The face of a lover is an unknown, precisely because it is invested with so much of oneself. It is a mystery, containing, like all mysteries, the possibility of torment.
I started having panic attacks the summer I was 28; gripping, terrifying, wish-I-was-dead panic attacks. I’d always been a nervous person, and in the past year, my anxiety levels had increased exponentially, but this was something altogether new. This was something that seemed totally beyond my control, something that threatened my sanity, and maybe my very existence.
I was curled up on my bathroom floor in my underwear at three in the morning. I had to be at work at eight. I was sobbing, my stomach hurt, my head threatened to pound right through my skull, and none of it would stop. As soon as I thought I had a handle on my torrent of tears, they would start right back up again. My body was releasing years of pent-up frustration, rage, panic, repression, and fear. Like the levees in New Orleans that gave way that same summer, wrecking an entire city and countless lives, my own personal levees had held strong and done their job for the past 10 years, but after this last storm, they couldn’t hold anymore. They burst, and I had no idea how to handle the resulting flood.
These attacks of mine were becoming more frequent. This was before I discovered Xanax, and realized I could swallow one of those bad boys, along with a glass of wine and be as good as dead. Which is the way I liked it. I could lie on the couch and start watching TV after swallowing it, and within 10 minutes I would feel my arms start to go numb. I would try to lift them, to change the channel perhaps, or to take another gulp of my wine, but the effort would be too much, and I’d decide everything was just fine the way it was.
Everything was just fine the way it was.
I would no longer be able to control my eyes and decide it was time to curl up in my bed, the covers wrapped tightly around me, and just imagine that this was the End. I would literally have to lift my legs off the couch using my arms; they were that heavy and useless. I lived in a studio apartment, so my couch was only about five feet from the bed, but nevertheless, once I stood up, I would inevitably fall down walking only that short distance. So I crawled to bed, and giggled a little bit.
I liked this; I liked this very, very much.
The drugs would not only numb my body and turn it to dead weight, but they would cloud my brain, so that I couldn’t form a coherent thought if I had to. This was what I wanted, this was the peace I’d been searching for, this was the rest of ages I’d been craving; all through the miracle of pharmaceuticals, with only the slightest bit of tweaking with alcohol. I could sleep for twelve to fourteen hours straight, and nothing would wake me up: not the phone, and only sometimes my alarm. I’d been a horribly light sleeper my entire life, and for the last few years, a very bad sleeper. Xanax gave me what I needed: deep, dreamless, immediate, peaceful, amazing sleep.
Of course, Xanax only masked the problem, it didn’t fix it. Without it, I was still a wreck, I still couldn’t sleep, and on those nights when I had to go without, the panic was even worse, because I anticipated it. I’d inevitably end up again on the bathroom floor, or punching the shower wall so hard that my knuckles would split open and I wouldn’t be able to type at work the next day. I would call people (at 1 or 2 am on a weeknight) and no one would answer.
Jesus, what if there was a fucking emergency? I’d think to myself. And then revise my thought: This is a fucking emergency!
I thought about killing myself. I thought about calling an ambulance and telling them I was dying, just so someone would come over and give me something to calm me down. I thought about putting myself in a state hospital so doctors would be forced to talk to me, and I could get lots of drugs. All I really wanted at that point was to be able to disappear, to not have to live my life, and slip into oblivion, but still be able to come back whenever I chose. But I couldn’t afford to go to a psychiatrist to get a prescription for Xanax, so I bought them, pill by pill, from a friend of mine who had a prescription. Or I traded her my Vicodin left over from my surgery that same summer, because Vicodin, sadly, did nothing for me. Even if I took three of them and chased them with whisky. Which I did. I think I had a faulty bottle. But my friend seemed to like them, so she was more than willing to trade up her Xanax. And then my Vicodin ran out, and then I panicked. And then my friend wasn’t as eager to share, even if I was paying her for the stuff, because she couldn’t get so many refills. I hated her for being so selfish and I was tempted to call her at 3 in the morning on a weeknight when I thought I was dying, but I didn’t. Because we weren’t that close, and it wasn’t her that I needed to hear from.
