How To Train Your Anxiety

I was diagnosed with a bona fide panic disorder when I was 22, but I didn’t realize until I went to therapy that anxiety had been following me around my entire childhood.

I was highly anxious as a kid and a teenager, but I honestly thought I just read too many horror stories. My favorite author was Stephen King, and I positively devoured his books from age eleven onward. I wanted to write horror stories, so not only did I read every book of his I could get my hands on, but I wrote my own horror stories too. It was the most fun, and it’s a riot to look back at the stuff I wrote as a kid — but I paid a price for it. Almost every single night, after reading or writing scary stories, I would lie awake with all the lights on (like, all the lights on. In the entire houseand replay all these ghastly scenarios inside of my head: Killer clowns. Murder. Creepy-ass ghosts. Abduction. Plagues. King was the best storyteller, but also probably the reason I hardly slept from age eleven onward.

One of the most illuminating quotes about anxiety actually came from Stephen King himself. I can’t quote it verbatim, but he talks about having a vivid imagination, and how his wife and kids think it’s like having a nice little movie in your head to entertain yourself when you get bored (which it is). But, he says, it can also turn on you. It has fangs. And it bites.

Unlike my anxiety in adulthood, my kid anxiety never really interfered with my life. Sure, I stayed up sometimes the entire night because I thought if I closed my eyes a monster would crawl out from inside my closet and drag me out of the bed, but other than that, I functioned day-to-day. But I also slept with the lights on every night. I had nightmares. I would often crawl into bed with my parents or, when I was younger than eleven, one of my brothers. Believe it or not, this still affects me, even in adulthood. I binge-watched the entire first season of True Detective in like six hours (so, so good) and then went, okay, I’m off to bed, goodnight! Except sleep never came. Every time I closed my eyes I would replay one of many (many) creepy scenes and my eyes would pop back open.

Nothing like some creepy, old-timey photos to keep you awake the ENTIRE NIGHT. Thanks, True Detective.

In some ways, it’s even worse after you have children. Because I don’t really give a crap about killer clowns and swamp monsters anymore, but start talking about child abductions and home invasions? Remind me that any number of horrors could happen to my precious babies? I’m sleeping with all the lights on again. In my kids’ room. With a baseball bat.

Amazingly, finding the right medication does wonders for this kind of thing. But like all medications, you get the best results if you combine it with certain tools. I’m pretty sure, from my brief stint as a social work student, that this is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If I was writing this on Cracked.com, I would call it a “life hack.” But in my brain, it’s How to Train Your Anxiety. My brain might be a fanged monster that bites, but here’s how I put a leash and a muzzle on it:

1. Aaaand … CUT! – I learned this in Girl Scouts, of all places, and it’s been surprisingly very effective. When I disclosed to my Brownie troop that I had crazy anxiety brain and couldn’t sleep because of it, one of the girls suggested that I replay the scary scene in my head, but keep the scene going after the scary part had ended. That was revelatory.

So picture Pennywise stalking toward you with his yellow cat eyes (ughh…). Then picture a bell ringing, a director yelling “CUT!”, the boom mike drooping down, an assistant hurrying over with a tray of scones, makeup artists touching up the white clown makeup on his face, lighting technicians adjusting the lighting. More importantly, picture Pennywise talking, and preferably being a huge whiner, complaining about his working conditions, because that’s hilarious.

Um, Mildred? I asked for a scone? And this tea is EARL GREY, NOT ENGLISH BREAKFAST, GOD DAMN YOU. I’LL BE IN MY TRAILER.

This humanizes the monster (which I’ll talk about in a minute), but it also interrupts the spookiness and surrealism of the surrounding scene. Kind of like picturing somebody in his underwear to make him less intimidating. And, I guess, picturing everything else in their underwear too.

2. Deconstruct and disassemble – For some reason I watched a lot of Are You Afraid of the Dark? when I was younger, and holy crap was that a bad idea. One of their favorite tropes was scary ghost children that just stare menacingly, and it terrified me; not only did I sleep with all the lights on, but I would jump at every strange noise or shadow, even in the middle of the day. (That was actually one of the least scary things on that show, come to think of it: there were also these aliens without faces that scared the life out of me — and side note, what the actual fuck, Nickelodeon?!)

One way to make this a little less scary is to look at the scene critically and deconstruct it. Okay, so there’s a ghost kid standing on your front lawn just staring through your windows (shudder). But why is he just standing there? I mean, he’s a ghost, so presumably he can be anywhere, can’t he? And why, if you’re a ghost and you have a really important message from the other side to deliver, would you be just standing and staring? Wouldn’t you be, like, knocking down doors and rattling chains or whatever? No? You’d just be wasting all your ghost-time standing and staring? THAT MAKES NO SENSE, GHOST.

Okay, but really? You’re gonna write “help me” all over the walls for some damn reason (backwards??) but you’re not gonna tell me how to help? No? Anything? Just gonna stare blankly? Alrighty then. Also, you look like Parker Posey. Seriously, is that Parker Posey?

Once you get past how scary the ghost is, you realize pretty much nothing they do makes logical sense. And then it’s kind of funny.

3. Humanize the horror. I read a fascinating memoir once about an ex-coroner who lived in New Orleans. (Okay, it’s becoming more obvious as I write this that maybe I need to stop reading so much scary stuff…maybe my anxiety will take care of itself, if I do…) Someone had asked him how he dealt with the smell of decomposing bodies — bodies that had died weeks or months before they got to his office. The author said he did his best to power through it, but it was much easier if he imagined them as still-human, with feelings and opinions. They probably didn’t want to smell so bad, he reasoned. In fact, they’d probably be incredibly embarrassed by how bad they smelled. How humiliating! So in the back of his mind, whenever he came across a particularly smelly body, he’d keep in the back of his mind that person’s probable embarrassment. I guess that helped him ignore the smell. Or at least forgive it.

In the same way, if your kid is scared of ghosts (or yourself, even? Not that I know any full-grown adults who get scared of ghosts and have to sleep with the lights on still, no sir), have him strike up a conversation with whatever scares him. What’s the ghost’s name? What kind of TV shows does he like to watch? Does he like being a ghost? What kind of fun things can he do? Float through walls and shit? Because that would be fun. Make up a dialogue between you and the ghost and see if he has any interests other than just being creepy as shit.

Girl, Imma let you finish, but your makeup is jacked and we need to talk about it. Have a seat.

All of these have been tried successfully by yours truly, because I definitely wasn’t going to give up reading Dean Koontz or Stephen King. So if your kid (or yourself, who knows, whatever, I’m not judging) is still sleeping with the lights on after watching an episode of Cold Case Files, maybe try one of these techniques on for size. They just might help.

