I used to wonder what it would be like to have old hands. Ones you couldn't trust to bring a cup from table to mouth, that asked to be balled into loose fists rather than splayed out, strong and open. And feet you weren't sure would step one in front of the other, attached to legs that went weak without warning, that gave way like a playground kick to the back of the knee. What would it feel like to have my body decide what it will and will not do? This body that has taken every half-quart of gin and asked only a good night's rest and a light breakfast to bounce back, has stretched so I could gorge and gagged so I could purge and shown me a flat stomach in the mirror the next morning. I knew one day it would be a struggle to button my shirt, and I'd have one of those pill trays labeled for the days of the week; I knew someday words would not extricate themselves so easily from my mind, that someone would ask me what I was looking for as I rattled around a junk drawer and I wouldn't be able to think of the word: pen. But I didn't know it would be today, yesterday, the day before. I didn't know it would come at twenty-three. I didn't know it would come so soon.
The ER doctor said the words I'd been hoping to hear for nearly two years, desperate for some momentary guarantee that my body looked clean on the inside.
"Since you've never had any tests or scans, I'm going to order a CT and a blood workup just in case this is more than anxiety."
It was my second year of graduate school and one fall day as I was reading from a sample paper in front of my composition students I was seized by my first panic attack since my senior year of undergrad. All morning the left side of my hand and face had been tingling and numb. I could have slept in an odd position, or it was possible the road trip I had taken that weekend left me with a compressed nerve, but those are the possibilities I see now. In that moment, I was certain I was having stroke. As I stood in front of my class, I could feel the left side of my face begin to droop. When I pressed my lips together, they felt gummy and desensitized, like a shot of Novocain to the cheek. I could feel the sweat pooling at my chest and armpits, and my face was hot and blotchy. As my body succumbed to the attack, I continued to read aloud from the paper on the screen, which had gone completely out of focus, and when I think back, I have no recollection of moving from one sentence to the next. When the urge to run out of the room became so strong I could no longer bear it, I stopped mid-sentence and asked for a volunteer to read. It is hard to determine now whether the looks I saw when I glanced up from the screen were of slack-jawed boredom or concern, and because I couldn't remember any of what I had just read, I was genuinely worried I had been speaking gibberish like the stroke victim in a video I had seen in high school. A student who never volunteered to read aloud raised his hand at my request without missing a beat, and I felt that each one of them knew I had cracked. You don't belong up there, I could hear them say. Their forms looked warped to me as if I were seeing them through the glass of a fishbowl.
The tingling only worsened as I funneled my attention to it, and though I knew from past experience that this was a common symptom of anxiety, it felt unmistakably to be something much more serious this time. Every attack seems worse than the one before, each symptom more intense, different in some way. It always feels as though I'm experiencing it for the first time, and I rarely remember the manifestations of past episodes until my mother says, "The same thing happened before. Remember?" Anxiety is powerful. It can override memory and convince an otherwise healthy, intelligent mind that the unlikeliest of answers is the most logical to consider.
Back in the emergency room, I sat small in a hospital bed. The gown had been difficult to put together because my hands had been shaking so badly and took a while to move from snap to snap. It was draped over me, held together by just a button or two at each shoulder and a tie at the back. With a heart rate monitor on my finger and a blood pressure cuff around my left arm, I watched everything settle as I calmed. There, surrounded by people who were trained to care for my body, I felt safe. I expected to walk to the CT room, but a nurse came in, put up the guardrails on my bed, and rolled me into the hallway. There was a rush of hospital-cold air on my face, and as we passed people in the hallways I worried what they thought of me being pushed down the hall by a nurse scarcely older than myself. How feeble I must have looked to them, and I felt ashamed. You should be stronger than this, a past love's words echoed in my head—a years-long relationship that had been lost to my struggle, because not everyone is strong enough, or willing, to accept the legitimacy of an illness they can't see.
My CT came back clear, as did my blood work, and I went home with a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication, a bottle of Clonazepam for any future episodes, and an informational pamphlet that featured a printed list of every symptom I had experienced that day and in years past. It took a couple weeks for my body to bounce back from the traumatic effects of the attacks—my hands shook and words seemed to move like molasses from my mind to my mouth. But the worst of it was that I had to learn to trust myself again. I would stare at the mug in front of me and something would say, You can't lift that, so don't even try. I would approach the street entrance to my apartment, stare at the numbers on the security pad, and hear, You don't remember the code, and even if you did, you'd punch the wrong numbers in anyway. I learned in that time how to talk to and comfort myself and that kindness isn't something we only need to show to others. I also learned the importance of trying. Everyone is afraid to fail—What would it mean if I couldn't remember the four-digit code I'd been using five times a day for months? If I couldn't bring a water cup to my lips without spilling? But we can't afford to lose respect for ourselves because something seems daunting and we're too scared to try. Respect is so hard to earn back once lost, especially our own.
Anxiety is a cruel disorder. Its symptoms mimic those of other illnesses, diseases, and disorders. It knows its host intimately, knows what they fear most, and exploits those fears without mercy. It's like a box in a horror movie that, in order to break the main character, contains an incarnation of the darkest corner of their mind. I have been told by people I trusted and loved that medication was not the answer, that my anxiety didn't seem bad enough from the outside to warrant it. I have been told that my mind should be stronger than the anxiety, that my feelings and fears had no legitimate source and were therefore not worthy of acknowledgement or consideration. I think it is difficult for people who do not know this struggle personally to understand how real it is. The obsessions and compulsions; the nausea, shaking, heart palpitations, and blurred vision; the weakness, numbness, and tingling—it is all real; I feel it. And having a doctor tell me it's anxiety, while comforting for a time, doesn't make it go away. It would seem that it never leaves for good, or at all, for some. Mine fell dormant once, for about a year, and I thought I was out of the woods. I didn't understand that an anxiety disorder doesn't work that way. Though it may hide for a time, the chances are that something will trigger it again, but the fact that it might be a lifelong struggle does not automatically translate to a life consumed or dictated by anxiety. Does it mean you'll need to find people capable of compassion, empathy, and understanding to surround yourself with? Yes. Does it mean you'll need to learn how to treat your body with kindness and mercy and offer it something else to be passionate about and consumed with? Yes. Does it mean that, because of ignorance and apathy, you may be looked down on for taking medications and getting the professional help you need? Yes. Does it mean that you are any less worthy of love, trust, respect, or success—any less capable of greatness? Does it mean that you have to settle for less than the exceptional life you've pictured for yourself? Absolutely not.