Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in New Orleans and spent the first ten years of my life in southern Louisiana. Since I was ten, I’ve lived in Kentucky. My daddy is from Arkansas; my mama born in Mississippi. I grew up on boats and in gardens and saying ma’am and sir and stealing pecans and oranges from our neighbors’ yards. If I like you, or even if I just met you, I’ll probably address you as sweetie, baby, honey, pumpkin, sugar, or darlin’.
The doctor was about my age, somewhere between not-young and not-old, and handsome enough to be intimidating, which for me doesn’t take much. I’ve always been nervous around doctors. I have also always been nervous around men. This handsome male doctor increased the nervousness to a near panic attack, especially since he was threatening my tender foot with a giant needle.
The burning pain in the bottom of my left foot had turned from a months-long nuisance into a near-debilitating agony. I had finally decided that getting medical help, even though I hate going to the doctor alone, was probably better than suffering through anguish for the rest of my life.
The doctor sat on a stool in front of me, cradling my foot in the palm of his hand. It could have been a romantic scene from Cinderella if only he were holding a glass slipper instead of a syringe. If only I felt more like Cinderella than one of the evil step-sisters: awkward and ugly.
“Will it be better or worse than getting a tattoo?” Even though he laughed, I meant the question in earnest. I had never had a cortisone shot before, but I had heard that they were painful. And I had never had a shot in the top of my foot, near my toes, where there was relatively little fat to cushion the pain. But I had a couple tattoos; I at least knew what that felt like. I needed a point of reference so I would know exactly how much to squeeze my butt cheeks and scrunch my eyes shut.
He laughed so hard that the needle was shaking in his hand, too close to my exposed vulnerable foot. “Oh, it won’t last nearly as long.” His answer did nothing to un-clinch my butt cheeks, nothing to slow my heart rate.
“But how much will it hurt?” I asked.
“Just breathe. Don’t hold your breath. Just breathe.”
That’s what the tattoo artist told me in Portugal three years before. Near the end of our month-long stay in Lisbon, my husband, Sam, and I wandered into Bad Bones Tattoo Parlor, a short walk from our apartment but worlds away from anything I was comfortable with. The array of tacky flashy colors and over-the-top bold images on the walls, an odd mix of religious symbols and sexual pictures, overwhelmed me as I stood in the middle of the lobby and flipped through a binder of fonts.
Part of me wanted to run out of the place. Someone would catch on quickly that I didn’t belong there. I was too straight-laced or reserved or old or something. Someone was probably making fun of me. But I stayed and tried my best to look like I was cool enough to be hanging out in a tattoo parlor. I’m sure I failed at that. I saw it in the way I perceived the young Portuguese tattoo artist approach me. “Can I help you, ma’am?” His tone suggested he thought my husband and I might be lost. Of course that could have just been his accent.
“I want my husband’s name, Sam, in pretty swirly letters,” I told him as I thumbed through the binder. “But in English, not Portuguese,” I smiled at my own clumsy joke. “With lots of swirls,” in case he hadn’t heard me the first time.
Later I lay on my side on a table, the young tattoo artist behind me, his arm resting on my hip, his free hand on my rib cage. The needle entered the tender flesh of my side, right above my hip. The deep stinging took my breath. This hurt far worse than getting my first tattoo in a few years earlier in Louisville. I had even laughed when I got the butterfly tattooed on my lower leg, right above my ankle. I had joked around with that tattoo artist, chatted about old movies and some of his favorite tattoo stories. Of course, the Louisville guy was much older and not nearly as good-looking as the Portuguese guy, which meant he was more experienced and I was less nervous.
The whole time Sam’s name was being permanently etched into my side, I felt like throwing up or passing out or both. As the needle surged on, the pain subsided from a sharp, radiating stinging to a dull burn. But then the tattoo artist removed the needle and re-entered my tender skin, and the stinging pain returned. Several times this happened. I wanted to tell him to just keep the stupid needle in and get it over with.
In an effort to distract myself from the pain, I tried to make conversation with the young guy. “So, how long have you been doing tattoos?” I tried to sound cheerful, even though I was simultaneously secretly swearing that I would never do this again. No more tattoos for me, and this was only my second one.
“Just keep breathing,” he returned in his pleasant Portuguese accent. So much for my attempt at conversation. Either he didn’t understand my question or didn’t want me to know the answer. Either way, I obeyed his command and breathed in deeply as the needle plunged again into my skin. I gave silent thanks that my husband’s name was only three letters long and cursed myself for asking for so many swirls.
A few years ago, I tried to explain to a young, handsome nurse practitioner at a Kroger Little Clinic how I managed to get poison ivy all over my breasts, including my nipples, while doing yard work. “I swear I was wearing clothes in my yard. And I didn’t put anything down my shirt, either.” We both laughed a little. My seven-year-old niece, who was with me because she wanted to go for a ride and, like I said, I hate going to the doctor alone, sat on the other side of the small room and watched, trying not to giggle as I sat there, exposed.