You’ll thank me after a good night’s sleep.

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Childbirth sucks balls but it cured my PTSD

My precious baby girl turned three years old on Monday. We celebrated over the weekend (with a small family party, some chocolate cake, and a late-night bonfire), so her actual day of birth was pretty low-key. We woke up, watched Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, cleaned downstairs, folded some clothes, drove up to Park Ridge to cast Henry’s feet, and took a nap (June did, not me. Alas).

Three years ago I was sitting upright on my hospital bed, eyes closed, paralyzed with absolute terror. I was in the middle of labor. Strangely enough, I wasn’t even feeling my contractions. My water had broken (partially — apparently your water can “leak” and not fully break. Who knew?) so I was admitted and contracting and leaking (gross) — but not dilating. I was stuck at 4 centimeters. And I was so, so terrified. The contractions were nothing — mild cramps and stomach tightening — but my heart was racing so fast that the nurses kept coming in to check on me and asking if I had a heart defect of some type. My heart was defect-free — but I did have a major case of PTSD to contend with.

If you’ve followed my blog at all in the past year, you know that I studied abroad in India, and it was an absolute disaster. Not only did I develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, my PTSD was triggered by about a zillion different things, including having to pee, any kind of loud or sudden noise, doctors, hospitals, any mention of India, and being in a moving vehicle. Any of the aforementioned things would cause an immediate and irreversible anxiety attack, eventually culminating in a full-blown nervous breakdown. It was … not the best couple years of my life.

So you can guess, perhaps, that being in a hospital, surrounded by doctors, with a c-section looming (I thought), was not the most calming place for me to be. I had envisioned my labor to be done mostly out of bed, walking around to ease the contractions, bouncing on my yoga ball — but as soon as I stepped into the hospital, that desire completely vanished. All I wanted to do was hide like an animal in a cave and hiss at whoever approached. I turned off all the lights. I lay curled up on my hospital bed, unable to sleep. My heart rate skyrocketed whenever a nurse came in the room. One of the triage nurses brushed up against my leg and I burst out crying. (“Umm … I haven’t even checked your cervix yet,” she said, totally perplexed. I know, dear. I know. I’m crazy. Just ignore me.)

It wasn’t even the thought of a section that scared me. It was simply being in a hospital, where my previous trauma had taken place. It was simply being around doctors. It was simply laying on my back, in pain. That’s all it took. It was like my body remembered what had happened in India and it was screaming Danger! Danger, Will Robinson! Run away! With every passing second, I had to will myself not to run screaming from the room in terror. Not an exaggeration.

I’ll be totally fine as long as nobody comes near me or talks to me or touches me in any way, and I don’t have any contractions or feel any pain.

So for twelve hours I was wide awake, with my eyes closed, listening to my Hypnobabies CD on repeat. Contracting, leaking, and not dilating. At one point I thought to myself, hey, this Hypnobabies stuff really works! I’m not feeling any pain at all! I’m doing it! I’M HYPNOBIRTHING! 

And then the nurse came in. “Um, you haven’t had any contractions for twenty minutes now.” Well, shit.

Finally, the OB came in and asked to break my water completely to move things along. I agreed readily (meaning, I nodded vigorously, in silence). I was terrified of having this baby, but I wanted to push this sucker out and just be done already. So she broke my water. And I felt nothing for a minute. And then:

“Fuuuuuuuuck this!”

It was the kidney stone pain all over again, except that the intensity fell and peaked instead of just relentlessly stabbing me in the back like the stone had done. It was bone-crunching, soul-twisting agony, and the fact that it was very very similar to kidney stone pain racheted up my anxiety ten-fold. Oh my dear sweet baby Jesus, I thought, this cannot be happening. No, no, no. I need the epidural. NOW.

“Epidural!” I screamed. My eyes were still squeezed shut. This was the first word I spoken to my OB since being admitted.

“Are you sure?” She said. “I wouldn’t want to impose –”

“SWEET JESUS,” I gasped. “Need! Drugs! Go! Run!”

My OB scurried out of the room, bless her. And thus began the longest hour of my life — the hour between requesting an epidural and actually getting it. This part is hazy. I remember twisting from side to side, wrenching my earbuds out of my ears (those hypnobabies flutes weren’t doing shit at that point), and screaming at my husband to apply counter-pressure to my back. “HARDER!” I kept screaming. “AH, JESUS! GOD, IT HURTS! PUSH HARDER! FUCK!”

And then the anesthesiologist came. He was pushing sixty, probably three hundred pounds, and looked exactly like the dude in those diabeetus commercials. But he was the most gorgeous vision I had ever beheld.

“OH THANK GOD,” I yelled. “YOU’RE HERE. YOU BEAUTIFUL MAN. PUT YOUR MAGIC JUICE INSIDE OF ME!!!!”

He obliged.

This right here is why I sing endless praises to the heavens about the miracle that is the epidural. I know the epidural gets a lot of flack sometimes, but it was an absolute Godsend for me during my PTSD-related anxiety freakout. Knowing that there was an end in sight to the excruciating pain kept my anxiety from spinning wildly out of control. It showed me that I wasn’t at the mercy of whatever my body was doing — unlike the kidney stone pain, the labor pain could be corralled and controlled. That wimp-juice saved my life. Or at least my sanity.

After the epidural I dozed blissfully for three hours. I was still completely terrified, and I refused to open my eyes or talk with any of the nurses or staff, but my anxiety had gone from an 11 to about a 6 — a considerable improvement. I took deep breaths and dozed, my heart still pounding.

After a couple hours of this, a horde of nurses flocked into the room. I was fully dilated. Tons of nurses and doctors (and a male student EMT, fun times!) all up in my biznatch was pretty much the last thing I wanted, but I was terrified that if I said anything, or moved even the slightest bit, my heart rate would skyrocket and I would spiral into a panic attack. I kept my mouth shut, except for when I heard the ceiling open and a huge mirror descended.

“Oh, God,” I moaned. “I don’t have to watch this, do I?”

“Uh…” the nurses said, and exchanged looks. “No, of course not.” The mirror went back up.

I pushed for one hour. Every time I flopped back down after a contraction, I thought, I’m going to barf, immediately followed by, you can barf when you’re dead! June was born at 1:55 pm. Sit up and look what you did! My OB exclaimed. I used every last bit of energy to hoist myself up on my elbows. I caught a flash of her pink, squalling face (huge cheeks! I thought to myself. Just like my husband! Just like I wanted!) and then collapsed, my eyes squeezed shut, sobbing. It was over. She was out. We were safe.

