oz. Although I didn’t sleep, I managed to make it through the night.
Yes, now I can look back and see the ridiculousness of the situation, but at that moment it felt very, very…real. Terrifying. And I felt so powerless and utterly alone. I was genuinely frightened that evening.
And now, since hindsight is so much clearer, I remember what I had been thinking about on that morning bus ride to Santa Clara. My old school. The one that “broke” me, to be entirely dramatic. The one where I was under such pressure and constantly walking around on eggshells and putting on a fake performance…ugh. The one where two separate teachers had nervous breakdowns in the span of two years (and others quit before they were sure to follow). Somewhere along the line of those three years, I stopped recognizing myself, and no matter how amazing my new school was, there’s no way I could’ve recovered that quickly. (I still have actual nightmares about the old school to this day.) Yep, my mind had gone there, and I was reliving every stressful moment as if it were yesterday. And hours later, I thought I was about to die.
So. The big question: Will I send in this intent to return, when even the mention of my previous career sends me into extreme panic mode?
Oh God, please forgive me but…
Yes, I think I have to. Although a pool of pure dread is puddling in the pit of my stomach as I type these very words…yes. Why? Comfort? Sure. Security? I think so. But mostly because I have no idea where this year of travel will take me, and I am open to any and all possibilities. Maybe I’ll rediscover my love of teaching. Maybe my adventures will inspire me to be the teacher I always pictured I could become in the right environment (you know, the ones from all the movies who somehow capture the attention and ignite the spark for our future generations and actually teach them to be good people and have honest conversations instead of how to take a motherf*cking test…but I digress).
For me, right now, it’s way too soon to tell. I need more time. It’s my intent this year to be completely honest with myself, constantly checking in and making sure I am following my heart’s path…and so far I’m doing a pretty good job.
So yes. I am leaving this option open. I’m not willing to close any doors just yet.