Guest Posts, healing, loss

Air Hunger

December 4, 2013

By Angela M Giles


They always begin the same way: a sudden flash of heat is followed by a cascade of electricity that deftly makes its way through my body in a quick, cruel wave. As soon as it hits my collarbone, I feel my face begin to flush and immediately put my hand to my throat, a quick reflex to try to cool my neck, a strangely protective measure. Then the chill begins. I focus on breathing. I keep my hand at my neck. If I can feel a pulse beneath my skin, I am still ok.

The first attack occurred on May 29th, 2001, exactly thirty days after my sister died, twenty-four days after she was buried, seventeen days after I returned to the east coast, seven days after I went back to work and four hours into my workday. The official diagnosis for what I experienced was ‘air hunger.’ But I didn’t feel a hunger for anything. There was no sense of lacking something or of needing anything. I wasn’t hungry, I was being invaded. I was being overrun. Something was winding through me that I couldn’t control.

Until that moment, I honestly thought I had crossed through the worst of the pain.


My sister had died unexpectedly.

She was twenty-eight.

We buried her next to my father.

You can never prepare for hurt, and heartbreak can happen in small degrees or with a bang; when a part of my common history was lost, it was an explosion. After the initial shock, after the effort of the funeral, after the sharp edge of grief softened a bit, I tried to settle into the unkind quiet that followed. I didn’t understand that the quiet was white noise, masking a scream that hadn’t stopped.

Those first seven days back at work were hard. I kept hearing the same tidy phrases — ‘Life moves on.’ ‘It gets easier over time.’ ‘You must be relieved she didn’t suffer.’ I thanked people for their kindness. I answered questions about how my mom was doing and told them how I was doing. I was tired of being asked if I was ok. I was tired of saying that I was. The bathroom was my sanctuary. The locked stall door gave me a place to regain composure. Rather than talking to people about what had happened, I wanted to say

“Please stop telling me you are sorry for my loss.”

“Please don’t tell me I will eventually feel better.”

“Stop asking for details.”

or simply

“Go away.”

Being gracious hurts.

But on that day I was forced into an understanding that I was nowhere near the boundaries of my grief and the topography before me was vast and shadowy.

I was at my desk, drinking coffee, and something in me gave way. I suddenly felt hot, then cold. My hands and feet felt frozen and heavy. A ripple of painful energy cascaded through my body. Then came an electric stab. An icy steel thread was rising from my core. Snaking its way through capillaries, veins, and arteries, it moved until both ends were straddling my chest where they began twisting together in a vicious double helix. Breathing felt unnatural. I was aware of a strange sensation in my fingertips. The back of my neck bristled. It seemed as though ice crystals were forming under my skin.

Objects around me that were familiar and clear just moments earlier took on muted tones. I had the impression that I was not fully present, that I was disengaging from my perceptions. I could see a dark cloud moving in at the edges of my peripheral vision. I was being closed off from the world and sealed in an unfamiliar place.

All of this happened in less than a minute and no one had noticed. I have only a hazy recollection of pushing my chair back and telling whoever was closest that I didn’t feel well, that I was going to my doctor’s office down the street. Insisting I could make it on my own, I stood up and headed to the elevator. I didn’t think to take anything with me.

As I left the building, my mind raced to determine what this experience was, to catalogue the sensations. I couldn’t, I had no frame of reference. The jolts of electricity kept coming and they were so painful that I would hold my breath. I had no idea what was happening to me. I was convinced this was how my sister felt just before she collapsed, so I knew I had to keep moving. For two blocks I moved, one foot in front of the other, determined to make it to the doctor’s office.


“This is not my day to die.”


“This is not my day to die.”


I had hit some unforeseen capacity for hurt. I was being redone by my own heartache. I was being refined by grief. Teeming with fear and an undeniable dread, each step forced me to acknowledge that I was now different.

The two blocks felt like two miles. I remember the hollow sound of my heels on the pavement and the satin lining of my skirt swooshing against my legs as I walked. I never wore that suit again.

Once inside the office, I held onto the counter, repeating to the registration attendant that I was not well. That I knew something was not right. That I had to be seen. I refused to move and they finally relented. I was escorted upstairs, placed in an evaluation room and told to wait.

I sat on the examination table and wrapped the fingers of my right hand over the edge just to have something of substance to hold. My left hand was keeping the plastic oxygen mask over my nose and mouth as I tried to take in steady and even breaths. I was asked a number of questions. My answers sounded muffled through the mask.