Well, June was safe, anyway. As soon as I collapsed back into the bed I started hemorrhaging. The OB removed my placenta manually, reaching inside until she was elbow deep in my uterus. It was … not pleasant. The drugs they gave to numb me knocked me out for two hours, but strangely I was conscious, though I had my eyes closed and was unable to move. I heard every word my mother and mother-in-law said when they came to visit the baby. But I couldn’t open my eyes or respond. That was … also unpleasant.

For some people, this would be the epitome of birth trauma. For me, it was healing. Perspective, I guess. I had done it. I had survived. I had actually pushed a seven-pound baby out of my vajayjay and I lived to tell about it. I did it without succumbing to panic. I did it without hyperventilating and sobbing hysterically (for the most part). WE DID IT. It was done, over, accomplished. We were safe.

Hours later, in the recovery room, my husband and I watched Goldfinger (the only thing on TV besides the don’t-shake-your-baby video that we both refused to watch) and laughed way, way too hard at all the jokes. For what seemed like forever, we yelled “I LOVE GOOLLLLLD” at the TV screen and laughed until tears came out of our eyes. We held the baby and enjoyed her, soaked her in.

It was finished; we were safe.

I haven’t had a panic attack since.

 

Baby Terror. And Agoraphobia Terror. And Just Plain Terror.

Lou can tell when I haven’t been taking my zoloft, and his accuracy is alarming. It never ceases to astound me how totally chemical anxiety is.

Without getting too detailed, having another child is almost a physical impossibility for us at this point. We’ve decided we won’t be having any more kids for some time, and knock on wood, there won’t be one. But that doesn’t stop me from peeing on a pregnancy test every single month, even though pregnancy is nigh-impossible and my husband is rolling his eyes in exasperation. There’s no way we could be pregnant this month right? I ask, three times in a row, rapid-fire. Without fail, he raises his eyebrows in a ‘you’re insane’ way. No, he says. Have you taken your zoloft? So there you go.

 But I can’t help it. I think it’s how your hormones shift after you ovulate. A doctor drew it for me on a napkin once, after I told her that during ovulation, I feel amazing. Great! Stable! No anxiety here! Depression? What’s that? And then a week later, I am hyperventillating, crying, obsessing, and generally wanting to hide in a hole.

Go figure that your hormones (progesterone, I think? And estrogen) plummet after you ovulate. And when your hormones plummet, you start to feel like shit. Your anxiety (or depression, or both) comes back in full force. You go from thinking, hey, life is pretty great! to over-analyzing completely everything. When I’m ovulating, I think, you know, having another baby wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe in a year or so…? We’re in a good place right now. A week later, I think of having another baby and my heart starts pounding. Oh Jesus no, I think, no no no, please don’t send me another baby, I couldn’t mentally handle it. 

Truth be told, another BABY wouldn’t be so bad. Pregnancy and birth are what I hate. I have an intense fear of vomit and some vestiges of medically-related PTSD that makes birth and pregnancy a whirlpool of uncontrollable anxiety. A pregnancy without antidepressants is not possible for me, but now that I’ve had a child with a neural tube defect, I’m so terrified of taking anything during pregnancy, in case it was a medication that caused it. I start skipping my zoloft after I ovulate — you know, on the near-impossible chance that we actually did concieve a baby and on the premise (which is not evidence-based, by the way) that the zoloft actually caused his NTD somehow. Anyway, I’m terrified. And the terror convinces me to skip a dose or two. Which makes it worse. Which means until I start getting some mad therapy (and until we get, like, our own house, obviously), there are no babies on the horizon.

If it were morally licit and I had a zillion dollars, I would totally have a test tube baby. No vomiting for months on end. No danger of me poisoning the baby with my very-much-needed antidepressants. No painful, terrifying birth. No danger of a post-partum hemorrhage. I would have like ten test-tube babies. I would have my own Jurassic Park full of test tube babies.

Literally a conversation my husband and I have had, post-delivery.

So it’s with alarming accuracy that Lou can tell whether or not I’ve been taking my meds. I start sounding a little bit like Shoshanna from GIRLS, hyper and fast-talking. I start talking over and over about things I can’t control and I start imagining worst-case scenarios. An example: I was pinning away on Pinterest the other night, dreaming of having our own condo and what it might look like. For some reason, people like to pin pictures of trap doors in houses – trap doors under the stairs, hidden rooms behind bookcases, that kind of thing. I’ll admit it’s pretty cool, but when I haven’t taken my zoloft that day, I start imagining myself as a Jewish woman in 1930s Germany, cowering with my children while Nazis tear through the house. Or I imagine I’m Jodi Foster in Panic Room, and I have to corral my child in a safe room while intruders try to coax us out. Basically, I start running through a billion scenarios in my head where my children are in danger and I have to protect them. And then my heart starts pounding. And I have to shut off the computer, take my medicine, and go to bed. All because of this:

OH JESUS, YOU CAN TOTALLY SEE THE HINGES, THE NAZIS WILL FIND US

I also, ever since being diagnosed with PTSD, have struggled mightily with agoraphobia. When I skip a few days of my zoloft, and then convince myself I’m miraculously pregnant, and then skip more zoloft so I don’t poison my imaginary baby, and so on, and so forth until I’m literally incapacitated by anxiety, it is hard — nay, impossible — for me to leave the house. This was a phenomenon I never really understood until a counselor sat me down, opened up the DSM-V, and showed me the part of the book where it spelled out explicitly what agoraphobia is. I half expected to see my picture next to the description.

Avoidance? Well … I only avoid class because there might be a shooter or something. And I avoid Devon Avenue because it reminds me of India. And I can’t walk to CVS without a buddy because there might be a stabber on the loose. But other than that, I’m cool!

Restricted Travel? Not really. Except I haven’t been able to take the train in three months without a panic attack. And I’m late for class every day because once I muster up the courage to go to class, I have to walk three miles to get there. That’s normal, right?

Fear of being confined? Uh, duh! If I’m confined, I can’t escape if there’s a shooter!

This is the picture they’d use, too. Because CRAZY EYES!!!

I can safely say I no longer have PTSD. But I very much still struggle with agoraphobia. Even with medicine, it is hard for me to voluntarily leave the house. I can’t tell you how many times we miss Wednesday Rosary at church because Henry pooped his diaper twice this morning and he might do it again when we’re out! or June is potty-training and she’ll pee everywhere! or there might be rain — the sky is cloudy!. It’s not logical. It doesn’t make sense. But, I guess, the anxiety I have makes me have an incredibly low tolerance for anything surprising, or unplanned, or anything from whence I can’t immediately flee. At the height of my PTSD, I couldn’t ride in a car because if I had to pee while I was driving, I couldn’t immediately get out and pee. I would have to wait and find a gas station or something first. That terrified me. Legitimately. One night, on our way to a friend’s party, I suddenly had to pee while we were on the highway, and we had to drive around looking for an exit, trying to find a Burger King where I could relieve myself. We found a gas station within fifteen minutes, but by then I was a sobbing, hysterical, hyperventillating mess. Because what if I had peed my pants?

