It’s been pushing upwards for a year or more. Doesn’t rush, but doesn’t fall either.
Being a chronic over-thinker, I associate the higher figures with increased dis-ease. Hopefully not disease. But you don’t know. That’s why it’s called The Silent Killer. You don’t know the pressure has been building, building. Then something bursts, and unless you’re lucky, that’s it, game over. Or it bursts free and lodges somewhere important and you’re worse than dead. The Butterfly and the Diving Bell. Even typing that tightens my chest.
But is it a silent assassin if you can feel the creeping vice of tension and almost hear the rustling tendrils of anxiety? If the danger is not knowing the tension is climbing, and you know you are anxious, does that mean you aren’t in danger?
The doctor suggested a monitor. Twenty-four hours with a sleeve and a box the size of three stacked cassettes, connected by a piece of soft tubing; a synthetic umbilical cord.
It’s set, the nurse said as she fitted the business end to my upper arm, to take a reading every half hour. Right, OK. And every hour overnight, she added in a voice that invited me to say ‘Phew!’. I didn’t say anything as I was busy noticing the slightly clammy snake of plastic slithering across my back and round to the box at my hip.
Felt odd, having something medical attached. Waiting for the big squeeze. And the device itself, a lump under my untucked shirt. If I’d brought headphones I could have pulled off the Walkman thing, easily. Just relax, were the nurse’s parting words. If you move your arm or tense, it’ll beep to say the reading has failed.
I was on the ring-road when the contractions started. I tried to relax my arm, dropping it into my lap like a prosthesis. Compression builds until the thump of blood is quite loud. It’s not painful, just a bit unpleasant. With eight hours on night-shift and sixteen at two per hour, there’ll be another forty or so of these.
Shit. Must’ve moved my arm. The little box thinks for a moment and tries again. My free hand grips the steering wheel tighter.
Already I’m focussed on the moment where the release begins. The sleeve relaxes in beats. I notice I’ve been holding my breath. Take a couple of deep ones; probably worth staying aerated.
It’s put me into an odd space, this innocent little recording device. Forced me to adopt its cycle. When is the next one? What will the data show?
I should ignore it, but I can’t. I’m tense. I’m waiting. It’s going to happen, but when?
Probably shouldn’t drink, but what-the-hell. Couple of glasses of evening red. By half-past ten I’m wrung out. Tense and wary. How will it be to sleep with this thing grabbing my arm every hour? Quite a lot to do tomorrow, errands galore. Need some sleep. Half a sleeping pill just to help me get off. I feel sheepish but promise myself I’ll own up to the doctor when I see her next week.
The night isn’t so bad. In fact, I resent coming to consciousness in the morning as the anxiety jags straight back up.
Late morning there is a space for reflection. I realise that the feeling of waiting, of marking time until the next event, is deeply familiar. It’s a frozen place; not necessarily cold but immobile. It’s a waiting place, but not with particular expectations. There’s a level of dread, but it is diffuse and difficult to pin down. Something’s coming; cortisol says ‘tense’. There is only the now; a kind of rigid stillness that is alert and ready to be alarmed.
I notice how every time the gentle vibration signals another squeeze, I jump. It’s such an old response there are no words. The reptilian brain, the ancient brain, the reactive brain, whose early programming sneers at thinking and defies overwriting.
So I wait, for twenty-four hours. Can’t think about anything, can’t write. Fold washing, load the dishwasher; music plays but I’m not hearing. The periodic lub-dub pulsing in my upper arm is the metronome of this day. Not until much later, does it occur to me that I was incapable of imagining an end to the process. Marking time, standing on the spot; it’s not a choice, but a state. Like a rest on a music stave, it signifies an absence, not relaxation.
The power of the metaphor rocks me a little. It’s a truth that can be felt. I see from a different angle why I’ve always been useless at planning. Can’t look ahead, don’t set goals, reticent to take initiatives, risk averse. But really good at monitoring, at waiting. At enduring. Stillness on the outside, tight inside with a dull throbbing undercurrent of fear.
Waiting for a safety that never came.