Chemical

 

Yesterday I was up at the Cloisters looking at a famous painting of the annunciation.  A teeny Jesus is flying in Mary’s window, teeny streaks of light behind him, a toothpick cross on his back.  He reminds me of Tinkerbell.

The tour guide said the announcement, the word of God, impregnated Mary, so Jesus was headed to her ear.

Do you know what’s inside you?  Or how it got in there?

Or do you know what’s inside and what’s outside?  Or what is chemical, what is science, and what is natural, whatever we mean by natural?

It still pisses me off that my anxiety remains relatively untouched by meditating, yoga, a hot bath, a massage.  Those things help keep me going when I’m in the worst of it, but they help only a little.  The itch is so deep in there, I can’t really reach it with anything but chemicals.

What helps is the drug no one actually knows exactly how it works, but perhaps keeps the serotonin in my brain from disappearing, raising my levels of serotonin to where most people’s are normally.  And where mine were until six years ago.  What we know is people can feel better.

When you’ve been having panic attacks and pretty much everything sounds scary to you for no reason, feeling better is a more intense version of when you have a terrible flu, and the first time you leave the house again, you just look out at the world, and your walking and talking and all the stimulation, you’re like, “Awesome!  This is amazing!”  I think, Why would I be afraid of the cafeteria?  Or lunchtime?  Or the bus?  Wow, that’s crazy.

It does take a while, the last week I was deliberately trying to force my brain wrong, to see if I could… could I?  I could work myself up a little, get nervous, that’s as far as it could go.

My sister came to visit, and it turned out to be less a go-save-the-faraway-family-member mission and more of a good time that showed how much better I am.

We walked in circles in Fort Tryon Park, accidentally.  I had never had trouble finding the Cloisters before, but this time, when it was raining and her shoes soaked up puddle after puddle, the curved paths, past scent-glowing lilac bushes and along the cliffs that guard the peaceful Hudson from the city, we somehow made a circle, regrouped, made another circle, whoa.  And only the third time we tried did we get a straight path, we got to where we could see the tower of the Cloisters rising above the trees.

“These trees are taller than in Kansas City,” she said.

“Nah,” I said.

“No, they are,” she said.

“Hm.”

We got wetter, and wetter, in circles, on sidewalks, on gravel, until finally somehow we got in the right line.  I saw the bell tower first, then the driveway.

When we were little girls, our grandparents took us to the Cloisters.  We took a taxi from Penn Station.  I remember someone saying it would be a long ride, and expensive.  We saw the unicorn tapestries.  I bought a flat gold bookmark in the shape of a heart.  Like everything from New York, it was precious to me.

We joined up with a tour at the museum, and the guide explained that a tapestry and two different shades because the bottom was a repair job.  “They did a wonderful job,” she said, “but this part with the color still vivid is plant dyes, and the part done with chemical dyes is the part that is all faded.

“So, go plants!” she said.  The plants in the tapestry were roses, which, in medieval times, had plenty of thorns and were heavily scented, and did not climb.  And lilies of the valley, who hang as jingle bells down stems, we had seen them in Fort Tryon Park, licked with rain.  Lilies of the valley are the flowers our stepmom dug up from her mother’s yard, and planted in her own.

In the center was a tree that isn’t real.  Only the fruits are real, pomegranates, which stretched to show their seeds, and dropped beads of juice.

Image: Detail of “The Unicorn in Captivity,” Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Tea

How is the anxiety disorder?  How is the Russian Tea Room?  I prefer the Russian Tea Room.

It took a glass of wine and a call to my mother to get me into Manhattan.  I had successfully passed through lunchtime (for mysterious reasons a great anxiety trigger) and my oh-shit work is over I have nothing to distract me was the next hurdle.

After the wine and the talk, I got myself on the bus, on the subway, no problem.

Then the sidewalk in front of Carnegie Hall didn’t scare me, not the glossy building across the street, waving and dizzying, or the dark.  I waited for my friend, and looked up at the grocery flower display out front of an apartment building I used to visit, twenty years ago.  New York charms: in winter, the Christmas trees out with us, in warm weather, the cut flowers in their bins, waiting.

We had a couple of hours of a string quartet, lost in musing, under the chandelier, at the faces of each player, their bow hands, their shoes, listening for the second violin part, which is the best, their ring fingers, three of four were married, who was a little fat, who was tall, the different browns of their instruments, a bow hair that, loose, caught the light.  The ideas of the music.  Beethoven bridge between old-fashioned and modern, between us and them, right?