Believe me, it doesn’t make sense, and I lived through it. That’s the funny thing about anxiety. Your brain takes situations that, to anyone’s right mind, are no big deal. Wearing a dress. Riding in a car. Going to Wednesday Rosary. And it takes those situations and warps and perverts them until they become insurmountable obstacles. You start thinking this dress is too tight! I’m gonna asphyxiate and die! I have to pee and I have to find parking before I get out of the car! I’m gonna have to hold in my pee forever and I’ll die of uremic poisoning! And on. And on. Until you’re a crying mess.

Whoever drew this knows what’s up.

By the way, the anxiety is never really about being in a dress or going outside. The anxiety is about things happening that you can’t control. The anxiety is about the fear of having a panic attack. It just feels like you’re freaking out about something mundane.

 Even worse, sometimes anxiety manifests itself as a physical sickness. Ever wonder why people go years and years with untreated anxiety or depression? It’s because sometimes anxiety or depression doesn’t look like a humorous personality quirk. Sometimes, back in college, I would start coming down with the flu. Achey limbs, runny nose, sore throat, headache. And then I’d cancel my plans and all my flu symptoms would go away in an hour. That’s weird, I thought, and thought nothing of it. It took years and years to realize that, oh, this feels like the flu, but it’s not really. It’s kind of like having a twinge in your stomach and then finding out it’s cancer. It kind of tilts your world on its axis.

 Anyway. I guess my point is that it doesn’t matter what your triggers are. Anxiety triggers look different for everyone. And they only very tangentially make sense. And your anxiety symptoms will probably not look like the next person’s. And they might change over time, as well. (Ask me about the time I developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome and I couldn’t go anywhere without the fear of crapping my pants! Actually … don’t ask me.)

But my point is that anxiety is debilitating. And elusive. And it makes you crap your pants.

And all you can do about it is suck it up, take a deep breath, and try your best to make it to Wednesday Rosary. Even if June pees her pants on the way there.

And get some zoloft. Sweet, sweet zoloft.

 

Underlying Depression

This is the fifth part in a series about PTSD, anxiety, trauma, and depression. This is the part about depression. Obvs. Read this post to catch up. 

I didn’t even realize I had depression until I was in the thick of it.

It was my senior year of college. I was going to school full-time, working part-time, and going to therapy once a week where I was in the midst of processing some really traumatic shiz. It was January, and I had started taking an SSRI for the first time in November, to combat my extreme anxiety and PTSD. It did nothing at first. And then — it kicked in. And it felt like my prayers had been answered.

The antidepressants worked. They worked so well. Instead of a constant hypervigilence, I felt normal, calm, that relaxed feeling you get after a hot shower or a deep-tissue massage. After a year of constant anxiety, I practically buzzed with happiness. I felt like I could breathe again. Why didn’t I start these earlier? I asked. I could talk about India without being massively triggered. I could walk to campus, hear car horns honking, and not suffer major panic attacks and have to turn around and hide out in my room. It was like I had a new lease on life.

And then, I think, the antidepressants worked too well.

Gonna eat some dinner and not worry about dying from botulism. Take that, anxiety!

The paralyzing depression snuck up on me. I noticed that I was taking more naps. I was slowly more sluggish. It was harder to get out of bed in the mornings. But I attributed that to working, school, and “writing my trauma narrative,” as the counselor called it. I was physically and emotionally spent.

Slowly, throughout the month of January and February, I would come home from class and just zonk out for hours. I had a 3 hour writing workshop — my favorite class — and I would come home in the afternoon and sleep well into the evening. My counseling session was every Friday, and I would come home at noon and routinely sleep until four or five in the afternoon. Even if I just felt like I could take a quick cat-nap, I would wake up and five hours would have passed. Even if I didn’t even feel all that tired. It’s like I would just lapse into a small coma every day, and wake up feeling like I could keep sleeping. Maybe if I had known more about depression, I would have suspected it. But to me, depression was just “feeling sad.” It was that little cartoon bubble with a frowny face and a cloud following him around. But I didn’t feel like a sad cartoon bubble. I didn’t feel “hopeless” or “unmotivated.” I didn’t even particularly feel tired. I just kept sleeping. And sleeping. And sleeping.

On the contrary, I felt really good. Kind of sluggish. Kind of groggy. But hell, after the year of heart palpitations, of extreme anxiety, of hypervigilence, feeling “kind of sluggish” and “unusually relaxed” was a welcome reprieve. I’m probably napping so much because of the zoloft, I thought, but hell, between crippling panic attacks and a few naps here and there, I’ll take the naps. And then again, it could have been the hectic work/school/therapy schedule. Who knew? I brushed it off. And kept brushing it off.

Depression is so cute!

For the life of me, I didn’t realize it was depression. Or maybe I just slept a lot, because of the medicine, and that triggered the depression. But either way, I wasn’t sad. I felt amazing, and relaxed, better than I had in the past year. But more and more, I started to love my bed. Not in a I-dont-have-the-will-to-live kind of way; Not even in an I-feel-so-tired way. I just craved being in my bed. I craved it like a big, fluffy, delicious sandwich. It was warm and soft and my pillow was just the right firmness, and I had just purchased an electric blanket that made nap time downright heavenly. So for whatever reason, I just became really attached to nap time. I’d look forward to it all day. I’d wake up in the morning, go to class, and count down the hours until nap time. And then when I’d come home and fall into my bed-haven, thinking, I’ll just nap for twenty minutes, I would open my eyes and four hours would have passed. I hadn’t even been tired!

We were BFFs, my bed and I.

Soon enough, I started sleeping through class. I would set an alarm and wake up seeing that it had been blaring for hours. That’s weird, I thought, and set the alarm for different frequencies, different volumes. I would sleep through most of them. I started sleeping later and later in the mornings, and taking naps earlier and earlier. And for longer. I missed more and more class. I got farther behind, try to catch up, and get really quickly overwhelmed and want to take a nap. And the more class I missed, the more overwhelmed I got. And the more overwhelmed I got, the more I kept on napping. And the more I napped, the more I felt like I couldn’t leave my bed. I felt stuck there. It was comfortable, and warm, and sleeping felt so good. I felt high off sleep.

