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.

 

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.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Crippling Anxiety (Part 2)

II. Recovery

A nurse was shaking me awake. The procedure was a success. We pulverized the stone. She said. They had inserted a scope up my urethra and did something to the kidney stone — blew it up, or something? — and now it was gone. I would continue to keep passing “shards” of the stone for the next few days, they told me. Sure, okay, I said.

I was groggy from the anesthesia, but I instantly felt better. That I’m-going-to-pee-my-pants feeling was gone. And after I had been wheeled out of recovery and back into my room, a kind nurse helped me wobble over to my “English” toilet and let me pee for the first time in three days.  It stung a little, but that was normal, they told me, because of the scope they had stuck up there. I looked into the toilet and there was blood. Not streaks of blood, not spatters — the entire bowl was dark red.

That’s normal, the nurse told me. I still felt faint. She helped me wobble back into bed and I laid in the dark feeling nauseated from the anesthesia. I threw up a couple times. But I felt lightyears better than I had felt in the past day. I had been in the hospital about 18 hours at that point. The nurse gave me something to put me to sleep. My two friends stayed the night with me in my room, and called my mother every few hours to update her on what was happening. I’m certain that the entire experience, as hellish as it was for me, was way worse for her.

They released me the next day around noon. I was a little sore, still, but the stone had passed, and there was no need for me to be hospitalized any more. I could pee on my own. I still peed blood, but again, they said, it was no big deal. It should taper off in a few days. There was still a lot of it.

In Bangalore, we walked everywhere. Our campus was large and vast, and for some reason there were a lot of wild birds everywhere. The walk from the main gates of the campus back to the girls’ dormitory took maybe fifteen minutes. Getting anywhere on campus, from point A to B, was a fifteen or twenty minute walk. On the walk back from the hospital, my classmates approached me, horrified.

We heard you went to the hospital?! They said. Are you okay?!
Oh, I’m totally fine! I’d say, brushing it off. Toooootally fine. I had a procedure and they blew up my kidney stone like the Death Star and I’m all good now. And I thought I was.

The next day, in my lower back, I got a tingling pain, very slight, in the place where the kidney stone had lodged. Within minutes, it had evolved into an agonizing ache, and in another minute it was so painful I had to lay down on my back and take deep breaths. I was at a mall when this happened. Oh God, I thought, the stone is back. I have no way to get to the hospital. I’m all by myself. I can’t even move. What am I gonna do? 

The pain subsided after a while and I was able to hobble back to my dorm room, terrified. I didn’t know what had just happened, but it felt like an attack. It had come out of nowhere, and was crippling, and I had no idea if it would happen again. I decided to skip class that day, to rest up, in case whatever it was came back.

It came back a lot.

On my way to class, on my way to the dining hall — wherever I was going for the next four or five days, I would randomly get this stabbing pain in my back, and a paralyzing fear would grab me. If I was on my own in the city or on campus, and I had this pain creep up on me, I’d be stranded. I’d have to lay down on my back, or sit on the ground and breathe through it.

Meanwhile, my Indian phone was running out of minutes, and I had to take an auto-rickshaw across town to buy a calling card with more minutes. I couldn’t walk across campus — whenever I walked anywhere, that stabbing pain would come back — so my phone minutes just petered away. My laundry was piling up — and in India, we did all our laundry by hand. Literally. We took it up to the roof, lathered some soap on it, beat it against a rock, and hung it up to dry on a clothesline. It was hard work. I could barely pick up my laundry basket, so the laundry kept piling up. Students at the University bought food at the supermarket across town to keep in their dorms, or ate in the cafeteria at the edge of campus, or both. The few times I had tried to walk to the cafeteria, I had been besieged by the stabbing pain and had high-tailed it back to my dorm room. I mostly ate some leftover biscuits I had been keeping in my room, so I wouldn’t have to leave my dorm. I didn’t change clothes, because I couldn’t do my laundry. I didn’t go to class, because the kidney stone pain might have flared back up. The stones are coming back, I would think, whenever the stabbing back pain would creep up on me, like a pocket knife slowly inching into my back. I’m going to have to go to the hospital again. I’m going to need surgery again. Eventually I couldn’t leave my room. I kept a bag packed next to my bed in case I had to go back to the hospital. I was in a near-constant state of pain or waiting expectantly for the pain to come back. I was a hostage.

Meanwhile, I was still peeing blood.

