“And you may ask yourself, well,
How did I get here?”
Recently I’ve gotten to talk, really talk, with three of my oldest friends that I haven’t spoken to in ages. Sure, we’ve stayed in touch over the years, exchanged Christmas cards and pleasantries and such but we haven’t had the luxury of going deep for a very long while. One of the greatest things about true friends is that you can just jump in right where you left off as if no time has passed and that’s what happened with these folks. We caught each other up on our families and work and the status of our varying midlife crises and at some point, all three of them came around to the same question: How did you get here from where you were all those years ago when we met?
“Here” is a potty-mouthed, swaggering, self-assured, (self-absorbed?), in-charge broad whose official job title for the last six years was “Queen,” who nonchalantly hops on planes to have adventures with her family while brazenly wearing six pounds of gaudy jewelry even just to go to the grocery store.
Where I was all those years ago was an anxiety-ridden, suicidally depressed, self-absorbed (some things never change) agoraphobic wreck who couldn’t be conscious on an airplane or step on an escalator or leave her house, even just to go to the grocery store, without having a brain-melting panic attack.
As you can see, it’s a very valid question my friends are asking: How did I get past the fears and crippling depression? How did I get Here?
I don’t know. I don’t have the big Answer, the ultimate “42” to the question of Anxiety, Depression and Everything. There’s no single solution or experience that I can point to that got me Here but I remember a critical turning point:
It was a typically sunny, hot as fuck Dallas morning in1994, and I was driving in to my humble desk job, laboring to breathe through the fifth panic attack I’d endured during the ninety minutes that I had been awake that day, while also struggling to keep my little banged up red Saturn from plunging off one of the highest overpasses in the country onto the highway 117 feet below. Suddenly I thought, what if I quit struggling? What if I just held the wheel steady and went straight instead of curving with the overpass? It would all be over really quickly. A solo Thelma and Louise.
Sadly, the thing that kept me from doing it wasn’t the pain it would cause my loved ones, it was the possibility that I might live through it. I was terrified I would be alive and sentient but trapped in a broken, paraplegic body with no way to run or escape when the panic attacked. I made the curve.
I arrived at work and walked wordlessly past our receptionist Susan. Then past Jody – no eye contact. And past Heather -- I was silently crying by this time. I walked into the office I shared with my boss, Teresa, brushed her aside, crawled under her desk, curled myself into a fetal position and shook. I couldn’t speak because my teeth were chattering so violently. All I could do was cry and shake.
To her credit, T took my collapse in stride. She casually got down on the floor with me and suggested that I didn’t look so good and perhaps I might need some professional help. “C-c-c-call the n-n-n-number in m-m-my wallet,” was all I good get out. Months earlier, my Mom, who lived in Illinois at the time, had somehow found a newspaper article (my Mom was the Google of pre-Google times) about a clinic in Dallas that specialized in helping people with panic disorder and phobias* and I had secretly been carrying that crumpled clipping for months, unable to make the call for myself; I couldn’t even ask my Hubby to make the call. He had been the one to rush me to the ER on our honeymoon and countless other times only to be told by the nurses that I was not, in fact, having a massive heart attack, it was all in my imagination. I was too ashamed and scared to put him through that again – how many more false alarms would he tolerate before he realized I was just way too much work? So I didn’t ask him to call. Teresa made the call. The doc could see me that afternoon. It was supposed to be my first day at my other part-time job, an incredible children’s bookstore, but I was way beyond being able to fake my way through appearing competent so I called in sick. I can’t remember anything else until the appointment but I think Teresa calmly went about her business while I whimpered under her desk for the remainder of the day.
Everyone who worked at the panic and anxiety clinic, from the receptionist to all of the doctors and therapists, were former agoraphobics. I couldn’t fathom how this could be true, they seemed so capable and mentally sound. Front Desk Donna told me she didn’t leave her house for 2 years. When she finally decided she needed to get help, her husband had to physically carry her to their car. Once she got to the clinic she couldn’t get out of the car so the therapists came out and treated her in her car for the first six sessions. And now, here she was, a functional human, smiling compassionately at me. I marveled, how did she get here?
They had me take that M3 Multi-Condition Mental Health Screening test which determines your level of cray cray on a scale of 1-108. A score of 33 or above indicates “your symptoms are likely caused by a mental health condition.” I scored 100. I walked out of there with a couple of DSM diagnoses and a shiny new prescription for Klonopin.
Klonopin gets a bad rap for being super addictive and rightly so. I ended up with a daily “Vitamin K” habit that could have tranq’ed a rhino and later required an excruciating withdrawal, measuring out imperceptibly smaller and smaller doses over the course of a full year. But if I were ever in the same mental state as I was in 1994, I’d do it all again, no hesitation. Klonopin unequivocally saved my life.
At home that night, when the first milligram of my beloved Klonopin met my raw and frazzled GABA receptors, I looked across the room at The Hubby and took a long, deep, serene breath –- because for the first time in a decade, I could. I could actually breathe without feeling like I was trapped in an iron maiden that was immersed in a swimming pool full of concrete. The Hubby and our F•R•I•E•N•D, Babar, spent the entire night laughing at me because I was so utterly blissed out. I was wholly, perfectly, altogether void of any fear and I fucking LOVED it.
That was the beginning of how I got here. It involved a caring, helpful Mom, good friends, a great husband, a calm boss, a quick-acting doc and benzodiazepine. That day was the closest I ever came to a light bulb moment or an epiphany. Flipping the ‘off’ switch to the electrical shitshow in my brain gave me the ability to think like a Normal. It leveled the playing field so that I felt a normal, rational amount of fear and normal amounts of sadness and happiness. I could work with that. From my new above-ground, breathable vantage point I could actually do the emotional homework I’d been ineffectually grasping at in therapy sessions since I was 16-years-old.
I wish I could tell you step by step how I got Here; or create an app to download or a magical patch to wear. I wish I could offer sage advice, “do THIS and you’ll be okay,” but I can’t. For me, it didn’t happen all at once and it’s not done happening. In future blogposts I can tell you about the countless adjustments and choices and gifts disguised as misfortunes that helped me along the way because that one day and one prescription didn’t do the entire trick. That day was followed by a few thousand other days during which I continued to panic, I laughed, screamed, cried, failed, learned, won, fought, and walked an uncountable number of baby steps toward Here which is, God willing and the creek don’t rise, just a little bit past the midpoint on my expiration date.
*That particular clinic isn’t there anymore but you’re in the Dallas area, here’s a resource for similar help. If you're not in Dallas, here is a national resource.