I don’t remember when the weird crying spells started. I would go to class and just come back home and randomly cry. I wasn’t even crying about anything in particular — nothing that I recognized, anyway. I wasn’t particularly sad, and I didn’t cry because I was triggered by anything specific I would have a good day in class and then just come home and burst into tears and sleep. Well,  that’s weird, I would think, but I attributed it to PMS. Or stress. Or maybe it was the zoloft? But between debilitating anxiety and a few crying jags here and there, I’d take the crying jags. I made a mental note to call the doctor — after I took a quick nap.

Crying, but also thinking about what to order for dinner. Pizza or Thai? I can’t decide. Let’s cry about it!

Crying takes a lot out of you. I’d come home, cry for no reason, get super exhausted from crying, and take another four-hour nap. I spent a few months like that, and suddenly I realized I wasn’t getting out of bed much at all. And showering? That required you to stand. For a long time. Homie don’t play that. I was tired. From crying. Who had the energy to stand? Sure, my hair looked greasy as hell, but who did I have to impress? Who cared? Washing my hair would require lifting my arms, and my arms were tired. I’d take a shower later — right after a quick cat nap.

Slowly, it progressed. More naps, more crying, less socializing, less leaving the apartment. But I wasn’t having anxiety attacks anymore, so it was all good!

Depression is so full of shame. I don’t remember when, or why, but I very slowly became morbidly fascinated with death. It was confusing — I wasn’t suicidal. I didn’t want to die. I loved life. I was happy — aside from the random crying jags. I was excited to get married in a few short months — if I had the energy to make it down the aisle, that is. But for whatever reason, I wanted to know what death felt like. What it would look like. What would look like, if I died. How would I do it, if I could choose? It wasn’t an obsession at first. Just a casual curiosity. I found myself mulling over it more and more. What would happen to me? I mean, physically? If I hanged myself, how would my face look? Bruised? Bloated? These thoughts disgusted and shamed me — even now, they disgust and shame me. I didn’t (and still don’t) want anyone to think I was weird, that I was deviant. I didn’t want anyone to think I was unhappy or planning to die. I wasn’t. But I just kept thinking about it. What would people think if they knew I was imagining myself hanging in my bathroom? If I told someone, would they have me committed? Would I get put on some list? Would they “flag” my medical file? (Is that a thing?) I didn’t want to find out. I tried to push the thoughts out of my head. It didn’t matter anyway, I told myself. I wasn’t suicidal. I didn’t want to die. I just … wanted to imagine that I was dead.

Soon, it was all I could think about. I would have Googling sessions that lasted for hours, when I was supposed to be writing papers or studying, where I would just google graphic images of plane crashes. I didn’t like these images — I just wanted to see them. It was like a little game — what was the most graphic image I could view, without wanting to shut down my computer? I didn’t get very far, admittedly. I was terrified of gore. But the non-gory stuff I was all over. For hours, I listened to cockpit recordings of planes that had gone down. I wanted to hear the pilot’s last words. I wanted to imagine how it felt. How did it feel to die? How did the pilots feel in those last minutes, knowing that death was inevitable? I had heard, in my own family, of people beckoning toward the sky in their last moments before dying. Had the people on these planes experienced that too? The cockpit recordings disgusted me, calmed me, and thrilled me, all at once.

I googled 9/11 a lot. I listened to 911 dispatches. I was horrified. But I kept seeking it out. I kept imagining myself on those planes. I omitted this when I saw my therapist — I knew it wasn’t really considered a suicidal ideation unless I had a plan to kill myself. And I didn’t. Not exactly. Did I? I mean, I had thought about it a lot. And I had decided that hanging — no, pills — would be the way to go. But didn’t want to die. Did I? I mean, I didn’t want to die, but I also spent a lot of time thinking about death. And I didn’t feel sad … but I also spent a lot of time crying inconsolably. It was all just very overwhelming. And you know what helped that overwhelming feeling? Naps.

I don’t know if I had a “bottom” — some low point that made me realize I needed to get help. But I remember one day I googled the phrase I can’t stop thinking about suicide and a suicide survival forum popped up. I made a username and posted on it. Please help me, I posted. I’m not suicidal, I don’t think, but I keep thinking about suicide. I can’t stop. I can’t think about anything else. I can’t get out of bed. Does this mean I’m suicidal? I don’t want to die, but I just can’t stop thinking about it. What do I do?

The response was overwhelming: You’re depressed, dummy. Get to the doctor. NOW. 


And I did.

We Need to Talk about Antidepressants

The fall of my senior year in college, I had a nervous breakdown. Until recently, I didn’t even know what happened to me could be considered a nervous breakdown. When I hear that term, I think of a padded cell and a 5150 hold. I think of a complete psychotic break — like running around the streets naked and smearing feces on cars, or something. That didn’t happen with me. Instead, I spent a week huddled under my electric blanket, feeling like my heart was going to beat out of my chest, convinced I was dying of Swine Flu, crying and eating cereal and watching Frasier on an endless loop. This was triggered by the PTSD I developed after studying abroad the previous semester.

Accurate.

A “nervous breakdown,” according to MayoClinic, refers to a stressful situation when someone is unable to function in day-to-day life. It’s really helpful for me to read that definition out loud to myself. It helps me realize, to this day, that yes, things were that bad. Until recently, I kind of just referred to that time in my head as the week I binged on Lifetime Original movies and drank a lot of wine and missed a lot of class. As it turns out, I wasn’t just “having a bad week.” I wasn’t just “feeling stressed” or “feeling sick.” I had completely ceased to function in the world. I had a full-on nervous breakdown. And maybe had I known I was careening toward a breakdown, I wouldn’t have been so reluctant to start taking some medicine.

Pretty much verbatim what I told my roommates and coworkers

So after my full-on, hiding-under-the-covers nervous breakdown, I finally admitted that yeah, maybe I wasn’t doing so well with just therapy and a bottle of wine. And perhaps — just perhaps — I needed to kick it up a notch.

Up until that point, my therapist had been cautiously suggesting that I try an anti-depressant. And for months she had respectfully nodded and hadn’t pressed me when I all but laughed in her face. Well, I didn’t quite laugh in her face, but I made it clear that the thought of taking medicine was ridiculous. Hello? I thought. Haven’t you been paying attention? I freak the fuck out when I have to urinate, and I’ve been urinating for my entire life. If I start getting weird symptoms because of these pills, I’m going to have a heart attack. I’m going to start obsessing every time I take them. I’m going to start feeling imaginary symptoms. I’ll over-think every twinge, every cramp, every unfamiliar ache. It’ll make my anxiety worse. So for months we’d do a cat-and-mouse where the subject of meeting a psychiatrist (for medicine) would come up and I’d awkwardly try to side-step. And by side-step I’d be like:

But after that week in October, I felt like it was very literally my last option. Either I could take some medicine and hope that it worked, or I’d cease to function like a normal human. And that kind of panic — that flu-like feeling of sickness — is simply unsustainable. I’m not saying I was suicidal. But I really don’t know how much more of that I could have taken. So when I went crying to the campus nurse about how I had the Swine Flu and all my “Swine Flu” symptoms turned out to be anxiety induced, that blessed nurse scheduled a therapy session for me immediately. And from there I saw the psychiatrist.

