A Dangerous Mind
Me against panic, anxiety, fear, hypochondria, the world.
Not since the death of Prince in April of 2016 have R.I.P. condolences dominated my Facebook feed like they did last week between June 8 and June 9.
In the 24 hours after Anthony Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room in Kaysersberg, France, at age 61(on the day after what would have been Prince’s 60th birthday), the virtual tears flowed like waterfalls. The aftershock effect appears to have been exponentially heightened, with the collective mourning following the death of fashion designer Kate Spade, who also committed suicide by hanging, just three days earlier.
I had no eloquent eulogy-as-status update to offer the celebrity chef and TV personality as I hardly knew him. In fact, I didn’t know him at all. I recognized his name and face, but on the day before his passing, I wouldn’t have been able to say why.
I may not have known the man, but my empathy for him is strong. For most of my adulthood, I’ve lived with mental illness — panic disorder, according to the official diagnosis. I believe I also suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, although I’ve never been diagnosed with it.
Like the depression that apparently plagued both Bourdain and Spade, anxiety is a brutal beast. It’s been the elephant in every room since my first trip to the ER on July 4, 2006, heart thumping, body vibrating, head spinning, vision distorting, and mind racing with thoughts of impending doom as I walked from my apartment in New York City’s Union Square to the ER at St. Vincent’s Medical Center several blocks away. The elephant crowds my mental spaces, too, as lumbering, awkward, and imposing as any pachyderm in the Serengeti.
Anxiety is so misunderstood. Many people confuse it with nervousness, which usually can be pinpointed to a specific cause. Most of us talk about having a “panic attack” at some point, but the anxiety associated with panic disorder isn’t situational. It’s a chronic condition, not a reaction to isolated incidents.
Unlike stage fright, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, or fear of flying, it’s not typically brought on by some identifiable situation, and it’s not just about your heart racing and trying to catch your breath. It’s insidious, unpredictable, and debilitating.
I am several months into a year-long treatment plan to (hopefully) permanently evict the unwelcome tenant in my head. In March, I began taking a daily combination of two 25 mg alprazolam (Xanax) tablets and one 150 mg tablet of trazadone (Trittico). Initially, it had the intended effect. My panic attacks became, for the most part, less frequent and less intense.
That sinking feeling again
But the last few weeks have been tough. The panic has been creeping up on me daily without warning, though its duration is shorter and my reaction to it less extreme than it was without medication. Its stealth and ongoing recurrence, though, has forced me to accept that with or without treatment, this is my life, one that always will be affected by mental illness.
It’s scary as hell, especially in those moments when my heartbeat accelerates, my gait becomes as unsteady as my concentration, and my mind goes to the darkest place imaginable. But challenging as it may be, I accept this as my abnormal normal, not something that yoga and meditation can control, as several Australian doctors (one of whom mocked me, laughed in my face, and told me a joke about a hypochondriac whose tombstone read “I told you I was sick”) and one date in Sydney have suggested.
It’s mine, and I’m still trying to figure out how to live with it. How do I live with the panic, the anxiety, the fear, the dread, and the terror? How do I live with the pills I swallow three times a day to keep my madness at bay? How do I live with never knowing for sure what my mind is telling me and when my body’s talking?
How do I live with not remembering what it feels like to really be me, un-medicated, not always one rapid heartbeat from on edge? How do I live with constantly worrying about the immediate future as much as I do about tomorrow? Will anxiety hit? When will it hit? Where will it hit? How long will it keep me in its death grip?
A few weeks ago, my mother, gave me some sage advice. She has been my rock over the last six months as the symptoms of the disease became more acute than they had been in years. (I was first diagnosed in 2006 after three ER visits in one week, but I’ve suffered from panic attacks since the late ’90s.) Mom told me that if I wake up in the morning feeling good, just embrace it for as long as it lasts.
Alone with everybody
I’ve spent the past six months traveling in Eastern Europe, and Mom, half a world away in Atlanta, was the first person who noticed that something was off. It started with a smile.
In public and in photos, I’m almost always smiling. All my friends think I’m happy as can be, a walking bundle of joy. A border-crossing cop between Croatia and Montenegro recently took one look at me and my passport photo and said, “Always smiling.”
The smile isn’t phony. It’s real. But like Mona Lisa’s, there is so much going on behind it. My mother took one look at my smile in a photo of me standing in front of gorgeous natural scenery in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Trieste, Italy, and saw right through my cheerful expression. She said as much in an email to me the day after Christmas.
Those are very nice pictures of you! However, in my eyes you look happy and lonely at the same time.
Wrong adjective, right sentiment. Although I’m often alone (by choice, and even in crowds), I’m not lonely. Both photos were taken by a lovely Slovenian man who spent an afternoon driving me around Ljubljana (the top photo) and then taking me on a 45-minute road trip to Trieste (the bottom photo). In Italy, I had a full-blown hour-long panic attack, which I suffered through silently without my companion ever knowing what was going on in my head.
What my mother noticed wasn’t loneliness but melancholy. Blue is the color that I’ve felt inside my entire life, and it may drive my anxiety. I’m not sure what’s at the root of it. I suspect it’s partly my perfectionism — the pointless pursuit of impossible ideals — and the stifling of stormy emotions to preserve my facade of calm. They’ve left me a sad, anxious wreck.
The fire inside rages constantly but secretly. People read my travel stories and think I live a charmed life. Those beautiful pictures and cheerful Facebook posts don’t tell the whole story.
They don’t reveal the inner turmoil or the anxiety-fueled hypochondria that’s sent me to doctors in New York City, in Buenos Aires, in Bangkok, in Cape Town, in Sydney, in Goa, in Berlin, in Budapest, in Zagreb, in Ljubljana, in Prague, in Belgrade, and in Sarajevo, seeking medical advice or, simply, reassurance. They don’t reveal the minutes, the hours each day that I fear each breath might be my last.
They don’t reveal the flights of stairs I’ve climbed to convince myself I’m not having a heart attack. They don’t reveal the walks around the block I’ve taken to prevent collapsing alone in an apartment or hotel room, where my rotting corpse might lie on the floor undiscovered for hours, or days.
They don’t reveal the pointless trips I’ve taken to ERs, where I stand outside debating whether to go in and try to describe indescribable sensations to a receptionist who probably won’t speak more than a few words of English, before convincing myself to ride out the waking nightmare while wandering aimlessly around my latest city. They don’t reveal the deep breaths I’ve taken every day for weeks at a time, in a usually fruitless attempt to restore inner calm. Out, in, out, in, out, in, out…
Honestly OK… not OK
I don’t want anyone who loves me to read this and fear for my life the way I often do. According to multiple doctors on six continents, physically, I’m fine. Meanwhile, self-preservation is a priority. Suicide is not an option for me.
Still, living like this gets old. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to fall asleep and not have to wake up and worry about tomorrow or my next panic attack. But I can’t imagine checking out on my own. They’ll have to toss me out, and I’d probably be kicking and screaming all the way.
For I still have faith that it gets better. I don’t pray, so maybe that’s my religion. Tragically, not everyone is as lucky as I am. Yes, I still consider myself lucky. As long as I’m alive, there’s hope. That’s my faith talking.
My empathy makes me feel for those who are less fortunate. They’re the ones who feel the only way out is to check out. I have no words of encouragement to offer, no magical life-changing pronouncements, no yoga or meditation recommendations.
All I can say is this: I understand. I feel your pain. You are not alone.