Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Be Me with Anxiety

Imagine you're back in school. Whatever grade, whatever level. It's Monday. You have a big term paper due next Monday, one that's a third of your grade for the semester, but a week is more than enough time for you to get it done. You're feeling cool.

You're sitting at your desk. Feeling cool. Then you see a classmate walk in carrying a big, tidy, bound and stapled term paper. For a moment, you wonder if you got it wrong. Maybe it was today. But no... that's Susan. She always does her homework early.

Then three more walk in. All unpacking term papers and placing them on their desks. You're starting to actually get a bit worried here. This is more than just one good student jumping the gun.

Then your friend who sits next to you comes in and puts his paper down on his desk. You look around the room. You're the only one who didn't remember.

This can't be right.

You grab your planner, which you rarely check because you remember everything anyway. You turn to today's date and, sure enough -- in your own handwriting -- you see that the paper was due today.

You make a noise -- you know the one. And everyone in class, from your best friends to that one person who seems to delight in watching you fail, turns to look at you, staring helplessly at your planner and your otherwise empty desk.


That feeling at the base of your skull, oval and cold and buzzing. The one that feels like it's gonna overtake the rest of your scalp. The one that's not quite fear because you know exactly what's making you feel that way. The mix of confusion, helplessness, embarrassment, and sadness.

Grab it. Bottle it. Put it by your bed. Drink from it every morning. And there I am.


Anxiety can be situational, or it can be genetic. Judging by my family and what they've been through, I'm pretty sure it's genetic. It has to do with low serotonin. You know what serotonin is, right? Yes, no, kind of?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (or maybe a hormone, depends who you ask) that influences your happy. The longer it takes for your body to reel serotonin back in when it goes out, the more happy you have. When you're low on it, the less happy you have.

It's kind of like insulin. You know how your body can't do the thing with blood sugar when your insulin is out of whack? Well, your brain can't do the thing with mood when your serotonin is out of whack.

That was the first hard thing to get into my own head when I was diagnosed (extremely quickly) with anxiety: it's not a thing I did to myself. It's not a thing I put myself through. I couldn't give myself anxiety any more than I could give myself endometriosis. It's a feeling, and we're taught (with a degree of truth) that feelings are ours to control. But there's a line where that stops.

You can be the best driver in the world, but if your brakes are cut, it doesn't matter how hard you slam them. You'll still crash. That has nothing to do with you as a driver.


Lexapro helps. You hear "medication" and you think they're going to come in and change you. You see people protesting meds, hear what it does to people. Or, like me, you have negative experiences of your own with them and never want to go through that again.

But any medication not tailored to your specific concern will fuck you up. You know? Blood thinners work great for my grandfather, but they'd fuck me up. That doesn't mean blood thinners are bad. It means they're bad for me.

I was told Lexapro would take a few weeks to really kick in properly. I'd been hoping for a next day miracle because, well, you do. I didn't get one, of course.

A few weeks went by. One morning, I woke up feeling strange. Not "not me," but different. That feeling I asked you to bottle up and keep by your bed? That was my feeling every morning and all through the day, with only a few things that would make it rest. I woke up without it. For the first time ever. It was strange. And I felt light.

Feeling like that daily is exhausting. You just don't realize how exhausting it is until it's over.

I remember when I first knew I was getting somewhere. I was at a huge convention and had just undergone some crowdedness and some harsh talk from another person. I went back to our booth and asked for water, caffeine, and five minutes. And that was all it took. I was fine.

That was unheard of. Usually once that happened, I was out for the afternoon.


I am not superhuman. Today I felt it again, running late with my Lexapro because I only just now got it refilled after I ran out yesterday. There was stress and a little bit of drama. And I had that buzz in my skull.

Some days, there are things that are just too big for Lexapro. Getting a flat tire in D.C., limping my car to a gas station, emptying my trunk to get to my spare, dropping a huge box on my foot, and having a stranger laugh at me, for example. That was too big for a pill. You don't need a shortage of any neurotransmitter to lose it over that.

But there's a difference now. An ability to go "Excuse me, it's loud in here, I need to step out and get some air for a few minutes" instead of actually getting the shakes in front of people. It's a relief. Dear God, what a relief.

Calling it "anxiety" isn't helpful because we have another definition for that word. I shouldn't be so surprised that there are people who think the lack of a chemical in my body is something a deep breath and some yoga will fix, not if we're sharing words like that. I wish there was a different one, a realer one, that made people understand in a moment that I'm talking about a chemical deficiency that requires correcting and not a mood I'm too lazy to control.


I'm going to be onstage several times next month interviewing people I admire in front of thousands of attendees. I send things I write off to major publishers. I do this while my brain, even with its daily hit of Lexapro, tries to fly off on its own and tell me I ought not try. Because people will think ill of me. Because I don't deserve it. Because whatever.

The brain can shut up.

A brain low on serotonin is like that cousin of your mom's bridge partner who finds any article online that backs her personal opinion and just posts it over and over. Even when it's shitty and unreliable. I've named my anxiety "Brenda." No offense to anyone named Brenda. But it sounds so much better in a snipe-back.

"No one wants to see your ugly face onstage. Your nose is weird and you look like a child." Cool story, Brenda, don't you have some autonomic processes to be regulating?

I don't expect the world to step around my anxiety. I have friends who understand facets of it and are careful, just as I'm careful with their spinal fusions or misophonia. But it's not the world's job. Even so, the world couldn't go too wrong doing a little bit of research.

Just a little.



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