Psychiatrist guy gave me two things — and I feel like it’s important for me to tell you what they were, at the risk of sounding like a druggie, because every week or so I’ll get an e-mail or an instant message with someone asking me about anti-anxiety drugs and what they’re like. There’s a definite undercurrent of shame, and fear, and, well, anxiety about what the side effects are going to be — which was totally my preoccupation before I started trying them. So. Psychiatrist guy (who looked curiously like Tobias Funke) gave me xanax, which has short-term effects and calms you down in the midst of an anxiety attack, and started me on Zoloft, which is an anti-depressant. Basically, untreated anxiety or PTSD feels like you’ve got your hand on a hot skillet and you can’t take it off. You’re expected to function as though everything is fine, but inside you’re thinking HOLY SHIT THIS HURTS I CANT FOCUS ON ANYTHING ELSE BUT THE BURNING IT BURNSSSSSSS!!!! Xanax is like splashing some cold water on the skillet — a temporary relief, but your hand is still on the skillet, and it’ll heat right back up again in a few minutes. Zoloft is like someone coming up behind you and turning off the burner — gradually, the anxiety goes away, and you start acting and feeling more like your normal self.

Seriously. Can you tell I was an English major?

So I started the zoloft that day. And I’d be lying if I said I had about a million tiny little anxiety freakouts and IBS flareups wondering what the side-effects would be. And I did get side-effects — nausea, primarily — for a few weeks until it started to kick in. And boy, did it kick in.

About a month after I started taking it, sometime in the first week of December — about ten months after the incident that spurred my PTSD — I woke up one morning and I felt lighter. Physically lighter. My limbs were looser. And the biggest difference was that I could breathe. It was a totally unparalleled feeling and I’m sure I looked like a complete dumbass, because I would just walk around campus and take deep, long breaths, sucking all the cold air into my lungs that I possibly could. It felt wonderful. I hadn’t even noticed until the anxiety went away how completely crushing it was. A weight had literally been lifted, and I felt joyously free. Right in time for finals. And then winter break.

When I went home for winter break, the primary feeling I felt was utter bliss. I’m not kidding. It always really irks me when people refer to anti-depressants as “happy pills,” because they make me functional, not happy. But this period was the exception — I had been living under the crushing weight of PTSD for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like to just feel normal. I could take big, deep breaths. I could  hear the doorbell ring or the blender turn on without hiding under my covers. I could wake up and actually feel excited about the day, instead of dreading all the millions of little noises and random events that would trigger an episode. I spent the whole winter vacation in my parents’ house, absolutely blissed out, reading books and lying on the couch and just feeling like I had gotten my life back. I could talk about my anxiety triggers without actually feeling triggered. I could think about India without feeling like I was dizzy or short of breath. I could ride in a car or a train without willing myself not to jump out of it. It was heaven.

Oh, it felt so good

I kind of sound like a druggie, don’t I? Obviously, anti-depressants aren’t for everyone. And Zoloft, specifically, is not for everyone, I’m sure. I wasn’t high or anything, but getting your life back after ten months in hell? Oh, it was wonderful. I couldn’t breathe deeply enough.

And then — I got depressed.

Stay tuned.

What a Nervous Breakdown Looks Like

IV. Fall Breakdown

That fall, after suffering through a kidney stone obstruction, coming home early from my semester abroad, and having weird anxiety symptoms for the next six months, I went back to college on the north side of Chicago. I was still having panic attacks, but in my mind, there was nothing else to do but grit my teeth and get through them. I still didn’t really fully understand what was causing them.

I was glad to get back in the swing of things. I was still having weird bouts of anxiety where I would feel like I’d have to run away and hide in a cave somewhere. I was still having shortness of breath when someone would ask me how my semester in India had been. I didn’t want to travel very far outside of my campus-work-apartment radius, in case one of those bizarre attacks came on again. And if a cab honked too loud or my doorbell rang, I’d have to run to the bathroom so I didn’t literally shit my pants out of anxiety. But other than that I was getting back to normal. A new normal. I felt frustrated because whatever happened in India had happened months ago. It was no longer a part of my life and I wanted to move on. I felt like my mind had moved on — but my body hadn’t yet.

I started seeing a therapist at the Wellness Center. I’ll call her K. K was very calm and sweet and talked about her kids and husband even though she didn’t wear a wedding ring which confused me to the point of distraction. I told her I had been struggling with anxiety and slowly we began to unpack all the shiz that had gone down in Bangalore. More than once, she’d raise an eyebrow at me.

“This doesn’t sound like run-of-the-mill anxiety,” she’d say. “It sounds like you went through something incredibly traumatic. Maybe you’re having PTSD?”

“Yeah, I guess, or maybe something else,” I’d say. I knew, deep down, that if this were a “serious” diagnosis and not just some run-of-the-mill panic, I’d have to go on antidepressants and I couldn’t stomach the thought of having side effects. I couldn’t stomach the thought of being on medicine for something like this. Medicines were for sicknesses. I wasn’t sick. I just wanted to move on. I was just biding my time until my body caught up with my mind. My mind had moved on. I wanted to put all of this behind me. There was no way I was going on drugs.

One week in October, everything changed.

My mom called my phone when I was waiting in line at the campus cafeteria. “You want to know something crazy?” She said, mid-conversation. “Steve [our neighbor] thinks he might have Swine Flu.”

In an instant, everything went still. I felt my stomach drop to my knees. I felt a warm rush of anxiety crawl across my skin, very much in the same way it would crawl across my skin four years later, when we got the news that our son had Spina Bifida. I had just seen Steve over the weekend, and he hadn’t seemed sick. I vividly remembered taking a sip of his wine to test it out.

At that point, my biggest fear was that something would happen regarding my body that I couldn’t control, and I would have to go back to the hospital. Now, in my anxiety-riddled mind, my worst fear had come true. It was inevitable. The virus was already inside me. And the most terrifying part was that I wasn’t showing any symptoms now, but inevitably I knew I would be. I didn’t know when. Or how. But surely in the next two or three days, it would attack. I’d have to go back to the hospital. I would wake up in the middle of the night, sick and incapacitated, and have to navigate my ass all the way to an unknown hospital — again. I had to fight to keep from vomiting right there in the cafeteria line.

And hadn’t I heard that Swine Flu was potentially deadly? Hadn’t a few people died from this thing? I fought off a fresh wave of panic. I could die. This could be my last week alive.

