This Is My Brain on Drugs
I have panic attacks, sure. Impossible to breathe, sobbing, rocking, need to get out, out of my body, irresistible urge to tear at my hair, claw my own skin, cut my own skin with the nearest key, ID card, pair of scissors, whatever I can find. Sure, I have those. Set off by a visit to my family, the door sticking closed in a changing room, a rapist being elected president, a bad sandwich, whatever. But those aren’t the most debilitating part. Even at my worst, they’re infrequent and at least over after half an hour or so.
“What’s your anxiety level day today?” my therapist asks. “Not the worst it gets, but where is it when you wake up in the morning, as you’re going about a normal day.”
“Six,” I say.
“A six?” he asks, sounding a little surprised.
“Maybe seven,” I say, knowing eight is probably more accurate, but I don’t want to scare him.
He asks me every few sessions when I think my anxiety began, and I know what he’s trying to do, he’s trying to connect it to the recent trauma that led me to therapy. But that’s not it. I tell him the truth, I’ve always had it. It’s been with me like a teddy bear, since I was born. I was anxious in daycare at four years old. I was anxious in utero. I was born two weeks late and after four false labors.
I wake in the morning and lie in bed. My body will not sleep for more than four hours, and frequently it is much less. I spend a few hours on my phone, scrolling through social media, opening articles I will never bring myself to read, until my alarm has long passed and I am late for work. I buy dry shampoo because I can’t always shower when I need to. I bail on any plan that includes more than two other people, or that I can’t take my husband to. I imagine driving my car into the median every day on my endless commute.
This isn’t the worst part.
I can’t hold a normal conversation. I’m terrified of crossing a boundary, of asking anything for fear of getting too personal, so I talk non-stop. What if they think I’m boring? What if they think I’m not a good person? I have to keep talking so they won’t. Then, other times, I can’t bring myself to say a word. I walk in to work and I pray no one says hello so I don’t have to feel bad about not saying it back. My heart is in my throat when I pass anyone I know. I look at my phone, pretend not to notice them. I can’t even name what I’m afraid of. That they’ll notice me? That I’ll do something awkward? What’s wrong with me?
I can’t call my mom.
She’s busy. She doesn’t want to hear from me. I have nothing to say. I rationalize it.
When I go to see her, we talk for hours. I tell her everything. I tell her how bad my anxiety is.
“I think everyone has that. You’re just shy,” she says.
I insist I’m not. I tell her about the bear. Not the teddy bear, the bear bear.
I tell my mom how I can’t go through the checkout line at the store. It’s like instead of a cashier, I’ll find a bear behind the register. I go through self-checkout when I can, and avoid shopping altogether if I can’t. But then the bear is at the dentists. The bear is on the other end of the phone when I call my temp agency to look for work. The bear is everywhere I go.
“I don’t think other people feel like they’re fighting a bear in their daily life,” I say. Pulse fast, mouth dry, not sure if you should run or play dead.
I don’t know if she gets it. Maybe it’s hard for her to admit that, whether through genetics or environment, she must have given it to me. The anxiety.
Years later, I’m heading to class, running late. I’m on my lunch break from my desk job and I only have five minutes to get to the classroom. I’m already worked up. The teacher drops your grade a whole letter if you miss even one class. I thought I’d okayed it with him that I would be out Monday for a wedding several states away, but on my drive back from the wedding I watched my grade drop down to a C on the online class portal.
It’s okay, I tell myself. I’ll talk to him and get it sorted out. And if not, well it’s just a C.
I reach for the classroom door. The handle is wet.
I grimace, open the door, and wipe my hand on my sweater.
The handle was wet.
I’m late, the class is full. I’ll have to sit in the front.
The handle was wet.
The classroom isn’t big enough to fit all these people. I have to weave through helter-skelter desks to one two feet from the teacher. I try not to hit anyone with my bookbag as I sit down.
The handle was wet.
I can’t go wash my hands. Class has started. I have to wait for attendance.
The handle was wet.
He calls my name and my face is already red. I see people starting to notice me. I don’t have any friends in this class. I say “here” and then make for the door.
I get to the bathroom and I break. My breath is coming out in spurts. I suck air but the oxygen doesn’t seem to reach my brain. I’m sobbing, in public. Someone could walk in at any moment.
I wash my hands. I wash my face. I try to breathe like the mental health professionals all say:
I’m shaky, but I’m in control. I return to the classroom. I bring a paper towel so I don’t have to touch the door handle this time.
I weave my fat ass, I’m suddenly very aware of how fat it is now that I’m squeezing it through desks, back to my seat. I know my face is red. I know I’m right up front, everyone can see me. I want more than anything not to be here and I know I can’t leave because my grade will drop down to a D. I can’t leave.
I cry silently the rest of the class. I’m in the front row. The teacher pretends not to notice. Everyone can see me.
When it’s over, I head back to work, but I can’t go in. I lock myself into the bathroom and spend the next 45 minutes trying to calm down. I remember the teacher saying when he set the ridiculous zero absence attendance policy, “I want you to treat this class like it’s your job. You wouldn’t miss a day of work, would you?”
I laugh at the irony. I’m missing my actual job because of this class, now. When I finally head back into the office, everyone has left for a meeting. Everyone except Bonnie. When she sees me, when I explain about the attack, she sends me to the health center across the street.