The hospital had given me a prescription for some medicines when I had left. I had to take the perscription to a pharmacy and have them fill it. I couldn’t tell what it said, because of the handwriting. I managed to decipher some of it and looked it up on Google when I got back to the dorms. One of them was a medicine that made me pee. Another was a painkiller. Another I had no idea. Was I allergic to this medicine? I had no idea. They hadn’t asked if I had medicine allergies. Would it interfere with the meds I was already taking — the anti-malaria pills my doctors had given me back home? Nobody knew. The doctors didn’t ask if I was taking anything else. They didn’t seem to care. Neither did the pharmacy guy — who, by the way, was like, just some fucking dude in a garage. The first time I went to the pharmacy to fill the perscription, it was closed. I came back a few hours later, still closed. The guys outside the garage-like building told me the pharmacist was on his lunch break and to come back later. I did. He was there. No lab coat, just some dude in jeans, with his friends hanging outside his shop, talking on their phones and making jokes. Was this real life?

Here’s a good example of what an Indian pharmacy looks like. (I got this from Google images.) As you can see … it’s just some fucking hole in the wall.  Don’t bother asking the guy who runs this any questions about any of the medications, because he has no clue.

After five or six days of this, still peeing blood and having this random, paralyzing pain, I went back to the emergency room. I was exhausted. Terrified. I was a prisoner. I sobbed to the emergency room physician that I was still peeing blood — a lot of it — and I thought I was still passing stones. They wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t go anywhere, or do anything. I couldn’t function. Or get groceries. I had lost five pounds. I hadn’t been to class.

I couldn’t understand what they were saying, their broken English. They did the Indian head bobble at me — which, if you’ve ever been to India or talked to an Indian person, you know that this head bobble means exactly nothing. It can mean yes, or no, or maybe, or anything, really, it’s just a gesture. I don’t know what that means, I kept telling them. Is that a yes? A no? Do I have kidney stones again?

I can’t believe I found a gif of this.

They did some more x-rays. No stone. I cried and cried. Please just tell me what’s going on, I begged the physician. I literally have no idea what this pain is or when it’s going to sneak up on me next. The physician patted my head and told me I just needed some tea. Then put her hand on my stomach. Then she started to pray. In tongues.

Make no mistake — I’m a big believer in the power of prayer. I have felt it work many, many times. That time, however, was not a time I felt it work. And that was not a time I appreciated being prayed over. Is this real life? I kept thinking. Is she a real physician? Did she just wander off the street and put on a lab coat? I laid there on the gurney and just cried harder.

After she worked her voodoo, they discharged me with more prescriptions. I was passing kidney stone shards, apparently — remnants of the original big-ass kidney stone they had already blown up — and it should be over soon. I should stop peeing blood any day now. It wasn’t and I didn’t.

I filled the perscriptions at the pharmacy when the pharmacist decided to randomly show up (there were no hours of operation, the pharmacist dude just came and went whenever he felt like it). What the hell were these medicines, and what did they do? Hell if I knew. Side effects? No idea. One was a painkiller. I tried to google the rest. No results. I had no information, even from Google, because the only English websites about these medicines were sites like the FDA, which didn’t recognize the names of any meds because they weren’t American medicines. Great.

The next day, I was so nauseated I couldn’t stand up. I made myself puke in my private bathroom in the dorms so I could end my misery, but I was still just as nauseated as before. I couldn’t eat — not that I had groceries anyway. Some friends brought me some strawberries and I puked those up too. I was still peeing blood. A lot of it. Every time I looked in the toilet my heart would start to pound, and I’d get this warm, tingling wave of anxiety all over my body. One day, I just stopped looking. Somehow, I managed to crawl out of bed and I went back to the hospital. There was an on-campus doctor at the university, but he only came every other wednesday (or every wednesday, I don’t remember), so it was either lying on my dorm floor, puking, or back in the hospital, trying to figure out what was going on. So I went back to the hospital.

Oh, said the physician, when I told her I had been severely nauseous. That’s a side-effect of the medication. I’ll give you another medication you can take. 

LOL, I thought. There’s no way I’m taking anything else you give me. I lied and told her I was fine and got the hell out of there. I lied and told her I had stopped peeing blood days ago. Before, my choices were the Indian hospital where nobody knew what they were doing and some freak voodoo bitch was trying to poison me, and my dorm room where I had no clean clothes, no food, and no contact with the outside world since my phone had run out of minutes a week ago. I’m getting out of this hell-hole, I decided. I’m going home.

Immediately, I ambled back to my dorm room and tried to buy a flight home. Lots of websites were blocked at the university for some reason, and I couldn’t access any travel websites. Because terrorism, or something. The next day I went to leave campus and go to an Internet cafe where I could purchase a flight, only to be told that nobody was allowed to leave the campus because there were mobs of people just randomly attacking women all over Bangalore. Is this real life? I called my parents, who had to jump through a bunch of hoops to purchase an international ticket (because again, terrorism, or something), and finally — finally — about ten days after this nightmare had begun, I was getting out of there. I threw everything in my suitcase. I threw out what didn’t fit. I hired a cab and hugged my friends. And I started the 30-hour journey back to Chicago.