Why do they put leather couches in Shrink offices? Leather isn’t comfortable. It’s stiff, squeaky; no give in the cushion. My legs both jiggle up and down and the couch squeaks like a rat trapped by a big, fat cat.
The big, fat cat is sitting at her desk, her smartphone is in one hand, her laptop open on the desk in front of her, and her glasses have slid down her nose. How many quacks does she see a day? How do I rank on her list of nutsos? I pick at my cuticles for a few moments, then proceed to bite my red, calloused knuckle. I often alternate between these two nervous habits, along with the leg shaking. I must look insane. Well, that’s why I’m here, anyways.
“So how has the anxiety been lately?” The big, fat cat asks; her words make me jump and shrink back into the stiff leather. I pick my cuticles again; my legs shake quicker. I’m always shocked to hear someone speak of my weaknesses so frankly, like she’s asking how the weather is outside or something. It’s only a dark demon that’s gnawed at my insides for as long as I can remember.
“Um, okay…I haven’t had any panic attacks in a month…there was some stress at work, and I think I handled it okay. I’m still…picking…excessively.” My face flushes at such an obvious fact, as the big, fat cat has been looking down her nose at me this whole time and could clearly hear the couch squeaking with my fear. She just nods her head.
“That’s partly from your OCD. But your Panic Disorder seems to be doing much better. Now if we can just help you with your General Anxiety Disorder. And have you been dealing with much Depression lately?”
“Mmm,” I respond, trying to gather the thoughts that swirl through my head like a flushing toilet. “My depression…comes and goes…I’ll be happy, I’ll be calm, then it hits me…random.”
“Are you sure it’s random? Can you think of some times when it’s happened?”
“Mmm…driving in the car…watching tv…laying in bed…umm…I guess when I have nothing else to do but think.” She smiles like I reached some great conclusion and I want to bite her nose, bite her nose off and watch those glasses fall down onto her desk in a clatter of plastic and blood and cartilage.
“Are you still doing your relaxation techniques?” She asks. She’s tapping the keys of her laptop now; my cuticle has started to bleed. I let a frustrated sigh escape from my mouth.
“Meditation every night before bed…progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, deep breathing, mindfulness…yoga twice a week… half hour of cardio the rest of the days…I drink my tea when I feel like I need to relax, or take a hot bath, or watch one of my musicals, or read a book. I’m the most diligent relaxer who can’t relax….” My voice shakes the more I speak, and I’m fighting back tears.
Professional athletes work on their sport every day religiously, and are supported by a sponsor. My professional sport is trying to relax, and my sponsor is my big, fat cat shrink. She pays me in pills. We’ve decided to up my Klonopin to 3 times a day and increase my Cymbalta by 10mg. She pays me well — the lousier you are at this sport, the better you’re paid.
The appointment lasted 15 minutes and with my insurance costs me a $70 copay. I make another appointment for four weeks later and drive home. I feel defeated and the depression starts to set in. I pop in my relaxation music CD that you’re not supposed to listen to while driving because some people are stupid and fall asleep. I can’t sleep unless I’m in my own bed and have taken my meds. I start to take shaky breaths, as slow as I could, remembering to pause at the bottom of each breath because there have been times where I’ve hyperventilated and had to pull over to the side of the road.
My dark demon gnaws and gnaws at my stomach as I try to focus on the road and my breath.
For the first 20 years of my life, I was simply labeled a “worrywart,” and “sensitive.” I was considered “normal.” And I really believed I was normal. I mean, I had friends, boyfriends, went out and had fun with them, got great grades. There were times I really was happy. But that nagging, unexplained fear was always in the back of my head. But after a lifetime of feeling that way, and finding no relief in sharing my feelings with others, I simply learned to hide the worry, which turned out to be pretty easy.
Most of the time I had no reason for my worries. I felt like I was about to go up on stage before a large crowd, but I’d be sitting on the couch watching television. Other times I had a laundry list of problems with teachers, friends, family…things that most people would simply be stressed about became a life and death conflict to me, and I’d constantly obsess over them.
Before, when I was worried or nervous, my Ma’d do everything in her power to reassure me. Mostly she relied on childish whimsy and magic to try and comfort me. I had “magic” everything that my mother swore would make me feel better. Magic stones, little magic chicks and doggies, magic leaves, and other little trinkets…she’d teach me magical sayings I was supposed to repeat over and over to protect myself from harm: “I’m surrounded by the White Light. Nothing can harm me physically, mentally, or spiritually.” She had other sayings she’d repeat over and over for comfort, like, “it’s always darkest before dawn,” or, “good things come to those who wait.” I took the darkest before dawn thing literally, since I was usually already awake worrying by then. I’d sit in the dark and wait to see how dark it’d get before dawn, and I was kinda confused that it never seemed to get that dark.
