When I was 25 I had a nervous breakdown. I don’t know if that is what they are called anymore. I hope not. It’s a mean phrase.
I’d been married a year and Older Son was three and I just lost it. I ended up in the ER on an EKG machine. When it turned out I wasn’t having a heart attack, the ER doctor gave me a handful of Ativan and sent me home with instructions to see my doctor.
I don’t have the words to describe what a dark and difficult time that was.
Every minute I was awake I was afraid the symptoms of anxiety would come back. Because I was so afraid, the symptoms were with me all the time. Racing heart, sweaty everything, dizziness, feeling as if nothing was real, and worst of all was the sense that I was going to pass out from lack of oxygen.
My doctor (who is a great doctor, please don’t retire!) prescribed antidepressants. I took the prescription paper out to my car, tore it up and spent the next 19 years trying to get better without them.
That was the single most destructive thing I have ever done. My 13 year smoking habit wasn’t even close to being as harmful.
First thing everyone tells anxious people? Pay attention to your breathing. I hate that. Whenever I pay attention to my breathing I almost always end up hyperventilating. This is very scary when you are driving. On the freeway. With your kid in the car.
So I became unable to drive on the freeway for fear I would hyperventilate, pass out and kill everyone. Then I started having trouble waiting in lines. I felt trapped and afraid I would freak out. This is where my reasoning left me because the truth is most people want to help other people. If I had flipped out in line at the supermarket, the people around me probably would have helped me.
But I was (and am) mentally ill so I didn’t have the ability reason through that. Going to stores became very difficult. Then restaurants became hard because I started being afraid I was going to choke on my food.
And forget large crowds. Any situation where I couldn’t keep an exit in view at all times became so anxiety inducing I could hardly go anywhere. First to go was the movie theatre. Costco made me so afraid I didn’t go in one for a decade. Any indoor mall was out. Dodger Stadium? Disneyland? Hollywood Bowl? Nope. No thanks. God no.
And then for one summer I was agoraphobic. Leaving my apartment was terrifying. I remember forcing myself to walk around my neighborhood. It was sunny and bright and horrible. I didn’t leave my apartment without being heavily tranquilized for months afterward.
I was probably in my late 20’s by this point. I’d lost 60 pounds, cut off most of my hair and my marriage was a disaster. My husband had not married a woman who couldn’t leave her house. But that is what he had.
And still I wouldn’t take antidepressants.
Why? I look back at myself and I am so disappointed. Why didn’t I take them? I obviously needed them.
I had thoughts of suicide. I often thought about hurting myself, especially when holding knives. And still, no medication. I spot treated with Ativan, ate one meal a day (a giant bowl of vanilla ice cream because I knew I couldn’t choke on it) and hardly ever slept. Oh, and I smoked. A lot. And drank many, many cups of black coffee.
And people were endlessly telling me how great I looked because I was so thin.
I was suicidal. But at least I was thin.
One summer a few years after my first anxiety attack, Older Son and I went to visit my parents. I did this a lot because being with them helped me feel safe. I was standing in the kitchen choking down a cookie Older Son really wanted me to eat when my dad walked in, took one look at me standing there, underweight, nearly bald, and with circles under my eyes because I was sleeping about 3 hours a night and said, “I lost ten years of your life to depression because I wouldn’t get help. Don’t lose what I lost. I regret that.”
My dad wasn’t a talker. And he never talked much to me. Everything that he felt I needed to know he told my mom and she told me. He was in the military for 23 years, so chain of command was a thing in our house. But those three sentences changed my life. My dad admitted my young life had been marred by his severe depression. Up until that moment, no one had ever talked about it. Thank god my dad finally said something. It’s possible he saved my life. He definitely changed my life for the better.
Did I go home and finally get my prescription for antidepressants filled?
Shit no, because that would have made sense. But I did make some major changes.
I found a very good therapist. I started exercising regularly, something most every expert says helps anxiety. It does. I started eating again by researching diets for people who were missing teeth and slowly started eating again.
I began something called cognitive behavioral therapy. Slowly, I started being able to stand in lines, eat in restaurants, drive (not on freeways), and go to places where I couldn’t see the exit (not Costco). Dodger Stadium, Disneyland, Hollywood Bowl? Yes, yes and sometimes.
I slowly got better. I would have gotten much better much faster if I had taken the antidepressants.
But I didn’t.
I went back to college. I got a job. I finally stopped smoking. I still couldn’t drive on the freeway and flying…sheesh. What a nightmare that was. But I did it.
And then my mom died. And my dad moved in with me. And my marriage came apart.
On October 2nd, 2016 I finally took my first antidepressant. I was terrified. Would they make me into someone I didn’t recognize? Would they take away all my highs along with all my lows? Would I be more of a loser than I already was because I took them?
No. No. And I wasn’t ever a loser, I was mentally ill. I was mentally ill for 19 years and never took the medication specially designed to help me manage my illness.
What if I knew a person who had diabetes and they refused to take their insulin? I would be scornful. I would say that person was an idiot. I would say that person doesn’t understand nor deserve the benefits of science. Talk about blindspots.
After taking the medication for a few months I gained a significant amount of weight. That was my only side effect. And since I had been thin and suicidal, fat and alive was (and is) totally fine with me.
Please note the timing. I started taking antidepressants one month before the 2016 election. If I hadn’t started taking my medication when I did, it’s possible I might have needed to be committed to an inpatient mental health facility. Trump winning might very well have been the last straw.
But I had the antidepressant onboard so instead of being back in the ER the weekend after the election, I went to my first protest march in downtown Los Angeles with my friend Emilia.
I didn’t drive there (Emilia did, thanks Emilia!) but I marched. I also marched on January 21st, 2017. Again in downtown Los Angeles. I stood for hours in a crowd of thousands upon thousands of people and I was fine. I mean, I had to pee but so did 65% of everyone there.
A few weeks ago I loaded up a 12 foot moving truck with a bunch of Older Son’s crap and drove it from Los Angeles to Sacramento. Alone. Now that is progress.
If I survived, you can too. You are not alone. People want to help you.
Someone I dearly love recently had suicidal thoughts and they called the suicide hotline. That person is thankfully still alive. Here is the phone number 1(800) 273-8255
And here’s their website. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
National Alliance on Mental Illness, https://www.nami.org/#