Anxiety’s Magical Little Pill
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
The silence between my boyfriend Joe and I lingered during the car ride home. I took notice a million times of all the sites we passed on our way back. In L.A., each community had its own look and vibe. As we said goodbye to Santa Monica for the evening, I noticed the juxtaposition of the rows of restaurants lining the Pacific Coast Highway and across the street the park where local homeless people camped. It was the last line of defense between the pier and the ocean. I wondered how a place that had so much wealth could also house those who essentially had hit rock bottom. Were these folks once frequenting the hip places across the way? What happened to them? Did they go through something life-breaking, and were they unable to weather the blow? Or were they, like me, fighting a different battle—the skirmish of mental health? Or, was it a combination of both?
As we left the hustle and bustle of the Santa Monica area for the more residential parts of L.A., the silence between our car seats prevailed. It wasn’t the uncomfortable kind where you struggle for what to say. It was the comforting silence you can only attain with those with whom you are closest. As my mind continued to wander, Joe switched the radio stations to find his desired distraction.
My mind started to chatter. This chatter started in the top of my head and permeated throughout the weary contents of my skull. I thought about the double life I was living, to which only Joe was privy. I thought about the energy it took to pull this off. Sure, it was easy to smile and nod like I did tonight, but inside, I was being ripped apart. The more I denied my outer body, the more my inner body suffered.
I was no stranger to anxiety; it was practically my understudy throughout my formative years. But the anxiety I was experiencing now was all-consuming. My head felt cloudy, my throat was paralyzed, unable to speak my thoughts, my gut acted daily like it had been exposed to an all-you-can-eat Mexican dinner. I was, in fact, falling apart.
We got to the apartment, and Joe sensed there was something off. He stopped and turned to me before unlocking the door. “Are you alright?”
There was no simple way to answer this. “No.” I rushed past him inside to greet our cat, Figaro.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know Joe. I wish I knew.”
“Come here,” he reached for my hand as I simultaneously got up to leave.
I couldn’t. The thought of getting closer to any human not only repulsed me, but it heightened my anxiety. I needed Joe beside me, but I also needed some personal space. On top of that, I could not put into words what I was feeling.
“I’ll be over in a minute. I’m gotta run to the bathroom.”
I took my time and raided my cabinets to find the one small pill that comes in and out of my life from time to time. I normally resist getting it almost until it is too late. As I opened the cupboard, I remembered the first time I took Xanax when this all came down.
I was in shock and grief. I was keeping a secret. A secret that I shared with only my dad and the Federal Government. He was the subject of a criminal grand jury investigation.
I could not control my emotions, let alone myself. I couldn’t think or speak rationally, and I paid an emergency visit to our campus health center. As I entered, the questions ensued. Everyone had their specialty which accompanied its own list of interrogatives. As they checked each box, they barely looked up to gauge the accompanying non-verbals of my responses. Instead of a person, I was merely a subject. Although the questions varied from person-to-person, they all questioned me profusely about whether I was pregnant, which was normal protocol for everyone female who walked through the door. The team, who was supposed to be working together to try to help make me whole again, worked in silos; merely recording individual responses and missing the totality entirely. When no one else had a better option, I was quickly passed to the psychiatrist on duty, and she half-listened to me babble my story while she wrote out a prescription for panic attacks. She instructed me to take one now and not to drive, drink, or do any drugs that night. She explained that if I failed to follow her instructions, I could be dead in the morning. Way to give an already anxious person some peace!
I went home and took the pill, and in twenty minutes the strangest thing came over me. All the issues I was facing became distant. They were still there but my mind felt clouded. As soon as I wanted to go to the place of despair, I was stopped. I was able to get the sleep I really needed.
I had a false sense of hope that Xanax would do the trick, but I quickly learned the liabilities of the drug. It could only help so much before you had to up the dose and the more you took it, the more you had to up the dose. The effect also had a diminishing return. Like sex or any other pleasurable activity, the first time after you’ve not had it for a while is the most intense and then the feelings start to fade with more frequency. However, from that night on, it became a tool in my coping-with-anxiety arsenal. For the next two years, Xanax was my security blanket. I kept it tucked away in the medicine cabinet just in case the anxiety monsters reappeared. In the long run, I knew that it only had the ability to numb the sting temporarily, but having some solution was better than none.
Staring at the bottle, my body started to shake. I put the bottle back. I looked in the mirror to see a shadow of myself. My face looked like I was in a continual state of shock. My throat closed and tears welled as I tried to choke them back. I swayed from side-to-side, trying to comfort myself in the same way a parent comforts a young baby. However, nothing was working. My anxiety was over-the-edge. With no other choice, I grabbed the bottle, opened it, and popped a Xanax to dull the pain.
