“I just wish you would’ve told me when you were in it…” her fiery Auburn hair catches the light in a small Sake bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The physicist/ Opera singer with a coke problem (we didn’t find that part out until later) who is courting her sits at the other end of the bar mostly ignored, the way two best friends catching up can make even the most dominant personalities disappear into the background.
We met 9 years ago at a “Bloggers in Sin City,” conference. Which was really code for: meet all of your internet friends in IRL. It was both contemporary in the sense that A. people didn’t meet friends from online unless they were on the marginalized side of society and B. we were the “OG,” group of people who blogged when blogging wasn’t code for “I want my life to be a nonstop photo shoot.” This was the kind of blogging that shouted the nitty gritty details and processing of their feelings into the abyss of “the web,” hoping to hear an echo back.
“When I see you, I’m going to lick your face!!” I said in an email before the meetup.
Because that’s how comfortable and bold my feelings were for someone I’d never met.
Nearly 7 years later that same girl who had once skipped up to a virtual stranger, licked their face and became fast friends was silently trying to not have a panic attack in the middle of the Rain Room exhibit at LACMA in Los Angeles where we both lived now.
I’d started to disappear earlier in the year. Opting out of dinners, coffee co-working dates and girl’s nights. By this point we had been “in-person,” best friends for many years, breakups, cross country moves and career changes.
Despite all of our history and growth stages we’d experience together this version of me trying to muscle through every second without screaming in public was different.
I’d struggled with anxiety in the past, a hungover panic attack here and there or sweaty palms that a glass of Sauvignon Blanc could easily remedy until the discomfort passed.
This period of anxiety was different. I was working full time from home, which meant 8 hours a day or more on the computer, isolated in my house and desperately dissatisfied with the direction my life was taking; my relationship was unhealthy, my health was imploding and my sense of purpose and belonging had evaporated. Formerly a professional backup singer for pop artists and a semi-exciting life of travel, stages and childhood dreams fulfilled, I was now a marketing executive considering a 5-year plan with little time for creative outlets that once made my heart soar.
The pivotal moment was the panic attack in the middle of the Chicago O’Hare airport where my 5’6 frame crumpled into a meager fetal position under a ticketing agents desk while a nice flight attendant asked if I’d eaten, while timidly handing me a cup of Green Tea as the paramedics took my blood while insisting I “just breathe.” A command that feels incredibly hard when swamped by the belief that you're dying.
That was the moment that broke me. I was a 28 year old creative marketing strategist for a boutique marketing company on a fancy work trip, making six figures, a handsome boyfriend at home, a cute house, and a rapidly manifesting mental illness that I couldn’t figure out.
The panic attacks came at minimum 4-5 times a week after that moment for nearly two years. At the bank, on the freeway, in shopping malls or the middle of meetings. Sometimes they would begin after I was convinced I was going to stop breathing. Or when washing my hair in the shower and my eyes felt glued shut. Or as I took my dog on a walk, when three blocks in I’d fear that I’d get dementia and not be able to find my way home. That I’d “go missing,” because my brain had failed me.
These panic attacks would “sneak attack” me, which meant I was in constant fear of one and coming when I least expected it and if it were to, all I wanted was to be home where at the very least I could hold my dog and make declarations to God that I would “be good,” forever if he/she/The Universe would just make them stop. At times, bringing myself to the level of the floor, face and palm to the Earth was the only way I would believe that the ground hadn’t fallen out from under me. Slowly, gravity would come back to me but by the time it did I was virtually a dust of myself.
I was sick, a lot during those years, which I often allowed with little resistance. I found that being sick was the one way disappearing from the responsibilities of the world would be “okay.” You could call my immune system fragile, but you couldn’t call ME fragile. Knowing the stigma around mental illness was still so prevalent my pain was mostly internalized or shared only with my boyfriend or family members when I sincerely too afraid of being alone. The panic when it was at its worst I learned later had various limbs attached to it; one was OCD (oo fun!) and one was depression. This OCD wasn't what we see in popular culture, as an endearing quirk that makes a person wash my hands 20 times a day. No. For me, the OCD manifested in the form of “intrusive thoughts,” the biggest one that liked to loop on a daily was a detailed, looming fear that if I were alone I’d run into traffic. This wasn’t just a thought though, it quickly became a real fear that manifested into a phobia of being alone entirely; near bridges, getting out of my car on a parked street, or anywhere that danger could find me. I once spent an hour trying to make sure I wasn’t going to stay in a hotel room with a balcony because I was convinced if I didn’t will it myself, that I’d sleep walk off the edge. Sounds fucking crazy, right? I thought so too. I sincerely believed my mind was going. I later learned that all of these thoughts were completely normal for someone with an anxiety disorder. Not only that, I learned that many people without anxiety disorders have thoughts of doom, but they're able to easily let them pass by without "latching," onto them.
The intrusive thoughts part was particularly hard to explain to people. “Why would you want to do that?” or “is your life that bad?” My dad and boyfriend would plead. I didn’t want to do anything horrible, to myself or anyone else. I didn’t willingly want to throw my body in front of heavy metal moving at high speeds, but my brain was running on a loop I didn’t know how to get off of. My brain had convinced me, if given the chance, that I would do it. So what did I do? I hid from everything. I hid inside my house where the only dangers to myself were the kitchen knives, which I’d asked my boyfriend to hide on various occasions before I could fall asleep and my mind- which was truly the most dangerous.
I dropped nearly 15 pounds from lack of appetite and a heart rate as rapid as a hummingbirds. Heart palpitations developed that were so intense they’d wake me from a dead sleep from the bed shaking so intensely I thought “The Big One,” had come and eventually needed medication to neutralize. I was slowly disappearing into a sliver of myself physically, emotionally and mentally.