The doctor finished her assessment and told me that I was suffering from ‘air hunger.’ She said someone more experienced with ‘this type of thing’ was waiting for me upstairs in ‘Behavioral Health.’ I quickly realized that ‘air hunger’ was a phrase designed to calm, that ‘this type of thing’ was meant to make what I was feeling seem normal, and that ‘behavioral health’ was another way to say I was far more broken than I knew. And I was.

I was so broken that the person I had been before my sister died didn’t exist anymore. For a month I had tried to cope by doing a crude imitation of myself. I was just going through the motions and acting enough like my old self that I thought people might stop asking how I was. I couldn’t answer that question. I had no idea.

I assumed that if I faked it long enough, the fake part would become real and I would be ok. If I could slip into old routines, I could become my old self. At the time, I didn’t know that the dull ache and constant feeling of nausea that began the night my mother called to tell me my sister collapsed and died was just the beginning. I was emotionally altered. I was psychologically altered. I was physiologically altered. While the world moved on, parts of me were now fixed in the singular moment when I lost more than I ever comprehended having.

I had been rattled to the core.

I still am.

The attacks continue.

I cannot predict when they will occur.

I should be more used to them now, but every time they start, I come back to the same astonishing realization: warm blood really can feel like it is running cold. This unnerving sensation puts me more on edge. I am here but not here. When they begin, I become my own shadow again, cast long and dark by a hot sun, looking for definition at the edges, and all I can do is try to be focused and composed until it fades.

I was told later that I have acute general anxiety disorder, brought on by the trauma of my sister’s death. This diagnosis feels as clinical as the initial assessment felt trite. But I like unintentional elegance of ‘air hunger.’ From the moment she died, I did have a hunger. I hungered for my sister. I hungered for time to wind itself backwards. I hungered to relive moments that were insignificant when they happened, but had become tinged with regret.  I hungered to fill the hole inside me. I still do.

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Angela M Giles has had her work appear in The Healing Muse as well as on The Nervous Breakdown and The Manifest-Station. She tweets as @angelamgiles and can be found on Instagram as @angela.m.giles. When inspired (which isn’t nearly often enough) she updates her blog, Air Hunger. Angela lives in Massachusetts where she conquers the world, one day at a time.  She is a partner in crime and fellow bad-ass at The Manifest-Station.

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  • Reply barbarapotter December 4, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Such a gorgeous essay in the way you can describe your heart and what you are feeling. Sending love to you (Jen’s mom)

  • Reply Judith December 4, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    I so understand. I lost my only sister suddenly and still feel like I am unable to SCREAM! Anxiety hits me out of nowhere. So afraid to take drugs.

  • Reply Melissa Shattuck December 4, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    I love you dear Angela.

  • Reply nancysilverlake December 4, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    yes ….. I hear you Angela. Occasionally, our experiences with grief and loss feel absolutely over-whelming, but when you’ve survived one, you have also learned that the next one might not kill you either. Pain. panic, self-doubting …. absolutely …. but survivor memory comes into play. I had my first experience of this kind while driving over a huge bridge with children in the back seat. I was over-loaded with grief at the time and hadn’t been able to fully let it out. It spoke to me loudly and I spoke back to it saying “yep, I know why you’re here, but I’m not going to imperil these kids by loosing consciousness while I’m getting over this f’ing bridge!
    One day at a time sister! I still occasionally have trouble crossing bridges!
    Best wishes and love,

  • Reply kiera December 4, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    I am so, so sorry for your loss. My mother once told me that when you lose someone you love dearly, you never “get over it”…. ever.. it leaves a hole in your heart forever. Unfortunately, I have a lot of holes… but fortunately, I have many people in my life, and I treasure the rest of the heart that remains and do my best to fill it with as much love as possible, as my lost loved ones would wish for me to do.

    I am going to insert my greatest, and sincere apology here.. this may be the last thing you want to hear right now. But I have felt those feelings too, and share my experience.. please feel free to disregard if you should find it insulting.. clearly I am NOT well articulated.. I am not good at words and feelings but here’s my experience of loss and life…well a small sliver of it anyway.

    I do know this — Anxiety is the devil. Each day is a battle. Life is not fair.

    Each day I wake up, I TRY to remind myself to remember to be grateful (some days it feels impossible to even sit up, let alone think positively).. and to choose love.

