Ignore It and It Won’t Go Away

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I am republishing this blog I wrote in 2013. Quoting Dr. Frasier Crane, I wish you all good mental health.

July 1987

It was 3 a.m. My mother, older sister, and I were watching Mickey Mouse cartoons in a hospital waiting room, anxious for news about Dad, who’d had a major heart attack. I was reclined sideways in a chair, my legs dangling over the arm when my stomach started to churn. The feeling crept upward to my heart, which began beating wildly. Then it went to my lungs and I couldn’t complete a full breath. It finally settled in my mind and I thought, ‘I’m dying, too!’ Within a few minutes, I was on a gurney in the emergency room, and a doctor was handing me a pill.

“You had a panic attack,” he said. “Here, put this under your tongue.”

It was Halcion. Valium with a kick, and now illegal in England. Within seconds, I was calm. So calm I forgot why I was at the hospital. My sister reminded me as she poured me into the front seat of my car to take me home. I remember saying, “Oh, that’s right,” and drifted off to sleep.

I slept the rest of the morning. When I woke up, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I was groggy and deeply frightened. Did my heart just skip? Why can’t I breathe? The panic had returned and my only defense was to slip a Halcion under my tongue.

Panic came back the next day and the next. By the end of the week, my defenses were spent. The pill bottle was empty.

The next two weeks, panic poured over me like tsunami. I went to every emergency room in the Minneapolis area begging for relief, usually in the middle of the night, waking my husband and dragging the kids out from their beds because I couldn’t drive myself. The last ER physician I saw said I needed to see a psychiatrist and refused to write a script. He sent me home shaking and throwing up.

So I called a psychiatrist. He wanted to explore my past. I just wanted drugs. He assured me I could control my panic through deep breathing. I told him I hadn’t caught my breath in weeks. He still refused me drugs.

A few days later, my Selectric II typewriter ribbon broke at work and I began to cry. I cried while I changed it, cried as I typed a memo, and cried when my boss sent me home because I couldn’t stop crying. I cried driving home, cried while I made and ate a grilled cheese sandwich, and I cried as I dialed the phone to tell my psychiatrist I was crying. I cried even harder when he told me he was checking me in to the hospital. A special hospital.

A few hours later, my husband dropped me off at the front doors, and I checked in to the psychiatric ward. I’d stopped crying, but I was exhausted. My head felt like a bowling ball, and I answered questions with monosyllabic words.

After filling out insurance forms, a nurse led me to a scale in the hallway across from the nurses’ station. I was wearing knee-length knit shorts and a size XXL t-shirt stained at the hem. Tears had washed away my makeup, and my hair was matted to my head. I took off my slip-on canvas shoes with the hole in the toe and laid them beside the scale. The nurse optimistically started the large metal weight at the 150-pound position and nudged the smaller weight higher and higher. The balance arrow didn’t budge. She moved the large weight to 200 and again moved the small weight higher. The arrow bounced a little around 240. For accuracy, she should have moved the large weight to 250, but she said cheerfully, “We’ll call you 249.”

The next day, I spent two hours in group therapy drawing pictures and writing in a journal and feeling completely out of place and ridiculously selfish among people facing electric shock therapy. One woman was the only survivor of a car crash that killed her niece and sister. She’d been the driver. A chain-smoking young man had locked himself in a closed garage and started his car’s engine a few weeks before. He’d been repeatedly molested as a child.

I thought, ‘Can I be a bigger baby?’ as I wrote my name with a blue crayon on a piece of yellow construction paper. We were to draw a “family tree of feelings.” The only thing I felt was guilty for taking up space in a facility meant for people with real problems, and stupid for having called my doctor in the first place. So I’d cried for a few hours? Big deal. People cry.

I took a two-hour, fill-in-the-hole-with-a-number-two-pencil psychological test that asked me to answer yes or no to statements such as, “I would like to do the work of a choir director” and “If I could sneak into the county fair or an amusement park without paying, I would.” Were they kidding me?