I watched my eyes in the mirror. Were they supposed to dilate or constrict? Shit. I couldn’t remember. Either way, I guiltily watched, waiting for signs the pill was about to take effect.
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I suddenly realized; it doesn’t matter. My moment of clarity. I realized that nothing matters. Nirvana has arrived. I took a deep breath as I looked into the mirror again. I noticed the sense of calm that had come over my face and smiled as my muscles relaxed. Brimming with chemical serenity, I stepped out of the bathroom.
I grabbed a glass of water and took a seat next to Joe on the couch and watched Netflix with Figaro curled up between us. I was able to take deep breaths on my own and I felt normal. However, even though I was okay at this moment, I wondered silently “Why do I need to take drugs to be able to get through my day? What is wrong with me?” These were questions I toyed with asking aloud, to myself. To Joe.
But I settled for a tremulous, “I’m going to get ready for bed.”
At 2:13 am, I woke up. Something was wrong. My heart was pounding, and tears streamed down my face. I had to remind myself quietly that it was all going to be okay. I tossed and turned beside Joe as he lay sleeping soundly. I breathed in. One. Two. Three. Four. I breathed out. One. Two. Three. Four. My version of counting sheep. It felt like I did this for hours, but I must have dozed off at some point.
By the next morning, the meds had entirely worn off. I was a patient coming to consciousness after an operation. I first noticed everything in the room, the ceiling, how my sheets felt on my skin, Joe lying beside me and of course, the wet greeting of Figaro licking my nose. My groggy mind was now sharper, but for me, this was not a good thing. Enter the anxiety again, as Figaro stood on my chest to lick my nose, it felt heavy, and I had to put him down in between Joe and me. This was enough to startle Joe awake. “Good morning, beautiful.” He leaned in for a kiss as I shied away.
“Morning.” This was all I could manage.
Tears started to well up again. “I dunno.”
With every breath I took, I also felt my heartbeat faster and faster. I felt the sweat drip down my armpits making my shirt moist. I felt my stomach turn, and before I could say more, I staggered to the restroom. I stared in the mirror and turned away anxiety and shame. My stomach turned and I barely made it to the toilet. With every gag, I hoped to expel the demon of my anxiety, but like everything, I knew it was probably just a quick fix—just like the Xanax itself.
After throwing up, I cleaned myself up and splashed cold water on my face. The chill brought me out of my head and back to reality. I looked beyond the mirror at the pills in the cupboard. The worst was through. Let’s save them for when I really need them.
Joe knocked on the door, “Everything okay in there?”
“Yes, it is fine.”
However, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. I grabbed the bottle, twisted the top, and shook it onto my hand. Nothing came out. My hands shook, and my knees fluttered. I had no other choice but to face this one on my own. I curled up in a ball and cried on the bathroom floor.
Joe heard me and ran in, “What’s wrong? What happened?”
All I could do was cry. I knew that I couldn’t lie any more. My anxiety seemed to be increasingly getting worse and worse. Everything had now become a trigger. I couldn’t even make simple decisions. He helped me sit up.
“Let’s get some fresh air and catch a bite to eat. You have always wanted to try the place on the corner. I hear they do a mean breakfast.” Joe did his best to get me into a different zone.
I nodded in solidarity and followed his lead. We walked into the restaurant; the server delivered the menu, which was pages long. Without looking up, she asked what we wanted to drink. I barely requested water, but even just vocalizing what I wanted seemed too much.
She came back with our drinks and rattled off an entire list of items on special; to me it was all auditory mush. Joe was quite impressed with her ability to rattle off one dish after the other. In normal circumstances, I would have been as well. As soon as she finished speaking, she looked down and asked, “What we will have?”
A flurry of emotions overcame me as tears rolled down my face. She quickly excused herself, apologizing, thinking that she had not given us enough time to think. “I’ll be back. Please take as much time as you need. I know there are a lot of choices here.”
She was right. There were so many choices. Too many choices for me. I looked at Joe, and he knew what I didn’t want to admit. We could not stay. It was just making matters worse. “Maria, let’s leave.”
I hung my head low as tears were still dripping off my face but nodded in solidarity. It was time to go. I got out of my chair and dashed for the door. Joe grabbed my purse, which I left behind, and apologized to the server for our haphazard situation. He threw her a $10 dollar bill to cover his orange juice and a tip, but she was not happy to lose a customer. I heard her in the distance as I got outside say, “What was that all about?”
As Joe joined me outside, we stared at one another. He uttered three little words that I already knew, but needed to hear.
“You need help.”