Forced but without intention, air pulls in, and with the same intensity, it pushes out. In and out, in and out. Thoughtless, un-calculated, you know, that steady pace of breath you hear when someone is sleeping soundly. A woman lies on the street corner of my Brooklyn apartment, face streaming blood, her eyes are closed, she's just had a seizure. I recognize her audible breath before I even see her. I know that kind of breathing, it belongs to the lungs of an unconscious brain. I know this from times as a little girl when my own mother’s body would seize uncontrollably, her eyes rolling back in her head and her breath no longer becoming a conscious act but one of survival. Her steady, confident breath my only hope that she would wake up and come back to me, that she would be released from what she described as the ‘thunderstorm in her brain’.
I know this kind of breathing from her last hours, her brain officially dead but her chest inflating and deflating, manufactured by a machine, perfectly in chorus with the consistent beep of the heart monitor. That sound, the deep inhale, the deep exhale, so forced, but so natural. The most essential sign of life.
I know that kind of breathing by its absence, the way my breathing stopped when the 911 dispatch asked me to listen for her breath and I realized it wasn't there.
Sometimes I'd wake up early on weekends just to lie in bed and bask in the comfort of hearing her audible inhale and exhale from the room next to mine. Assurance in predictability, consistency, her presence.
I wish I could say my relationship to my own breath is as primal in nature. These moments in my life when the continuity of her breath has become unpredictable have compounded into a general sense that I have no control over my life. My mind and body are completely disconnected. What does this mean? It means authentic feeling has been replaced by my brain's interpretation of that feeling. It means I react to situations irrationally, constantly doubting my own perception. It means I don't trust my ability to do something as simple as breathe. This distrust makes me feel perpetually unsafe.
The one emotion that I feel most tangibly is fear, and it looms over every action, every thought. I guess it's called anxiety. Maybe it's PTSD. Does the label matter? The other night during a comedy show at Madison Square Gardens, it manifested itself as the sudden conviction that the audience of 12,000 was about to be the latest victim of a mass shooting. I pictured the bloody mess, my heart raced, I instantly felt trapped in my seat. The thought was suppressed by my own laughter as my mind simultaneously listened and responded to a joke made by the comedian. But beneath my smile, in the shadow of my seat, my feet tingled and shook. These thoughts invade my conscious mind almost every day and they haunt my dreams at night, often leading me to wake up in tears.
"Breathe in and exhale", the yoga instructor tells us, again and again, breath synced with supposedly stress-relieving (while also tricep-toning) movements. I take these classes to achieve some kind of mind-body connection. I work so hard to achieve that unconscious, primal inhale and exhale I've come to identify so easily in others. But it's as if my mind and my body operate parallel to one another, rarely crossing paths and when they do, disaster ensues. Sometimes I force myself to just BE so hard that it leads to a panic attack, I become so overly focused on pacing my breath that I lose sensation in my limbs and become light-headed. Trying too hard to just breathe naturally seems to cause me to try too hard in all areas of my life. It's as if I'm just looking for approval to exist as a human being on this earth. Maybe I don't feel like I deserve to yet, I know I'm not the only one who feels this way.
This is "mental illness", at least from my delusional, twisted perception. It's a disconnect, between our mind and our bodies. And as much as I tell myself to just breathe and believe everything will be ok, it's beyond that now. As soon as you stop trusting your relationship with yourself, your reactions, your feelings, you lose the confidence to be "okay". It's not as simple as breathe in and breathe out. Maybe this is why I've always found comfort in the unconscious breath of another, because I yearn for that kind of simplicity in my own life. I just want my feelings and thoughts to be in harmony rather than at war. I just want others who don't think this way to realize that many of us struggle with our minds on a daily basis, and because we may not believe in ourselves anymore, we need your help to get to a place of mental stability. To a place where we can breathe without thinking about it.
Anna Haines currently studies Photojournalism at the International Center of Photography in New York City. She holds a B.A. in International Development Studies from McGill University. With extensive travel experience in the developing world and work experience in the non-profit sector, Anna is particularly interested in telling the stories of the disenfranchised.