    This is not intended to insult your pain. Nor do I wish to shove positivity down your throat – I found those subtle “it’ll heal with time” to be the most angering (though likely said with best intentions) in my own experience.

    I just wanted you to know, that you are not alone. It may feel that way, but your sister will always be with you.

    It is a personal battle, and I fight every day. It may take a long time, but through the battles, and however big or many the hole, or holes, however impossible it seems, there is always, eventually, even if it is just a tiny little dark corner… room for love.

    Please give yourself credit for the strength it takes to share your story of loss, grief, and struggle. You are so much stronger than you think. Thank you. <3

  • Reply nancysilverlake December 4, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    kiera …. so honestly expressed.

  • Reply Angi Holt December 4, 2013 at 9:44 pm

    Beautifully stated. I feel your pain, and you feel mine. Christy was a great friend. Love you!

  • Reply vicki lacharite December 4, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    That is very deep pain. a pain so deep it had to take along time even to find the words. thank you for sharing. thank you stopping us in our tracks. may peace find it’s way to you.

  • Reply Jean December 5, 2013 at 5:44 am

    Dear Angela,

    My heart goes out to you. The sudden loss of your sister and the plunge into grief thereafter is unbearable. I know. I lost my brother suddenly ad I remember thinking that I had to go to the walls of the earth and beat on them and tell my brother to come back. I knew that was absurd, but my brain kept sending this solution. I think some part of my brain was desperate to help me with whatever it could come up with.

    Later on in my grief I remembered the words of a young priest at a funeral Mass years before who said, “Look to the living for your comfort.” And I tried to do that.

    Remember, your family and friends are there for you, and we are here for you.

    Hugs and prayers to you, Angela,



  • Reply Rachel December 5, 2013 at 10:26 am

    “I had hit some unforeseen capacity for hurt.” Perfect. I’ve never been able to put that idea into words.

    “I assumed that if I faked it long enough, the fake part would become real and I would be ok. If I could slip into old routines, I could become my old self.” That seems to work so many times when dealing with change we don’t like, doesn’t it? But sometimes it just don’t.

    This was elegantly written and put to words many thoughts and feelings I have dealing with headache and loss. You are amazing.

    Keep breathing. XO

  • Reply Tina December 5, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    Dear Angela, I want to tell you thank you so much for sharing this painful experience with us. I lost both of my dear parents within this last year as well as sold our home and moved halfway across the world just the year before. Sometimes the pain is so intense, like a living butterfly pinned through the heart to a board. No one else in my family seems to feel it, or else they won’t talk about it. I think I am crazy, so alone in this well of grief that never seems to end. The isolation, the panic attacks at night, the sudden moments of overwhelming emotion. My anxiety shows up as intense attacks of dizziness. Outwardly, I just go on. It is too hard to explain to anyone. I feel like I should be handling this better. You helped me today, just to know that someone else feels the loss in such a physical way. Don’t get me wrong. I wish you didn’t have to do this. I wish you had your sister and your life back. I just wanted to tell you thank you, I feel a little less alone.

  • Reply Kathrina December 8, 2013 at 3:26 am

    i experience these attacks daily – you have put into words exactly what i feel!

  • Reply Nat King-Hall December 8, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    It’s so difficult to put in to words the pain, the deep searing, heartbreaking pain we feel when we lose someone, especially if it is sudden but you described well the emotions and physical pain of loss. I totally undersand the way you feel, having had my own losses. I can only add that somewhere, sometime we find our way back to some semblance of the person we were before we were irrevocably damaged. We also come to terms with the fact that person is no longer with us as a physical presence – despite the deep urgency and need for them still to be there. Your sister, and the person who anyone has ever lost, lives on every second, minute, hour and day because you think of her/him/them. They are immortal while they remain in your memory, in the blood pumping through your veins, in your heart and their name is on your lips. I hope the anxiety you have been left with eases with time (that word again) and you’ll be able to move forwards, step by step…

  • Reply Amy Roost December 13, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    It sounds like you may be suffering from PTSD. Have you consulted a therapist who specializes in trauma?

    You also seem to have EWS– excellent writer syndrome. 😉

  • Reply Camellia Turner December 14, 2013 at 10:23 am


    You have been a huge source of strength for me over the past few years as I deal with my loss and attempt to help my children get through this. I appreciate the friendship we have shared from a young age and the rock you have been for me even as you go through your own struggles. Thank you for sharing and helping open my eyes once again to the process of grieving and the changes that come about due to traumatic loss.

