When I try to think of when the problems really started, I come up blank. I guess I’ve always been a bit of a worrier. But it would come and go. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, the voices in my head would remind me how close to being broke we were or that something in my life just wasn’t adding up.
Then after a few days, I would find a silver lining, and the feelings would pass.
But I think it really started when we moved back to Ohio in 2010. No, I’m not blaming Ohio. But the circumstances that brought us there took their toll on my mental well-being. A long stretch of unemployment for my husband caused us to have to reboot our lives and relocate halfway across the country for him to find work, and the person who came out of the other end of that nightmare was a bit more brittle, a bit more prone to worry and breakdowns. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I think sometimes it can make you a little crazier too. Even so, I was holding it together okay.
Except then I started having symptoms of irritable bowel. Eating would send me running for the bathroom almost immediately. I tried various diets with limited success, but it never really left.
Then, in the summer of 2011, I was driving back from Columbus to Dayton with my husband when a perfect storm occurred. We nearly had a devastating car wreck while I was behind the wheel thanks to a hugely reckless driver. And a series of tornado-spawning storms were moving through the state. Meanwhile, I received a call from my brother. Our kids were off on vacation nearly three hours away with him, and they were hiding in a shelter when they spotted a funnel cloud near Sandusky. They were all fine, of course, but our drive home was a bone-rattling nightmare.
And I’m not sure I really ever relaxed again after that. Whatever protective coating I had on my nerves had been burned away by the unceasing wash of cortisol and adrenaline from that one day. I guess you could say it was the tipping point between being an occasional worrier to someone who had upgraded her arsenal to panic.
A year later, I had my gallbladder removed.
A year after that, we were forced into an unexpected move by a dickhead landlord who decided he wanted to give his house to his kid.
In other words, stress became an ever-present thing for us, and though we’d always weathered our share of it, I realized I wasn’t coping with it as well as I used to. It was leaving a lasting mark.
In that time, I realized I couldn’t really drive on the freeway anymore. I’d become certain a tire would blow or that someone would side swipe my car. It was particularly bad if I had one of my kids in the car with me, because I was certain I would get them killed along with me. But even when alone, I would sit bolt upright, gripping the steering wheel like it might fly away, sweaty palms, the panic in my chest like a rat scrabbling to get free, convinced beyond all measure that if I gave into it even a little, the car would spin out of control and I would die. I started looking for ways to avoid social situations that required me to hop on a freeway and drive distances longer than a mile, unless my husband could drive me.
Around 2013, the endless heartburn and reflux started.
In late 2014 came chronic nausea and bad sleep. I would wake up earlier and earlier every day. Then I started vomiting when I awoke, or at least feeling nauseated. I was convinced I had pancreatic cancer. Google was telling me so. Then I was having pain in my right flank. I finally went to the emergency room, and after copious bloodwork and a CT scan, they diagnosed a bladder and kidney infection. I thought with treatment, that would be the end of it.
But the nausea continued into 2015. I went to the doctor, and they did some tests. He said, given my chronic heartburn, I very likely had GERD and to do a round of Prilosec to see if that eliminated symptoms. The nausea went away completely. It was miraculous. I thought I was reaching the end of the whole nightmare.
But then my agent started shopping my novel around in March and the stress REALLY kicked up. I was on the verge of a book deal, and I immediately started obsessing over my own death. The idea that I would never see my dreams come to fruition because I would die first stayed with me day in, day out. Then the chest pains started. And the palpitations. And pain between the shoulder blades. I stopped sleeping again. I would fly off into crying jags for no reason. I would get a twinge in my side and was certain I had appendicitis. In fact, every little unexpected sensation in in my body was a sign of certain death. I couldn’t shake the fixation that my mortality was imminent. It was making me paranoid and miserable, and I’m sure I wasn’t much of a picnic for the people around me either.
