Aka “I Started a Writing Project to Quell My Anxiety and Now I’m More Stressed than Ever” Club
There’s an entire to-do list brainstorm session before I even open my eyes — and suddenly I think, “Do I feel nauseous?” I’m feeling something rising up through my core – and it’s making me feel uncomfortable, but am I actually nauseous? Were you meaning to kick my ass so soon into the year? I’ve got 355 stories left to write and here you are, waking me up, ten minutes before the alarm goes off, to send these thoughts to my head.
My subconscious system of check-ins is activated and I’m engaged in an instantaneous body vigilant self-analysis. “Do I feel nauseous?” I’ll save you the suspense. The “check in,” has in fact, yielded that yes, I am nauseous. Why, though? What caused it? Did I eat something bad? No. I’m not allergic to anything. Do I have a virus? Not usually.
No …I recognize this familiar foe, as it is joined quickly with its symptom cohort, leg quivering. These convulsions shuddering through my thighs seems to originate at my core, directly below my diaphragm. This black hole shoots concentric waves of muscle spasms that I wouldn’t be able to replicate for the greatest hip hop dance. Finally, the emergence of the symptom that will complete the panic attack trifecta: I think I’m not getting enough air. This is a loaded question, as therapists have assured me; I will never be able to quantify enough when my brain has already decided that it’s not.
The more I focus on deciphering what I’m feeling, the more intensely I feel like shit. My body is possessed by the bully in my brain and he’s controlling me like an epileptic marionette. Clearly this isn’t just a little anxiety? But I recognize this beast — and the craziest part of this whole song and dance is that I AM IN CONTROL OF THE STRINGS!
I have this tendency to suppress anxiety, and years of this behavior has caused me to have panic attacks, which are extreme anxiety attacks that don’t need a major stressor to trigger. When these panic attacks occur regularly, I get caught in a paralyzing cycle, branding me with Panic Disorder.
I wear my panic disorder on my sleeve, not literally, although a t-shirt with the words PANIC DISORDER may very well be on next season’s Shark Tank. Fellow moms see me once a week and we bullshit for an hour, waiting for our little bun-heads in tutus. They gasp when I joke about my attacks and shake their heads with the imaginary thought bubbles floating above their heads as if to say, “Well look at her — she’s so outgoing, smart, and funny – and she totally has her shit together.” Wrong!
My friend thinks I’m kidding when I half-jokingly offer her an emergency Xanax when she’s having a particularly stressful day. She laughs uncomfortably and says,“Really, you have one?” as if I have my secret stash of white powder and a little silver spoon in my purse rather than a tiny pill that dulls these electrical brain surges. I tell her I never leave the house without them; they are my security blanket that usually keeps me from needing to take them. But I am not the typical picture of mental illness (or am I?). A quick Google search will reveal 1 in 5 Americans take at least one pill a day – from Prozac to Xanax to treat psychological disorders.
I am not a hopeless case. I make small steps. I have managed to find zen in my daily treks across the George Washington Bridge at rush hour, but I still have not mastered the art of quieting my mind. I engage in mental brain battles with myself throughout the day to stave off panic attacks – or ultimately bring them on.
Why can’t my brain activate the tunnel vision so I can meditate on blessings rather than curses? Why can’t I crush those pesky thoughts that buzz annoyingly in my ear?
Now I’ve caught my breath and stopped dry heaving from an imaginary virus. Gratefully, I’ve decided that this time wasn’t going to be my death dress-rehearsal; but my brain isn’t entirely convinced. My brain holds onto the ultimate secret weapon: the ‘what if?’
The ‘what if’ is the nuclear bomb that I cannot disarm in my head. No matter how hard I’ve tried for the last two decades, I cannot permanently demilitarize the constant ticking of the ‘what if.’ What if just this time … this very time, it’s not a panic attack? What if this time IT ACTUALLY IS a heart attack?
I don’t remember when my nerves swore their eternal allegiance to nausea, but it has always been my kryptonite. This cunning symptom loves to disguise itself, tricking me into believing it is real – and that it is coming from my stomach. Living on the edge of puking is more than just feeling ill. It’s as if my mind has decided to play with a Galina voodoo doll, and its simultaneously jabbing into my gut and heart. But ultimately I am the lone stabber.
It’s so easy to set off a panic attack, but so hard to end it.The very defining nature of the disorder is that you think you are going to die every time. I’m laughing over the harsh striking of the keys as I write because it sounds so illogical. SO RIDICULOUS. There is no tumor pushing on a magic button that causes these attacks. Just me. Me, with my ultra-sensitive fight or flight instinct. After twenty years of dealing with these episodes, I can generally convince myself, mid-combat, that this will pass. I ride it out. I jump into the pool, knowing full well it is actually quicksand. With shaking or dry heaving or gasping for air, and always with tears, I rage at myself for causing this suffering.
I have been diagnosed; I have been given the cure, but even a medical solution has its pitfalls. As much as I’m able to doubt the calm logic of my sane self during an attack, I also question a chemical fix. Sometimes I break off a piece of the small pills the doctors prescribe, a toe’s dip into relief. Then I take another small piece if the first one didn’t help – and eventually it slows down my breathing, relaxes my spastic muscles, deafens some of the noise. But the next day I’m sleepy and it’s hard to wake up; worst of all, it affects my memory. The meds provide a cloudy veil over my fear, but take with them, memories and moments of my life that I can’t retrieve. It’s like a ritual sacrifice; I surrender up a piece of myself to end the attack. But at least it’s over. For now.