“Sorry I have to show you my boobs,” I said, genuinely apologetic, to the NP. While doctor visits make me anxious, I am not bothered by the actual physical exam and the necessity of exposing my body to strangers. I had gone through three C-sections and one tummy tuck by this point, so dozens of strangers had seen part or all of me naked. During my second C-section, a group of nursing students was in the operating room watching the doctor cut me open. One of the male students was kind enough to take a picture of my husband and me with our new son while the doctor stitched me up.
For the tummy tuck, I had to be standing up—completely naked—while they prepped me for surgery. I shook the attending surgeon’s hand (I had never met him before) while nurses painted my abdomen with that rust-orange stuff. “Hey! Good to meet you, even though I’m not wearing clothes!” They had already given me some medicine that lowered my inhibitions and prevented me from freaking out about having my mid-section cut open and also had the delightful effect of making me forget how handsome doctors cause me anxiety. My breast jiggled as I pumped my arm, which made me nearly double-over in laughter. The doctor laughed, too, or at least he did in my fuzzy memory. Once I was on the operating table a woman told me to breathe deeply and count. In my clouded memory, I told her I wouldn’t do it. “Ha! I know what you’re trying to do right now! You want me to breathe so I will go to sleep! You can’t fool me!” The last thing I remember is looking up into a blurry face framed by blond curls, and I was laughing heartily.
The NP at the Kroger Clinic laughed, too, as he looked over my poison ivy covered chest. “I know it looks disgusting. Definitely not ready to pose for a pin-up any time soon,” I joked. We chatted as he wrote a prescription and gave me instructions. Then right before I left he said, “You have a great personality. I hope you come back soon!” That line had me laughing for days.
It seems people are always telling me to breathe. When we were teenagers, my sisters would often implore me to “Breathe, Becca, Oh my God!” when they mistook my well-placed passion for over-reaction. When I’m struggling on a jog with my husband, he will remind me to breathe, and even give me specific instructions, as if the physical exertion of jogging has rendered me temporarily incapable of basic involuntary bodily functions. Even as I am revising this essay, and I am not making this up, Anna Nalick’s song “Breathe” has come on and is telling me to “Just breathe” over and over.
For the past eighteen months, since I was diagnosed with OCD and depression, I have been instructed by my therapist to be aware of my breathing. At one of our earliest sessions, she had me close my eyes. Notice your breath. Focus on your breath. Be mindful of your breathing. In and out. In and out. Slow. Let your mind relax and feel the breathing. Her soft voice was filled with sincerity, but I just felt silly, stupid, and a little sleepy. I left that session unconvinced that this mindfulness thing was going to fix what was wrong with me.
I was still skeptical for a lot of reasons. Sitting quietly and breathing deeply would just put me to sleep, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, I suppose. And while I had heard, and maybe sort of knew, that breathing deeply helps when you’re in pain, I couldn’t see how taking in oxygen real slow would help alleviate the bombardment of weighty intrusive thoughts and rescue me from the relentless clutches of depression. My pain was too deep to exhale.
Because therapy is expensive, and I wanted to get my money’s worth, even if it meant practicing something I’d been doing my whole life and could do literally without thinking about it, I did as my therapist instructed. Every day, I practiced breathing in and out and tried my best to let my thoughts just be. I got a meditation app on my phone and read the mindfulness books. Sam and I read volumes on Buddhism and mindfulness. Sam started taking meditation walks during which he would deliberately notice the sky and the birds chirping and the leaves on the trees and the feel of his own breath. He swore it helped. Great. I was glad for him.
I started listening to a guy with a British accent on my meditation app tell me to breathe and be mindful of my thoughts. He was very specific and encouraging, as if I might be getting something wrong: “Fill your lungs with air and relax. That’s it. Now let your thoughts be. Just let them float by. Meditation takes practice, so it’s fine if you’re struggling a bit.” Struggling with what? Sitting and doing nothing? The only thing I struggled with during those early days was taking it seriously. Nonetheless, every day I would sit on my bedroom floor (not the bed, so I would be less tempted to fall asleep) with the door locked, eyes closed. I would breathe on purpose, hoping that some magical healing power would come into my body and the toxic energies that were corroding my mind would be released. And I would be free. And I would be able to breathe easy.
For weeks, no magic happened. But I kept on. Then at some point, and I cannot remember an exact time, I started feeling better. The thoughts were not as loud and the compulsions not as demanding. Moving through the day became easier and then feeling joy became easier and then laughing became easier.
Still, I am learning. I am learning that the simplicity and intentionality of slowly filling my lungs with air and letting it course through my body is nourishing. It sustains and renews life. It invites me to be in the moment, not stuck dwelling on the past or planning the future, relieving me from regret and dread, even if for only a little while. While it cannot completely cure me of OCD, I will never be completely cured, breathing makes the pain more bearable. Whatever that pain is.
Last week at the doctor’s office, I trusted his instructions to breathe. I closed my eyes, tried to relax my butt, and inhaled slow and big as the needle entered the skin on the top of my foot, right between my big toe and second toe. I filled my lungs, let the air go, and did it all over again. As the burning, stinging pressure throbbed through my foot, I felt it, but I also knew I would be okay. I would keep going. I would keep breathing.