Nothing ever helped though.
She tried to get me to believe in the magic of religion, but even as small as I was then I never really bought into it. Ma always told me to pray — that God would fulfill my wishes and make me feel better. But the worry never went away. God apparently never listened to me.
I feared death since an early age; my grandmother became very sick with kidney disease when I was 5. She was dead by the time I turned 7. It was the first time I’d seen my mother cry. She was never the same after that. After grandma died I heard a lot of, “pray to grandma, say ‘grandma help me.’ She’ll help you.” But Grandma never seemed to listen to me, either.
When I was 12 I started getting piercing headaches, and a combination of Motrin and Sudafed seemed to be the only cure. Ma would say I’d wait too long to take the meds and that’s why my headaches would become so debilitating. So the moment I felt the symptoms begin – a tightness in my shoulders and temples – I’d pop the pills. I didn’t realize until years later that these were tension headaches from my constant stress. Before I knew it, I was self-medicating my anxiety with Motrin and Sudafed, taking the maximum daily dose most days. I don’t think Ma really noticed. After my grandmother’s death, it was as if her perfect, shiny veneer that I’d gaze into for solace had cracked, and through the years the crack spread more and more. She was able to help me less and less, because by then she could barely help herself.
During high school, I began skipping meals because my nerves always made me feel nauseous, and began to work out for hours every day to try and distract myself from the worry. Even when I dropped 35 pounds the summer I turned 14 and was skin and bones, nobody seemed to notice my downward spiral. I was still “normal.” Even when I would sit in the kitchen at 3AM staring at a bottle of Motrin, thinking what would happen if I would just swallow the whole bottle. I’ve always feared death. I could never have the guts to kill myself. But I’d feel so overwhelmed that I’d wish for it.
By college I had my first stomach ulcer. I went away to college and found myself feeling more alone than ever. I had run away from my hometown, thinking that if I left then my problems would stay behind. I learned quickly that you can’t run away from your problems. My stomach ulcer made it even harder for me to eat. It seemed the demon had finally gnawed through my stomach lining, and I noticed It began to move throughout my body.
The panic attacks began around this time. The nerves would simply grow and grow to the point where I began to tremble, and the gnawing demon began to eat at my heart; I felt like I was having a heart attack. My heart was pounding in a desperate attempt to fight off this demon, and my panic grew by leaps and bounds. Each breath came faster and faster, like feet trying to run away as fast as they could from this demon inside me. The demon would move up to my brain, with the debilitating headaches leaving me paralyzed in my bed.
It got to the point where I laid in bed day and night. I would call into work and skip classes. My friends began to notice the change in me. When I visited my parents, I’m pretty sure they decided to ignore the change.
More and more family members, and even some childhood friends, began to die; more and more my Ma assured me at night over the phone that if I prayed to them then they’d help me. To Ma, there was this army of the dead just biding their time until they could be of service to any of us. By this time I was an Atheist and only humored her.
I was starting to notice that she was using on herself the same old reassurances that she used on me. I noticed she started to get more headaches, to withdraw more into herself, eat less, exercise more. It was like looking into a mirror. I couldn’t remember when she’d started to act this way or think this way. I couldn’t figure out if she had been copying my actions, or vice versa. She also started to seem to resent me. She looked to me for the same consolations she used to give me, and I found it impossible to help her in the way that she wanted me to.
One day while we were driving back to my college after a home visit my whole body went numb. My vision was blurry. I could feel the demon start to gnaw at me. The air in the car was stifling. I felt like throwing up, and could tell I would start to hyperventilate soon.
“Ma, dad, I have something to tell you.” My voice was barely above a whisper as I picked and picked at my cuticles. My shaking legs were uncontrollable at this point. “I think there’s something seriously wrong with me.” I wasn’t prepared for Ma’s reaction.
“I’ll say there’s something wrong with you! Are you on drugs!? Or are you pregnant!?
I couldn’t even register the bitter words she had hurled at me so cruelly. I was at the apex of my disease, standing at the precipice of a cliff, fighting so hard with myself not to fall off, and here it seemed my mom was trying to push me straight into the valley of jagged rocks below.
“No! No! There’s something wrong with…my body…I’m always…feeling worried…I’ve been having…these feelings…my body…is acting…weird…I can’t think…I can’t think straight…I can’t eat…sleep…there’s something…something wrong.”
Then my dad, who had been virtually silent on this matter my entire life, saved me:
“We’ll make an appointment with the doctor as soon as possible,” he said. “We’ll get you help.”