Years. Years I had tried to get on medication for my anxiety when therapy failed. But I couldn’t make the appointment with a bear manning the phone at the health center and bears in all the exam rooms. But when Bonnie tells me to go, it works. I don’t know why.
It’s pale blue, ten millimeters long, ovular, and stamped with a little A that I pretend stands for my name. This is the pill that will make my brain work right.
The first week on the Zoloft, I feel good. Really good. Happier and like my mind is clear. My psychiatrist warns me this isn’t sustainable, that I will probably level out a little lower than that. I don’t.
I’m listening when people talk to me. I’m asking them about themselves before I can overthink it. I’m thinking about what I say before I say it. I’m not oversharing. I say “Good morning!” every day when I walk into the office. People like me, they worry when I call in sick. I get invited to more things, and finally I want to go. I get invited on a cruise. I’d spent my whole life feeling like I never quite fit in with the normies at my job, but now I’m getting invited on girl’s trips. What a concept.
And it’s nice because the normies open up to me about their own anxieties. Most of the office is on cannabidiol oil, which I swear by. With the Zoloft and it, I can face anything. It’s the bear spray to Zoloft’s bear trap. And I’m shocked to find out how many of my coworkers are diagnosed with depression, anxiety, OCD, too. I was never alone, that’s just part of the illness, believing you are.
Sometimes I have anxiety still. But with the pills it’s like someone handed me a switch. When I’m panicking, I can tell myself to stop. I don’t have to keep wondering over and over if that thing I said upset everyone. I don’t have to worry about something before, during, and after it happens. I can flip the switch and let things go.
My coworker’s daughter struggles with executive dysfunction. She can’t begin little tasks, like getting ready for school, putting things away, and she’s becoming addicted to video games. I give her advice. Break things down into little steps. Maybe I don’t have the energy to get up and go to work, but I can put socks on. Then I can change out of my pajamas. Then I can eat breakfast. I can’t unload the whole dishwasher, but I can do the cups. Then the plates. It may take three tries but I empty the whole thing. Thoughts like that never occurred to me before. The task was so daunting, I couldn’t imagine how to begin. Instead, guilt overtook me for failing the simplest things. I don’t know if my coworker tells her daughter all this, but I hope so.
A few weeks later, I tell the same coworker about my grad school friends. They’re all stressed and anxious and one of them can’t hang out with anyone without spending days analyzing everything they’ve said.
I say, “I’m trying to convince them all to go to the health center and see about getting medication.”
She balks. Shocked. Almost angry. “What are they trying now?” she asks. “I mean, yoga? Do they exercise? Eat right? Do they sleep eight hours?”
I don’t know how to tell her that those are big asks for grad students who make $11,000 a year, teach, write, and are in classes. I don’t know how to tell her that as much as I love yoga, it never stopped a single thought spiral or ever helped me get out of bed. I didn’t keep my car on the road because I couldn’t wait to get home and eat kale.
I feel dejected for a week. I feel tired, and a little ashamed. I keep thinking over what I said to her next: “It’s not that. The anxiety is debilitating. You can’t treat a broken leg with physical therapy. You don’t treat diabetes without insulin. You shouldn’t treat a brain not making enough serotonin without even considering medication.”
It’s not enough. I should have said more, I should have convinced her. But maybe I’m just convincing myself. Mental illness is stigmatized, and the treatment for it is also stigmatized. When my mom suggests going off of Zoloft someday, I say, “Why?” But that ignorant co-worker still makes me feel all wrong. Like I’m cheating or weak.
I fight with her in my head for weeks but I just keep coming back to this: it works. Medication fucking works and there is no argument against that. I don’t want to die anymore. Specifically I don’t want to drive my car into a bridge support. I don’t see bears everywhere I go. If I have a hard day, a panic attack, executive dysfunction, it no longer feels like a personal failure that I need punished for. I can move on, try again tomorrow.
Six months after the argument with my coworker and two years after my first pill, the Zoloft has started to fail. A global pandemic, the rise of fascism, a civil rights movement met with scorn, it all becomes too much. My psychiatrist ups my dose and I begin to feel better again.
This is not indefinitely sustainable, I always knew that. Increasing the dose increases the risk, and eventually I will tap out its effectiveness. But in the past two years I’ve changed. I can go to the grocery now. I can make doctor’s appointments. I don’t miss meals, I take vitamins and CBD daily, I go for walks and bike and do fucking yoga. I’ve become a good friend and now I have good friends who are there for me, who I know I can call. The support system I’ve created for myself in these two years I’ve been mentally well, for the first time in my life, mentally well, that will be harder to exhaust. These two good years the pale blue pills gave me cannot be erased.
Six months after the argument with my coworker, she comes to me. She tells me the anxiety is too much. She is constantly on the verge of breakdown. “Honestly,” she says, laughing without humor, “I’m considering getting medicated.”
I don’t ask her if she’s tried yoga.
Angela C. Kramer is a huge fan of warmth and being warm. She loves blankets, hot chocolate, and cuddling with her husband and two cats while watching the same movies over and over. Her work has appeared in Asterism Literary Journal, Red Cedar Review, Runestone Journal, Under the Gum Tree, and The Passed Note. Her work is forthcoming in Paper Darts and Fourteen Hills. Find her on Twitter @ackwrites.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021