So the attacks continued. Not every night, but many nights, and even on the nights where I wouldn’t end up a sobbing, terrified, writhing disaster, I wouldn’t sleep. I’d toss and turn for an hour, two hours, get up, watch some TV, feel my eyes get heavy, go back to bed, and still not sleep. Most nights I would finally fall asleep around 4 or 5, just in time to get 2 or 3 hours of sleep before I had to be at work. I was a zombie during the day. I sat in the bathroom stall at work and sobbed. Once I ran into the bathroom with tears streaming down my cheeks, my heart threatening to beat right out of my chest and rip me in half, and my boss was standing at the sink, washing his hands. I hated him, and avoided him whenever possible, but today, he wanted to talk to me, and started some bullshit conversation about something I don’t recall. I answered a couple of his questions, with him pointedly ignoring my bloodshot eyes, and the stray tears, until finally I just turned and locked a stall door behind me and let it loose. I couldn’t have sucked it up if I’d wanted to. My emotions and their physiological manifestations were taking on a life of their own and turning against me.
What in God’s name was happening to me? I’d suffered pain before: knock the wind out of you, think-you’re-dying pain, but nothing like this. Nothing had so completely taken over and hijacked my entire life and emotional responses like this before, and threatened to derail every single thing I knew and believed in. I’d always been emotional, I’d always felt very deeply. I had no idea why now, at this juncture, I’d lost complete control. It was a certifiable nervous breakdown, and there was nothing I could do about it.
In the front of my mind, I thought it all had to do with a boy. A boy I was deeply in love with, a boy with whom, after a year-long relationship, I had broken up with. A boy I wanted to spend my life with, and about whom I had fantasies of building a life, starting a family, traveling the world, and with whom, I knew, ultimately, none of those things would happen. I blamed him for everything, I accused him of being immature, I flailed, I screamed, I cried, I begged, I manipulated, and still, he remained untouched and unmoving.
But I suspected there was more at play here. There was more than just having a broken, disappointed heart. I’d had a lot of broken hearts in my day, and none of them felt like this. None of them had induced this kind of panic, this kind of hopelessness, this kind of rage.
I started therapy with a counselor that I adored, but to whom I still couldn’t open up the way I needed to. I was guarded. I often just sat on his couch and giggled nervously, or blushed, or stared out the window, embarrassed. I avoided his most pointed questions by giving non-answers, or saying “I don’t know,” or laughing inappropriately.
I started finding other sources of Xanax. I started smoking pot on top of it, on top of alcohol. I really didn’t want to die, but I was pushing my limits, I was testing just how far I could push my body, how deep into sleep I could tumble, and still eventually wake up. I was deliberately tempting fate, and thus far, I was winning.
I didn’t want to die, but I don’t think I cared if I did. After all, I’d just be dead, what difference would it make to me?
One night, I’d finally had enough. I had no drugs, I’d already downed a quarter of a bottle of whiskey, it was three in the morning, and there I was, feeling it coming on again, that old familiar panic, the tightening in the chest, the racing heart. I screamed into my pillow, I used my own fist to punch myself in the side of the head to relieve the pressure, but it only hurt like hell and gave me a throbbing headache, which made me cry harder, which only frustrated me more. I was sweating, I was soaked, I couldn’t lie still in my bed.
When this happened to me, for some reason I usually gravitated to the bathroom. It was there that I would stare at my face in the mirror and spit on it. The face that, at 28, looked so fucking old and worn out to me already. I had bags under my eyes, with dark circles around them; I hadn’t shaved in days and it was growing in unevenly; I needed a haircut, my skin was dry; I had two cavities, that while remaining invisible, I knew were there, and just made me feel more disgusting, old, and like I was falling apart.
Tonight, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t turn on the light in the bathroom, I couldn’t lie on the cold tile and beat my fist on the ground, or take another shower.
I crawled out of my bed, and for the first time since junior high, I kneeled at the foot of my bed, and I prayed. I prayed to a God that I barely believed in, and had no hope of actually being touched by. I begged God, if he was up there, to please take away my suffering, to please heal my loneliness, my desperation, to please help me make sense of what was happening to me. I’d never been so scared in my entire life, and if angels had appeared at my door to take me away that instant, I would have gone with them without a moment’s hesitation.
And then in therapy, something clicked, some things started to make sense. I started sensing a pattern of behavior. This was about more than just a boy and a broken heart. Much, much more.
I began diving into the deep, black heart of my repressed and tortured psyche. I start seeing things I didn’t want to see. I started understanding things that were far more painful and frightening than any broken heart. I started to understand how broken, incomplete and terrified I’d been for years, for my entire life, and could never acknowledge. I realized that rather than feeling so deeply, as I’d always thought, I’d barely felt anything at all, for almost 15 years. I was shut down, cut off and completely out of touch with my inner emotional life. I was a fraud and had everyone fooled; but now, I was starting to crack.
And it was all downhill from there.