Then one day I couldn’t get the chest pains to go away, and after spending an hour reading Google for signs of heart attack, I went back to the doctor. He wasn’t even in the room five seconds before I broke down crying. I told him I thought I might be having a heart attack, or that I may just be losing my mind. That I couldn’t get my thoughts under control, that I thought I might be dying.
They took my blood pressure and pulse and blood sugar. My blood pressure and sugar was normal, but my pulse was up over 100. I was shaking, speaking rapidly. I felt like I was coming out of my skin. He listened to my heart and my carotid artery and didn’t hear any irregularities, but he ordered an EKG anyway, in part to be sure my heart wasn’t fucking up, but also because I would have obsessed over it endlessly. I needed to know for sure. A little while later, the EKG came back completely normal. In fact, my heart was humming along beautifully. He showed me how very normal it was using some kind of doctory language and showing me the neat little lines on the paper. No sign of cardiovascular issues at all.
The sheer relief alone brought my pulse back down to normal. But he said I sounded very stressed out and that most of my problems could be related to anxiety. I told him that yes, that sounded reasonable. Given the phantom nature of my symptoms, I was more inclined than ever to agree. And the more I’ve studied Generalized Anxiety Disorder, the more certain I’ve become that this has been responsible for the vast majority of my issues.
He offered the lowest possible dose of Zoloft. A 25mg tablet cut in half. Doses 50mg and under are used for treating anxiety in particular. Anything over that is traditionally used for depression, which wasn’t what I was dealing with. I said “Yes, please.” At that point, I would have sucked down a quart of cow bile out of a camel’s rectum if it would have helped.
The evening I picked up the prescription, I had another breakdown. I told my husband I might have to go back to the emergency room for my appendix. The only symptom was a little gas, but in my brain, the world was ending and, of course, I was dying. Any relief I received from a healthy EKG had evaporated, as the “problem” in my body had simply moved to another location. Even though where it really was was in my brain.
But 30 minutes later, after I came home and relaxed a little, the symptoms were gone. Though I knew it was only a matter of time before another “attack” happened if I didn’t treat it. So that night I started taking the pills. About three days later, I felt . . . completely and utterly normal. More normal than I’d felt in years, in fact. A couple weeks after that, I bumped up to the full 25 mg dose and I haven’t budged from it since.
Since then, I’ve received bad news and experienced stress. Not huge amounts, but enough that, untreated, they would have sent me into a massive tailspin. But instead, I handled everything with a cool head. When a couple of “almost” book deals fell through, I was upset, sure, but it didn’t ruin my day. In fact, I got back to work that same day. Without the meds, I might have stopped writing for months.
I don’t obsess anymore. I started sleeping normally again. I don’t think about the worst case scenario. I can focus and get my work done. I don’t agonize over my own mortality anymore. I don’t fly off into irritable rages anymore. I don’t have nausea or painful twinges or palpitations or chest pain anymore. My GERD symptoms have reduced by about 80%. Same for the irritable bowel that has plagued me for years. My husband has noticed a big difference in my temperament. I’m so much less of an asshole now (note: he never ever called me an asshole, but I think we both know I was toeing that line a little more frequently than usual the last few years, and disorders like this can have a major effect on the people you live with over time). Oh, and one other thing: I’M DRIVING ON THE FREEWAY AGAIN.
People can say what they will about the risks of such medications, and maybe they’re not right for everyone, but I can say this…they brought me back from the brink. They made me a functional human again. They put a thin layer of padding between my nerves and the sometimes overwhelming stimuli of living. When I revisited my doctor recently, all my vital signs were perfect. My resting pulse rate was below seventy. Cool as a fucking cucumber.
It’s amazing to me what an unchecked brain can do to your body. Obviously, it’s not the answer for everything. I need to hone my coping skills and start exercising and meditating again. But you never could have gotten me to sit still long enough to even consider those things before I started taking the medication, and I think that’s its most important purpose. Rescue.
If you feel like you’re spinning out of control, there are things that can help. Life is suffering enough. Don’t put more on your plate than is necessary.