The last time I went to Sri Lanka was 2014. This was, like all of my visits to that lovely island, a work trip… long days in the office, then more work from the hotel later at night once the United States had woken up and gotten to work and started sending emails. I worked hard. Too hard, it turns out. I came home… kept working… drinking a couple of liters of coffee a day, fighting the jet lag, trying to keep up with things, and not sleeping enough… then one day, it would appear that my mind and/or body decided that it couldn’t do this anymore.
I remember having felt strange for a couple of days, but no more than strange. On one particular day however, “strange” went to a completely different place. Chest pain. The shakes. Racing heartbeat. I broke out in a sweat. I felt dizzy. I was convinced that I was having a heart attack, and asked my wife to drive me to the hospital. We hadn’t even gotten a mile down the road when it got worse… shortness of breath… left arm pain… more chest pain… the feeling of impending doom… more shakes. I implored her to pull over, and we called 911. I made sure to tell her that I love her, you know, because I was surely going to die. The ambulance shows up, I get on the bed with the wheels, I get loaded in, and away we go. The medic gives me nitroglycerin in pill form, immediately starts an IV, and then runs an EKG. We’re not even to the hospital yet when he tells me that I definitely did NOT have a heart attack. He says that since he’s not a doctor, he can’t give me an “official” diagnosis, but he says that what I have had is a panic attack caused by stress. I ask him how I would be able to tell the difference… he says that I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, and calling 911 was the right thing to do.
Overnight in the hospital. Lots of tests. IV in each arm… and I hate hate hate needles. Lots of EKG. One of those CAT scans where they put dye in you that makes you feel like you have wet yourself, then wheel you into a machine head first. A stress test, where you run on the treadmill. It turns out that I’m fine. Sure, I definitely need to lose weight, but my blood pressure is great. Blood sugar is fine. Cholesterol levels are fine. Everything’s fine. Welcome to having anxiety.
Starting from that day, panic attacks are a part of my life now. They were most intense the first couple of months after the diagnosis. It is most unsettling if I am driving. Usually these days when I get a panic attack, I am at home by myself, but I recently had one in a rather public setting with a lot of people watching, and that wasn’t any fun. I guess this is part of my new normal… or maybe, this is something that I’ve always been dealing with, and now I’m old enough that my mind/body can’t suppress it anymore?
After this - and I don’t remember when exactly, but it happened at some point - the suicidal thoughts returned. I say “returned”, because I’ve had them before, but it’s not something I generally talk about. Maybe that’s genetic, as I know my dad had them too. Anyway, here’s a secret… my first speeding ticket, back when I was 19… that was a suicide attempt gone wrong. I was having a particularly angsty time as a late teen. I had recently lost someone who I was very close to. Work was particularly frustrating. I remember feeling that I couldn’t deal with it anymore. To get home from where I was working at the time, I had to make about a 25 minute drive, and much of it was on one of those two lane roads that cuts through the country bits connecting the Dayton suburbs. I decided I was going to get going up to around 90 mph, take off my seatbelt, and jerk the wheel left as soon as I saw a car that looked big enough to make the destruction instantaneous. I never made it quite to 90, and I never got the seatbelt off, because I got pulled over for speeding. Of course, being a young black man, at that point, I was 100% frightened of the police officer, and all of the suicidal ideation went away, and the self-preservation kicked in. I mean, death is supposed to be a release from pain, and getting shot is painful, so that’s pretty much all I thought about.
The medication. The first go-round didn’t work. The doctor upped the dosage. The higher dosage made the room spin around for about an hour, starting ten minutes or so after I swallow the pill. I stopped taking that. The insomnia got worse... something I had dealt with before, but it was back and worse than ever before. When I did manage to sleep, I would wake up drenched, having sweated profusely through horrific nightmares... body wet, hair wet, clothes wet, sheets wet, pillow wet. Ick.