  • Reply Dan December 15, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    Her inner strength resembles her ability to persevere. Regardless of task she has the ability to succeed wherever she chooses. But I will agree I have seen her “Air Hunger” in the first degree, and my words will always follow the same when I notice it happen:

    Just Breathe!

  • Reply Ann Manginelli January 25, 2014 at 7:15 am

    Oh my God…everything you wrote….was me ….when my son died…everything…spot on.

  • Reply Sara cahn January 25, 2014 at 8:08 am

    You are not alone! And neither am I. Thank you for posting this. I have never met someone with nearly the same issue. I trained a dog as a seizure alert dog because mine is manifested in a way that makes my body paralize and curl, so that I can no longer use it. Thank you for this beautiful piece. XO

  • Reply adieno January 25, 2014 at 8:22 am

    I am very Sorry for your loss. I am crying over here full of compassion and admiration. Your expressions made me feel your pain it’s almost as if I could see it. I also go through these sensations in my battle with anxiety and the way you describe it all is just exactly how it feels. Sending lots of love your way.

  • Reply Nomee January 25, 2014 at 8:49 am

    The only way I can describe how that story made feel is, Whoa

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    […] desert, the Grand freaking Canyon, seems like a good place to be…to catch my breath (from this Air hunger, as my friend Angela so eloquently puts it), to find myself, lost, as I am, in the midst of one of […]

  • Reply Joyce September 19, 2014 at 5:42 am

    Thank you for writing this. I get this. My mom died unexpectedly when I was 30. When I had 3 small children under the age of 5 that she babysat every day all while working a 3pm to 11pm job every day. I was no longer the same person and suddenly I had developed anxiety. And it’s gotten worse. I greatly appreciate your piece!

  • Reply Barbarapotter September 20, 2014 at 9:29 am

    I re-read this today and your words went even deeper. Love to you dear friend Angela.

  • Reply IHeartEarth February 13, 2015 at 7:15 am

    So, did this ever get better? I’ve never been someone with anxiety issues. Even after losing my dad unexpectedly when I was 17. But recently, my boyfriend was killed by a drunk driver. For weeks I felt chest pains. Those passed and have been replaced with this “air hunger”. I’m not having anxiety attacks. This is something that comes on me when I’m doing nothing. I exercise with no problem. I work. But I battle this constant urge to take a deep breath. I do it so much that it makes my ribs hurt. It’s a vicious cycle, because the more I try to control it, the worse it gets.

    I do all the things I feel like I need to do in order to grieve. I’m a writer, an artist, a yoga enthusiast, a hard working professional. I try to eat healthy, drink plenty of water. All my tests (bp, cholesterol, glucose, pregnancy, thyroid) came back normal. But I feel this, almost constantly unless I’m sleeping or really in deep focus on something. I’m currently doing a practice where I go 5 minutes at a time without breathing through my mouth. Supposedly this will help increase my carbon dioxide levels. It doesn’t, however, stop me from breathing deeply. I can only assume this is anxiety, even though I’m not feeling anxious.

    Does this ever go away?

  • Reply Angela February 13, 2015 at 7:48 am

    Hi, I am terribly sorry to hear of your losses. Losing someone you are working on a future with feels especially painful.

    Does it ever go away? I am told that for some people it can. For me, it has not. What you write is very familiar–the aching ribs, the urge to inhale deeply and deliberately. I have received many well-intentioned suggestions, but what has worked best for me is having doctors that understand this is a real, physiological condition, not a psychological one. Honestly, I have had learned to accept that I have had my breath taken from me by events beyond my control. It makes me angry and sad sometimes but it is what it is.

    It sounds like you have a great support system and are doing a great job of paying attention to yourself. I wish I had something magical to offer you besides my email address, but I don’t, so feel free to email me or post here or whatever. I hope it gets easier for you.

    Much hard love, -ap

  • Reply Barbara Potter April 30, 2015 at 8:22 am

    Thinking of you yesterday dear Angela <3

  • Reply Elaine Gale April 30, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    Thanks for writing this beautiful piece, Angela.

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  • Reply Barbara Potter September 19, 2016 at 10:12 pm

    Your sharing of this again is always so important. Your words go so deep.

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