At that point my tears were uninhibited and my body began to tingle with sensation for the first time in forever. Was this the feeling of relief?
The doctor diagnosed me immediately. I was flabberghasted that my lifelong ailment was so simply decided. I was referred to a counselor and a psychiatrist and then began the long, long years of behavioral therapy, and the terror that is the trial and error of different kinds of meds.
Everyone’s body is different and reacts to medications different. The “wrong” med can make you feel the following: suicidal, extreme versions of your original symptoms, unbearable pain all over your body, fatigue so extreme you can barely move, unabated energy where you spend your nights cleaning your entire house twice over until dawn, etc., etc. As I switched from med to med, I cycled through all these issues to the point where I began to wonder if it was even worth it.
However, when I finally found the right combo of meds, it was like putting on prescription glasses for the first time. The whole world becomes sharp and clear, and you’re shocked to realize that you’d been living in a blur this whole time.
My counselor taught me all of my “coping” mechanisms, the relaxation techniques that I’d have to use daily, sometimes several times a day, sometimes all throughout the day, in order to survive my life. She was the one who told me for the first time that the way I’d felt my entire life was never normal. I was shocked. Apparently, since I’d always felt that way, it was impossible to realize it wasn’t normal.
After 3 years of counseling, it was decided I had learned all I could from her. I cried on my last day. “I feel like I’ll be fighting this all my life, no matter what I do,” I lamented, and she leaned over and rested a cool hand on my forearm.
“I hate to admit it, but you may be right. Sometimes things balance themselves out eventually and you don’t have to stay on the meds, but sometimes you have to struggle your whole life.”
I stared down at my jiggling thighs and bit at my knuckle.
“Deep breaths,” my counselor quietly commanded, and I started yet another mini-battle with my breath. My whole life would be a war full of both mini-battles such as simply controlling my breath, and large battles such as the mental health crisis I suffered in college.
For many years, I went on and off the meds. I’d start to feel better, think to myself, “I’m cured!”, get off the meds, and feel ok for maybe 6 months, a year…then it’d happen again. The demon would return and start to gnaw deep inside me again. I would always feign ignorance until I got into crisis mode, where I knew I had no choice but to get back on the meds. Once none of my relaxation techniques worked, but actually made me feel worse, that’s when I knew I was in trouble and would book an appointment with the doctor.
I’ve been seeing the big, fat cat psychiatrist for about a year now. Yet another crisis last year, after about a year off my meds, made me finally come to terms with the fact that this would probably be a life-time struggle. We found to my dismay that the previous meds I was on were no longer effective. I hadn’t expected that. My magical pills wouldn’t work? I had to suffer through the trial and error again? Fear wracked my body.
However, the big, fat cat was good at her job, and we found a pretty good combination fairly fast. We have to adjust the dosages a lot, and I still may have to end up switching meds eventually, but I’m at least out of my crisis mode.
I park my car outside my house and slowly haul myself out, my work bag dragging behind me. “Another day I escaped death,” I sarcastically sigh to myself. There’s a bridge on my way home from work and I struggle every day not to drive off of it. I once heard an old man say that phrase once — “Another day I escaped death” — and I thought it befitting to my own situation, so I say it now every day when I make it home from work. I trudge up the stairs, my dog prancing with happiness behind me until I feed him dinner and he takes his typical after-dinner nap. My husband works evenings; I’ll be alone again tonight.
I flop onto the couch and kick off my heels. I try to focus on the feelings resounding through my body — my feet feeling freed from the confines of the heels, the feel of the soft microfiber cushions of the couch supporting my body. I scan each of limbs, my neck, my torso, my hips, my face, focusing on which part of me is tense, and working hard to relax each section of me. It’s like turning a hard, plastic doll into a soft, stuffed one.
By the time I feel loose enough and my breath is under control I shimmy out of my work clothes and change into my workout clothes to get in my 30 minutes on the elliptical while I watch TV. I run the bathtub with my aromatherapy bath soap and slip into the tub, a towel cushioning the back of my neck, and turn on my tablet to read the news.
Another day I didn’t give in. Another day I didn’t die. Tomorrow a new day, and a new battle, will begin.
So it begins, and will begin again (and again and again and again).
Jennifer suffers with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder and OCD, and is married to a partner who has Bipolar Disorder. Her own personal journey can be found here, on her blog Vicious Butterflies.
Please drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to take part and be featured in “Sharing Stories”, if you have a story to tell or you just want to share your thoughts about your experiences with mental health. I am so proud of everyone who has contributed and who has joined me in this journey so far, and I do hope our army gets stronger. A bigger voice. A fight to speak louder. – M