I got off the phone as quickly as I could and high-tailed it back to my apartment. I climbed into bed, got under my electric blanket, and willed myself to fall asleep as fast as I could. It was the only way I
could shut off the thoughts that kept forcing themselves inside my head. I slept for hours and woke up exhausted. Here it is, I thought. It’s beginning. Swine Flu. 

I didn’t go to class the next day. What was the point? I was going to get the Swine Flu symptoms any minute, and I had to be ready once it hit. I stayed in my room all day and watched Frasier. I felt sick. I got a headache. Swine Flu is starting, I thought. Here it is. I was nauseous. I had the chills. I packed a bag in case I had to go to the hospital, and waited. It wasn’t serious enough for me to head to the hospital yet, but soon enough, it would be. I couldn’t take the chance of getting suddenly sick in class, or on campus, around a hundred other people — that would be humiliating. So I just sat in my room under the electric blanket and watched season after season of Frasier. I emerged once to go to the Dominick’s across the street and got a huge bottle of wine, some pierogies, and a romantic comedy. I watched the movie back to back for the next twelve hours.

Meanwhile, I had exhausted the supply of xanax my doctor had given me a few months before.

I believed so many lies when I had anxiety, and writing this, I think that’s one of the saddest things about the whole situation. Anxiety lies. I knew — I knew — that if I called the doctor back and asked for more xanax, the doctor would think I was a drug addict. Or a scammer. I cried. I can see now, in hindsight, that my brain was truly sick. Only a crazy person would think that a terrified twenty-year-old, who had carefully rationed 20 pills of low-dose xanax for the past six months could possibly be a drug addict. And knowing my doctor, who is a wonderful, kind-hearted woman, that would have been the last thing she would have thought. She would have helped me. But I was convinced otherwise. People would laugh at me. I’d get in trouble. They’d call me a liar. I couldn’t call the doctor. I was trapped.

Instead of calling and asking for more xanax, I just bought wine. But in my weird, altered reality, if I drank before 5 pm, I had a problem. Never mind the fact that I had been holed up in my bedroom for the past few days, crying and watching The Proposal, waiting for the Swine Flu to kill me. I bought wine as a cheap substitute for xanax — something to calm me down — but I vowed that I wouldn’t drink it before it was socially acceptable. Five o’clock.

For the next three days, I did nothing. I stayed inside. I cried. I waited for the Swine Flu to kill me. I watched Frasier on a loop. And I white-knuckled it until exactly 5 pm, when I would emerge from my room, pop open a bottle of wine, and drink the entire thing by myself. Totally rational, I thought. I mean, what else could you do, when you were waiting for the Swine Flu to kill you?

Here’s the scary thing: Normally, I could drink half a glass of wine before I started to feel woozy. Get more than a couple beers in me under normal circumstances, and I’d be climbing in my roommate’s Ikea wardrobe yelling about going to Narnia. But not this time. Now I was in such a heightened state of hyper-arousal, it took three or four big glasses of wine just to get me feeling like my ‘normal’ self. I didn’t feel drunk. I could drink two bottles and barely feel it at all. It should have been a big red flag that I was going out of my mind with anxiety, but it barely registered. I was just doing what any normal person would do if they didn’t have anti-anxiety medications and they were twelve hours away from dying of the Swine Flu. Right? And it wasn’t like I wasn’t functional, right? I mean, I could wait until 5 to start drinking. So I was fine. I was in control. Right?

The terrifying thing about anxiety, too, is that it completely changes your brain. You think in a way that’s not rational, that’s totally illogical, that’s completely unlike how you’d think normally. That fall, at my school, three students died in unrelated ways, all within a two or three week span, right around the time I was convinced I had the Swine Flu. One died after a long battle of leukemia. One after a horrific bike accident. Another I think had some infection. This solidified my belief that I was going to die. I was next in line. Death was hovering over my school like a cloud, and the fact that three students died in random ways unrelated to each other made it even more sinister. Like Death was just picking kids at random. And now I had the Swine Flu. I was definitely next. I literally didn’t leave my apartment unless it was absolutely necessary — I was next to die, after all. It didn’t matter if it was Swine Flu or something else — I could be crossing the street and get hit by a truck. It was going to happen, in one way or another. There was no way out.

About four days after I had received the phone call from my mom, I woke up at midnight shaking. Okay, here we go, I thought. Swine Flu for real this time. I went in the other room and threw up. I had awful diarrhea. I was freezing, aching. But to my surprise, I didn’t even have a fever. From what I heard of the Swine Flu, or any Flu, you had to have a fever. The thermometer’s broken, I thought, because OBVIOUSLY I had the Swine Flu. I suffered through the symptoms until the next morning, when I dialed the college wellness center and told them what was going on.

“I have the Swine Flu,” I said, crying. “Can you give me Tamiflu right now or should I just go to the hospital?”

“Hold on,” the nurse said, after hearing my symptoms. “If you don’t have a fever, you don’t have the Swine Flu.”

“That’s wrong, because I definitely have the swine flu,” I insisted.

“Honey, people who have the Swine Flu say that their body aches so bad their hair hurts. What you’re describing doesn’t sound like you’ve got the Swine Flu.”

“I PROBABLY HAVE A SLOWER-ACTING STRAIN,” I screamed. Was everyone in the world incompetent? Would I die alone, in my apartment, and have nobody find me for weeks after?

Somehow, the nurse was able to finagle me into calming down and coming over to the wellness center for an appointment. I don’t remember how I got there. But I remember very vividly sitting in the doctor’s office and crying and mumbling about Sanjay Gupta and how he got the Swine Flu and almost died and had to go to the hospital and so I just don’t want to go back to the hospital so if you just give me Tamiflu I can go back to my apartment and hide under the covers, okay? OKAY?

The nurse held my hand, and what she said next shook me.

“I can tell you right now, you don’t have the Swine Flu,” she said, and her eyes were very sad and very kind. “By any chance, do you have problems with anxiety?”

I was floored. How could she possibly know that? I mean, sure, I was a little nervous, but who suffering from a deadly strain from the Swine Flu wouldn’t be nervous? If you asked me, I was handling this pretty goddamn well, considering I was at death’s door. I walked all the way to the Wellness Center and I was still alive, despite the Swine Flu decimating my healthy blood cells, slowly shutting down my organs.

“A little bit, I guess,” I told her. Was this bitch going to call an ambulance or what? “Why do you ask?”

“I think all of this is anxiety-related,” she said, and dug out a small white bag filled with losenges and tylenol. Seeing that bag, it hit me. I didn’t have the swine flu. That wasn’t something you’d give someone with the Swine Flu. That was something you’d give a hypochondriac who was convinced she had the swine flu, to assuage her panic. I deflated like a balloon. My face burned with shame.