The longer the Panic Disorder went undiagnosed the more my relationships disintegrated. The invites stopped coming. The texts were minimal. My boyfriend and I slept with our backs facing each other. We even had separate blankets. I didn’t want to be touched and I doubt he wanted to touch me. I was a feather. Impossibly light and easily displaced by the slightest change in weather. I felt ugly, unwanted, lonely, burdensome and utterly hopeless.
On top of the loneliness that I’d created in my cave at home, it felt impossible to be a best friend and honor all of the beautiful responsibilities that came along with being someone’s person they called for everything good and bad. It was too much. Everything was; walking to get a coffee, working, getting dressed, even sleeping. How could I celebrate a friend’s small and large victories when I couldn’t hear beyond the exhausting ticker in my brain that was simply pleading with myself to get through the day one hour, one minute at a time?
Finally my stubbornness over taking medication came to an impasse.
The spiritual leanings I had where “you choose your thoughts,” and anything can be created with a vision board, some sweaty yoga, Angel cards and some journaling wasn’t working. Neither were the holistic supplements, the diet changes, distractions, or talk therapist that made me feel even worse every time she went to open the blinds and asked if she could “reach over me.” I was broken so obviously my personal space must be a thin bubble that's quick to burst too.
How do you tell people the truth when there’s still so much they don’t understand?
Well, you start. You start anywhere. For me that meant starting with sharing the most “shameful,” terrifying declarations, even if it would scare my family or friends. Even at the risk of never working again, never booking another job, never going on another work trip. All fear which proved in the long run to be a false underestimation of people’s belief in me and in myself.
Starting meant asking for help. Serious, consistent and professional help. It meant being willing to face the diagnosis a doctor may give me and unquestionably taking the steps towards managing whatever it may be. It meant surrendering the notion that I was somehow weak, or lazy. It meant choosing a better life for myself, over the opinion that others may have of me if I decided to share my experiences. For all of the people who can’t understand or who judge, there are 20 more who feel less alone. It meant letting go of my independence and need to control everything for a little while. The first week I started taking medication my mom flew out and stayed with me.
“What if I react badly to the meds? What if I die? What I have to stay on medication forever?” My sister and Mother would sandwich me in bed, while I read the labels of my pill bottle out loud multiple times to make sure I was taking the right one. They didn’t judge, they just held space. The kind of space that allowed us to learn together how to navigate this new landscape of honesty and healing. For them to hear me when I say, “I’m struggling,” and to not immediately jump to the conclusion that the best way for me to fix it is to do some sun salutations and have an order of Tiramisu after dinner.
The process was layered and honesty with myself and those around me was the first brick. It meant telling my boss “no,” more often, taking time off work and slowly beginning to tell friends what I’d been struggling through every time I didn’t attend their birthday party, or Sunday brunch. I didn’t mean to “ghost,” I just didn’t know how to tell you the truth. Eventually, it meant asking a few of the closest inner circle to just “come sit with me.”
There were times my needing others felt like a violation of my independence. The days where I jaunted around Europe in my early twenties by myself sans anxiety felt like a different lifetime. I bristled at the idea of being seen as mentally weak, or unstable. But would I ever call someone with the flu weak? My therapist ask me once. Would I call someone with a broken arm fragile? No. Just because you have a disorder that’s unseen doesn’t make it any less legitimate, or worthy of treatment and validation.
Months went on and in time, as the Dr’s said it would….the heaviness began to lift. The way a crescent of light appears on your face a cloud moves across the sky and suddenly you’re just a bit warmer. It took time, about 6 months to be exact, but I was starting to remember myself again.
I had to be diligent about my well being. All in or nothing. That meant getting a new therapist and a cognitive behavioral therapist specializing in Anxiety disorders to help rewire my brain. I read voraciously about anxiety and depression, learned the scientific elements and everything that occurred internally when I felt like I was being chased by a bear. I shared resources and articles with my family and close friends so they too could learn alongside me. Eventually, I started choosing to be alone again. Then, I started actually enjoying it. JOY. I started to remember and FEEL joy again.
But it didn’t come right away. It took months, patience and serious life changes. Quitting a job to make space to find parts of myself I’d lost and reintroduce them to my daily routine, sadly ending a 5 year relationship that buckled under the weight of my struggles, and finally committing to a long term healing plan that would allow me to maintain a healthy state of being at least 80% of the time. The other 20% while inevitable, now had a hearty set of battle tools that I’d trained myself to use in moments of crisis.
I’ve been on the lowest dose of medication I can take since February 2017 now and at the end of last year I took my first solo trip in two years. I sat perched on a barstool, across the country in New York City, fa from my “safe place,” which is home, with a friend who i’d lost temporarily from a mutual misunderstanding of how to deal with someone battling a mood disorder. Not only did I learn that transparency is a pivotal element of recovery, but that anything you bring from the dark into the light is much less terrifying. Put the struggle and the truth where you can see it and you’ll be shown solutions if you’re willing to take them.
Perhaps your friend didn’t ghost on you because they don’t love your company. Maybe your employee shied away from a new responsibility not because she didn’t want it, but because she wasn’t ready for “more.” There are countless ways in which people struggling with depression and anxiety tailor their lives to make daily functioning easier. The more we learn and understand the prevalence of these issues during increasingly tumultuous times, perhaps we will all start being a little gentler, a lot more understanding and maybe just one day, the dialogue around mood disorders and mental illness won’t carry the stigma that has kept so many people from seeking the resources they need.