My personal battle with anxiety came to a head four years ago.
While driving on state Route 512, I experienced a body-wracking panic attack. Those seven frozen seconds shook me so deeply that, for months afterward, my throat clenched tightly at the mere sight of a freeway sign.
Post panic attack, my self-confidence severely shaken, I coped by crawling into my preschool cocoon. At work, the possibility of “small talk” was so paralyzing that I began strategizing my movements: If I mistimed a trip to the coffeemaker, I’d veer purposefully to the copy room, averting conversational disaster. Copies, not coffee!
Signs of anxiety can often be traced to a very early age.
For me, it was my first day of preschool. I chattered so exuberantly about school that my parents were blindsided when they learned, six weeks in, that I had sequestered myself permanently in a chair on the outskirts of the classroom. That teacher never heard my voice.
In seventh grade, I stood to recite a sentence in Spanish, only to choke on “Me llamo” as my lungs rejected oxygen and blood thundered to my head. Naturally, I ran out in a flash flood of tears.
These instances were frequent. Confused, fearful and lacking coping mechanisms, I silently adopted the subconscious mantra of anxiety sufferers: Do not let them know.
Anxiety tends to come in waves, the intensity impeccably aligning with life’s curveballs. At times it almost disappears, allowing you to dismiss the symptoms as imaginary. I defer to a comment I heard while watching a segment about pro golfer Charlie Beljan, who suffered a panic attack on live television during the 2012 PGA Tour, to illustrate an episode at its most debilitating.
“You feel like you’re the character in the painting ‘Scream,’ and that will be the way it is, frozen like that, forever,” author Daniel Smith explained, referring to the famous painting by Edvard Munch. Smith nailed it.
I was never good at taking pills. I am the naughty patient who, upon discovering half a bottle of forgotten antibiotics in my purse, becomes convinced that I will be responsible for a mutated, continent-obliterating cold virus.
“Medicine” lugs an oppressive stigma. Medication equals sick. Psychotropics – head meds – are even harder for many to understand. “We’re a drugged nation!” some cry. “Nothing is real!”
For years I dug my heels in and agreed. I wouldn’t let chemicals alter my reality or change who I was! A suffocating cloak of anxiety prevented me from seeing one crucial detail: My reality sucked.
In a recently discovered photograph, my mom and I pose on a Westport beach, my favorite place in the world. I’m smiling, but my eyes evoke the desperate loneliness I felt, even surrounded by those I loved most. Riding in the motor home on the way back, I was a trapped alien.
That’s when I decided I needed help. According to my therapist, I needed an SSRI – a modern psychotropic medication that treats anxiety disorders, among other conditions.
My expectations were as low as my self-esteem. A veteran of talk therapy, I had only flirted with what I considered to be a glorified placebo industry.
The day I took the first pill I was hypervigilant, my muscles sore from fight-or-flight revving in overdrive. My existence took up too much space; my every utterance was a painful embarrassment. I was consumed with the idea that everyone knew. But this time I stuck with it; what did I have to lose?
The anxiety began to leach out of me so subtly that I almost didn’t notice. Then one day, I not only greeted someone in passing, but shocked myself by briefly holding that person’s gaze. At this infinitesimal moment of eye contact, hope bloomed in my chest. Beneath the fluorescent lights of my office, I began to remember myself.
Charlie Beljan came back to win that PGA Tour event the day after being trundled off the course on a stretcher. Me? I drive my Bug on the freeway again. Grandmas often zip past me, but that’s OK. The cat has politely returned my tongue and I am whole once more, but I don’t forget the silent little girl in the corner of the classroom.
She gives me the courage to share a new mantra with the world: Give it a chance.Melissa Frink is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on these pages. She lives in North Tacoma with her feline daughter, Moxie Moo Frink. She has no human children at this time. Email her at melissa.j.frink@ gmail.com.