Then I started having trouble concentrating. Those that know me probably know I have perfectionist tendencies… I hate being wrong. I’d rather say nothing than say something that is wrong. One of my personal points of pride in the past has been being efficient and effective at work, showing attention to detail, and getting things right. Well, I started making mistakes… silly ones, when I should know better. Often, nobody would notice. Sometimes, someone would notice. I noticed them all, and each one ate at me… I would get more frustrated with myself. Some days, I just couldn’t function. I would just lay in bed all day. I wouldn’t eat. (By the way, not eating for a few days is a very effective weight loss strategy, though most nutritionists would probably not recommend this.) I got more irritable. Sometimes I would cry for no reason. More often, I just felt numb… everything was “meh”... no good, no bad, no up, no down, just IS. I’m sure I was a pain for my wife to deal with. I couldn’t remember things that I had read or seen… and again, those that know me probably know that I tend to remember just about everything I read, especially if I read it more than once. Since all of this was beginning to impact my ability to do my job, I figured I should be more thorough about getting professional help.
When I did this, my wife told me that she knew I was depressed even back when we were dating, many years ago. That was an interesting revelation. Maybe I don’t even know what “normal” or “well-adjusted” is supposed to be.
The therapy. I went to therapy. I didn’t like that. I should probably try it again, but sitting in a room talking about my feelings is not my idea of a good time. I have been told to try it again, by multiple people. Sure, I’ll try it again as soon as I am done procrastinating.
New doctor. New medication. It gave me diarrhea. I didn’t feel better. I kept taking the medication. I kept checking in with the doctor. I kept having panic attacks, albeit less frequently. More medication. Higher dosage. The diarrhea stops. I didn’t feel better, but the doctor says he sees improvement in my ability to focus and have a conversation. This makes me realize that I was affected in ways that I surely didn’t even notice. I go on a work trip to North Carolina, where one day I go to the lobby of my hotel around 4 in the morning convinced I am dying again. New hospital. Still no heart issue. Yet another panic attack, a particularly bad one… and particularly expensive, due to the ambulance ride and hospital visit and the United States. More medication. Check in with the doctor. Higher dosage. The feelings of worthlessness. This is my new normal. Medication daily, try to fight off the very dark thoughts, try to stay busy, try to get work done.
I’m broken. This is something I have come to accept. More often than I care to admit, I just don't have "ganas"... somehow this feeling makes much more sense in Spanish than in English... see, "ganas" means "want to" or "feel like" when it is a noun.... yeah, "se fue las ganas" is something you could quote me as saying regularly, except for I don't often actually say it out loud. Some might reason that having faith should make everything better, but faith doesn’t work like that. Alexa, insert that meme that says “that’s not how any of this works”. For instance, imagine that a person has lupus. This person may have all the faith in the world, but that isn’t going to make the lupus go away, or even treat it. This person needs professional attention… and while faith might help them to endure the condition, it is not a cure. I have come to understand that anxiety/depression works in a similar manner. It’s something that I need to manage with professional attention, and while having faith might help me to endure, it is not treatment, and it will not make the issue go away.
You know what helps me feel a little better sometimes? Music. Now, I do not mean that music is a panacea, nor is it treatment. Indeed, there have been multiple occasions where I have had tickets to a show already paid for, and couldn't bring myself to leave home, so I skipped the show and was just out the money. (The musicians got paid though, so there is your silver lining.) However, quite often, when I am sitting at the piano or playing the bass, I can feel some of the stress peel away. Writing songs is especially cathartic. I am not exactly a gifted musician by any means, but I like to play, and I like to continue learning about theory and how/why music works. Indeed, music is a great confluence of my inner drive to read and learn and absorb, mashed into an art form that I find to be pleasing. In addition to making sure that there isn’t any weaponry readily available in our home, being project-oriented around music helps to keep the suicidal ideation at bay. First, making suicide plans just seems to be too much effort… and second, I have a bunch of songs I want to record, and being dead would make it much more difficult to get that done. It would be inaccurate to say that music makes me “happy”, but sometimes it makes me feel just slightly less broken.