“I’m going to pop in next door to see if your counselor is available,” she said. I hardly heard her. She disappeared out the door and I burst into tears.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Crippling Anxiety (Part 3)

III. After

(Part I is here. Part II is here.) 

The flight home could have been a lot worse. I took a five (ish?) hour flight from Bangalore to Dubai, and met my uncle at the airport, who was coincidentally traveling on business. Together we flew from Dubai to New York, and from there, Chicago. I kept passing “shards” on the way there, but it wasn’t as  excruciating as it had been on campus, back in India. I mustered the courage to look in the airplane toilet after I had peed, on the flight from New York to Chicago — still blood, but not nearly as much as there had been. The symptoms were going away. Was I recovering? Instantly, I felt a rush of shame. Was I getting better?

Could I have stuck it out in India? Was I a total pussy, deciding to give up and go home? Should I have just waited it out a few days longer? Embarrassment flooded me. I realized that other than a nagging ache in my back, I was able to navigate three international airports on my own, with no problems, without once getting a sudden “kidney stone attack.” Before I could barely walk across campus. And now I wasn’t peeing as much blood as before. I wasn’t throwing up. I was a little nauseous, but otherwise … I was able to travel mostly by myself. I probably looked like any other passenger, except for the slight limp in my step. What a total privileged princess I am, I thought. I get one tiny kidney stone and I throw up a few times and I high-tail it back to the States, where people speak English. What does that say about me — that I’m only comfortable in a place where I understand the language, and the doctors wear lab coats? What kind of racist, privileged bullshit is that? 

Shame was a major component of my recovery, which meant it was a long time before I could muster up the courage to talk to a therapist. Surely it couldn’t have been that bad, I kept thinking to myself afterwards. I stopped passing shards like, the instant I boarded the plane back home. And then when I got back to my parents’ house in Chicago, I was almost totally back to normal. I probably could have stuck it out a few more weeks and have been totally fine. I could have finished out the semester. What a total pussy I am. Cut and run. But when I’d think about taking a return flight back to India, I would break out in a cold sweat. I would have to  put my head in my hands and take deep breaths to keep from feeling like I was falling. I would run to the bathroom and have instant, IBS-style diarrhea. Hell no, I’d think. If going home makes me a pussy, so be it. I’m not going back. I got out. I’m out. I’m okay. 

I had returned home in the middle of the semester, in the middle of February, so I was in a limbo at my parents’ house until school started up again in the fall. Talk about culture shock — I had gone from a wet, sweltering, hot, city where you literally could not escape from honking cars and barking dogs, to a large house in the middle of the Chicago suburbs, deafeningly silent in comparison and surrounded by snow. I spent the next couple of days just hanging out on the couch, happy beyond measure that I could snuggle up to my then-fiance-now-husband instead of lying naked by myself on a gurney in an Indian hospital. I went to my doctor’s office (where I could understand what everyone was saying, where everyone washed their hands and wore white lab coats, where it was five minutes away instead of twenty minutes by rickshaw, where I could just get in the car and go instead of having to haggle and be harassed by an autorickshaw driver). They checked me out and told me I was better. I was better. I was normal. What was I supposed to do now?

I got a few part-time jobs, nannying and babysitting, and cobbled them into a full-time work schedule. I worked and saved. Friends and co-workers and acquaintences back at college would text, or call, or message me on Facebook, and go, um, did you come home from India? What happened? Are you okay? How was I supposed to explain everything? I’d start by saying Oh well I woke up one morning with this excruciating pain– and then suddenly I couldn’t breathe. It would feel like I had an elephant sitting on my chest. I’d get sweaty and have what my doctor calls trampada a la puerta — a sudden urge to run to the bathroom. The gag reflex in the back of my throat would start to itch. I learned to abbreviate what had happened in the shortest way possible. “Oh, I got sick,” I said. “Long story. Hospital. Surgery. Had to come home.” Any more explanation than that, and I would start to feel faint. Sometimes I would relay parts of the story to friends or family who would ask, and after telling them about getting cathed, getting prepped before surgery, having surgery, even the ordeal of being in pain and trying to get to the hospital — and I would have to lay down afterwards and take a nap. I was wiped. The only thing that helped me feel better was lying in bed and turning my electric blanket to its highest temperature. And sleeping. It was the only thing that shut off my brain. It was my only respite.

I had begun to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It was months before I went to the doctor, months before I even knew that there was any reason to go to the doctor. My mother, who I was living with and who had a history of anxiety as well, noticed my weird symptoms and told me to get myself checked out. Really? I’d say. I’m okay, though. Aren’t I? I’d make plans to go into the city and visit friends, and then come down with all these flu-like symptoms. Chills. Body-aches. Even a low grade fever. I’d cancel plans and within an hour, I’d feel back to my normal self. That’s weird. I thought. But not a reason to go to the doctor. Probably just some bug I’m fighting off. Any time I’d travel, or be in a situation I couldn’t immediately get out of (like dinner with friends. Like riding in a car or traveling on a train) I’d come down with these weird flu symptoms. And if I went to dinner anyway, or rode in a car against my better judgment and decided to ignore all these “flu” symptoms, I’d start falling down a rabbit hole of pure panic. Hyperventilating. Uncontrollable crying. Immediate diarrhea. Shaking. And crying some more. What was wrong with me?

There were other triggers too. And slowly — very slowly — I noticed a pattern. Sudden, loud noise? Panic attack. If I had to pee and couldn’t immediately get to a bathroom? Panic attack. If I was stuck in a traffic jam and couldn’t “escape” if I needed to? Panic attack. I had a constant urge to escape (even if I was in the craft section of Michael’s or something) and if I couldn’t immediately escape from any given situation (like if there was some fat chick blocking the exit at Michael’s) I would need to run to the bathroom and hyperventilate/cry for the next fifteen minutes. After a while, there wasn’t much that didn’t trigger a panic attack. It was hard to go outside at all. After all, pretty much anything triggered an attack. And once I had a panic attack, I was literally immobile. I realized it was a lot easier to just stay inside. I could avoid most of the triggers there. Or I could turn off my brain and sleep. Or I could stay under my warm, wonderful electric blanket and watch TV shows where there was virtually no conflict and no loud surprises. Nothing that scared me. Nothing that hurt me. No reminders of India. Or the hospital. Or anything medical. Or anything unexpected. I watched a lot of House Hunters.

I had begun to experience agoraphobia.

Eventually, I went back to the doctor. They gave me some xanax, and that helped, for a while. Ultimately though, everything got a lot worse before it got better.