It was Saturday. A typical hot, humid August day in Northern Virginia. My cleaning day. And I was up and at it early and in earnest. Scrubbing, vacuuming, intermittently doing my laundry at the community laundry room across the way. I probably should have had something to eat for lunch, or at least something to drink. I was lightheaded by 3:00pm, but otherwise energized to get the job done!
Almost finished for the day and looking forward to a relaxing evening, I made one of the most portentous decisions of my young life. I chose to beat a rug right outside my door, completely unaware that tucked behind the electric meter affixed on the exterior wall was a lively hive of yellow jackets.
It is NOT an exaggeration to say that, within less than a second, the corner of my eye spied a swarm meld together instantly, in spectacular unison. As if they shared mental telepathy, they became one organism, with one mind, and one fierce intention. I marveled at this miracle of nature. It was a thing of beauty to behold. Before my next thought could emerge, the attack landed. Swift, intense, and merciless.
These wasps were PISSED.
My mind stopped functioning. My autonomic system seized control. I recall running away from my door, hopping like I was on hot coals, and madly gesticulating to get these creatures off me. I felt the prick, prick, prick of stinging nettles. Too many to count, and in rapid succession. (I later learned that, unlike honeybees, one wasp can sting its victim multiple times and live another day to tell the tale).
Most horrifying was the entanglement in my hair as I desperately tried to oust these invaders. Two thoughts of gratitude flooded my brain as I fought vigorously: Thank God my hair is short, and Thank God my T-shirt is tucked in.
At some point I realized I was screaming. While I flailed in the street, I recall seeing a woman standing in a frumpy house dress behind her screened front door, watching me. I must have looked like a crazy person having a full-blown mental breakdown or fit of some sort. An exotic freak show from which she could not wrest her eyes. She did not come out to offer help. She didn’t move a muscle. She just stood there, a motionless voyeur.
I don’t know how long the attack lasted. It may have been just a few minutes. Time felt suspended. But there did come a moment when I realized the stinging had stopped. My body relaxed. My breathing calmed. And I realized I was okay. It was over. So, I sauntered back to my apartment, breezing past the electric meter with the agitated wasps still buzzing in agitation. There was no fear in that moment. I was fine!
Safely indoors, I assessed my situation. No question, bumps were popping up all over my body. I felt lightheaded, probably from lack of food and the heat, but there wasn’t much pain.
I didn’t have a clue that this was the beginning of systemic shock. I did sense something was not quite right, though, and I knew I needed some help. What to do? Call Mom! Mother Earth herself always had good advice for home remedies and holistic treatments.
It just so happened that Mom had a visitor sitting with her in the kitchen when I called, which was a rare occurrence for my introverted mother, and a lucky break for me. I started explaining my dilemma to Mom and asked her for some advice on how to treat the stings. She was low-key and practical and not the least bit alarmed. She suggested I find some ammonia to dab on the bites to take out the swelling, the pain, and the itch. Meanwhile, her visitor kept piping up in the background: “Tell her to call 911. Tell her to call 911!!” Mom guffawed and said mockingly, “Beryl thinks you should call 911.” We laughed, and I hung up.
I couldn’t find ammonia cleaner, and welts continued to blossom. I started feeling a bit shaky and panicky. Why NOT call 911? Maybe they could suggest something to help.
I dialed and sheepishly said, “I’m sorry to call an emergency number, but I don’t know what to do. I just got stung by some wasps and I need some advice on how to treat the bites.” With a no-nonsense authoritative voice, the operator asked, “Where do you live?” I said, “Oh, NO! You don’t need to send someone I just need some advice!” Ignoring me, she replied with greater bossiness, “What is your address?” It seemed like an overreach. I protested, but ultimately relented and gave her my address. We parted with these words ringing in my ears: “Leave your front door open.”
Moments later I heard sirens blaring but could not connect myself to the sound. My attachment to reality was slipping. I was more and more dizzy, faint, and my limbs were becoming overcooked spaghetti. Two Angels of Mercy appeared in my doorway, but before they could enter the apartment, I collapsed on the floor and faded to black. (Literally “faded,” by the way. It felt like a shade curtain being drawn down my entire body, from head to toe, increasingly blocking out the light). It was oddly peaceful.
They must have administered a shot of adrenaline, because the next thing I knew I was lurching up the walkway toward the ambulance, one angel wing on each side of me, propping me up as I tried to feel my feet.
I was maneuvered onto a stretcher in the back of the vehicle, hooked up to an IV, and given pure oxygen. The oxygen snapped me into full alertness, and I said, “Oooh, this is NICE.” (You don’t know what you’re missing if you’ve never had an oxygen rush!). I then said to the angel tending me, “I am so sorry to bother you guys for this. I’m sure you have much more important emergencies to respond to today.”
I will never forget how she replied. With a soft, sweet, very unbothered voice she patted my arm and said, “Honey, I think you need us right now.” Only later did I learn that I had been on my way to never, neverland, and without their timely intervention, I wouldn’t be here today writing these words.
The road to recovery from that event was a long one, with many byways and detours along the way. Suffice it to say, the experience was significant, and taught me something valuable.
Before this experience, I didn’t know that insect stings could kill a person. Trying to comprehend that I almost lost my life at the age of 36, I did a lot of self-reflection. And I recalled with deep clarity the weeks leading up to the incident. I had been raging against God because I wanted to live as an artist but had to work a full-time job for money and health care. I was angry and resentful. I cried and screamed and raged at The Universe for days. “Why did you make me an artist, but not provide the lifestyle to support my creative spirit?”
It is my belief that, on that fateful day, Mother Nature perfectly reflected to me my poisonous anger in the most direct way She could. She was giving me a crash course in the dangerous toxicity of rage, an emotion we should indulge sparingly, or not at all.