The next day, a psychiatrist went over my results. She showed me a line chart indicating how I “scored” in regard to various emotions and behaviors. The line was flowing along nicely, indicating I was “normal” here and “normal” there, just as I expected. Then a steep, jagged line rose across the paper like a fjord on the Norwegian coastline. It went all the way to the top of the chart before plummeting back to the middle.

“That’s your anger line,” the doctor said.

“What?” I laughed. “Just because I don’t want to be a choir director, I’m angry? I have nothing to be angry about!”

I explained that I had a panic disorder, and told her how a few days ago I couldn’t stop crying and that was why I was there. I just needed to calm down, maybe lose some weight. I’d be fine.

She nodded, wrote a few notes, and gave me Xanax. I promised to visit my psychiatrist weekly for a month and was released from the facility at the end of the week.

The Xanax worked almost instantly, and it kept the physical symptoms of anxiety at bay. But the relentless weeks-long waves of panic prior to the Xanax made me afraid of fear, and I was scared I’d have another attack at any moment. I needed something to change, something to help me feel normal again. God knows my psychiatrist was no help. He read the hospital psychiatrist’s report and ran with her whole “anger” diagnosis. He wanted me to journal about my anger, even though I insisted I wasn’t angry. But in order to get the Xanax, I wrote in the journal.

He brought up Bruce’s death and asked me about my current husband, who in the past had been physically and emotionally violent, but I wouldn’t go there with him. All was forgiven. There was nothing I could do to change the past, so why dwell on it? He said something about unresolved grief and lack of self-esteem and blah blah blah.

‘Buddy,’ I thought, ‘all I want is some control of my life.’

I discovered the golden loophole a few weeks later when I went to my gynecologist for a routine exam. I told her how anxious I’d been feeling, leaving out the part about the hospital and the psychiatrist, and she diagnosed me with severe PMS. She wrote me a script for Xanax and that was the end of journaling about non-existent anger. I focused my energy on the one thing I knew I could control: my weight.

I joined Weight Watchers, but not before saying goodbye to a few of my “friends,” the ones I knew I wouldn’t be able to “contact” once I was on a diet.

The week before the first meeting, I made macaroni and cheese with real butter, and I grilled a T-bone steak. I ate garlic mashed potatoes and cheesy hash browns, baked a chocolate cake, and went twice to Dairy Queen for a Hot Fudge Brownie Delight. I poured 2-percent milk over Captain Crunch for breakfast, and made a parade of pasta dishes for dinner. Then on Saturday morning, after throwing out the leftover brie and French baguette, deviled eggs, and Hershey Kisses, I walked into a Weight Watchers facility, paid the $8 fee, weighed in and left without attending the meeting. After four weeks, I’d acquired all the basic program materials and stopped going.

“You’ll leave me once you’ve lost weight,” my husband said.

“No, I won’t!” I insisted.

I subsisted on raw and boiled vegetables, fruit, skim milk, and plain baked white fish. In my WW food journal, I checked off every allotted carb, protein, and dairy allowed. I ate nothing more. I quit drinking and started riding a stationary bike I bought at a garage sale for $10. In return, I averaged a 3.5-pound loss every week.

I wasn’t angry. Heck no. Just highly motivated.

2019 update: I continued running away from my anger and anxiety for nine more years, always looking for shortcut solutions and substitutes for therapy. Finally, on a summer day in 1996, I decided I was done. I went to a sporting goods store and put ten percent down on a handgun. I filled out the background check paperwork and the clerk said I could pick up the gun in two days.

I drove to my favorite spot by the Clarion River. For an hour, I hated on myself, and I cried for my losses and the stupid decisions I’d made over the years. Then I remembered my children. They were just up the hill from the river, in our apartment, completely unaware their mother was thinking of leaving them.

I went home, made an appointment with a psychologist, and didn’t complete the gun purchase. 

Today, I still have anxiety, some full-blown panic attacks, and I have no problem taking lorazepam to help me out when it happens. I know people who treat anxiety and panic attacks as character flaws and believe if they were just “strong enough,” they wouldn’t suffer as they do.

Please, I’m begging you, if this is you, stop beating yourself up. Talk to your doctor. And if that doctor says it’s all in your head, talk to another doctor. Keep talking until you get the help you need. Also, read The Bloggess. She knows what’s up.

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