We went two doors down to the Russian Tea Room, through their frosted revolving door.

The famous restaurants and bars of New York are the task of my forties.  Sardi’s, Bemelman’s, now the Russian Tea Room.  I have hardly any more money than I had my early trips into the city, but now I have appreciation for a proper drink, properly made.

We ordered caviar and vodka.

The vodka was poured into tall, thin glasses.  The bartender explained how each one was different.  I tasted each one, and each tasted exactly like vodka.

The room was greener than I had imagined.  There was some red, but there was also green.  All restaurants should be red inside, and all other indoor walls should be white or yellow.

I looked over at the booth where Louis CK had sat with F. Murray Abraham, filming a scene for “Louie.”  Certain episodes of “Louie” have made me right again, and “Amadeus” is, of course, everything for us who are mediocre.

On the way home we argued about death and sat opposite two hoodied guys.  One messed with a pill bottle and then both slumped over in reverie, perhaps to ride the 2 all night.

I have never ridden the 2 to the end.

The Russian Tea Room has glass cases of Russian stuff for sale, nesting dolls, glossy, gold and red painted this and thats.  Little price tags.  It enchants me how places Fancy New York in my mind have their own clumsiness and kitsch.

I tasted the orange-pink caviar, bubbles on bread and cream cheese.  The pills of fishiness squished like vitamin E gelcaps.

And that was enough of that.

Six weeks on higher dose of SSRI.  When the antidepressant is working, it shuts a trap door inside my brain, and the room of horrors, I don’t even know if the demons are still down there.   I don’t know, and I don’t think about it, even.  They become like a bad, flat fiction.  I don’t think about how I might need to drug myself, I get to think about how I might want to drug myself.

Last week at church I had a bout of panic, and I decided this week to stay home, sleep in, lounge.  This was totally unlike me, to let myself off the hook this way, although my doctor recommends it.  The first time I went to see her, and talked about the panic, need-to-flee feeling, she said, “Well, then you should go!”

That sounded completely crazy to me.

She has a very nice black dog, though, and I like petting the dog while she writes my prescriptions, and I like that she is 1,000 years old and her home office is in a luxurious doorman building, with a crummy packing-tape-mended chair.

When I finally got up and out today, I ran into my neighbor.  I went a couple of months without seeing him, which was odd.

“So many people in and out of the building!  I’m glad you’re still here,” he said.

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

We passed an old lady he said hi to, I said, “I haven’t met her.”

He said, “She used to watch my daughter.  And she’s known me since I was this high.”

Somehow we were talking about being 25.

“I’m so glad to be older,” I said.

“I’m not, those were great times,” he said.

We talked about these kids today, and about New York, how he wanted to leave, but had deep roots there, and I said I envied his roots here, and I didn’t say, why does anyone want to leave?

We May Sink and Settle

DP158099.jpgSomeone told me even numbers of bamboo stalks are unlucky, so I bought another pot with three stalks, bringing my total to 9.  I had 3, that was good, then 6, disaster, now back to 9.

“What does that have to do with?”my coworker asked.  I was carrying my bamboo.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Chinese numbers?”

Because obviously my life is ruled by Chinese numbers.

“You just have to be careful with it,” she said.  “It takes over.”

“You seem unhappy,” someone said.  Unhappy, and suffering, is not the same as inauthentic.  Like at the end of the “Muppet Movie,” “We did just what we set out to do.”  I set out to be a New Yorker, because I knew I was one, I am one, it fits.

Everything else has been disastrousish: deserts of loneliness, boiling panic on 7th Avenue, back on the “rescue” drugs, back on the antidepressants– not that I mind the antidepressants, so much, they did me so right before, and going off only taught me they had no ill effects, and that going off them was easy.  As long as sertraline and I fall back in love, I’ll stick with him forever.

You lose your job but have to keep doing it for months, you get bad doctor news, you sell hard your life’s work: a lot for a brain.

This time I knew to keep my eyes low, not to look up at tall buildings, of which there are, you know, a few, in Manhattan, and this time I was cool enough to walk through an Old Navy and look for t-shirts.  I was at 9.  Last time an H & M overstimulated me so bad I wanted to rip my chest open like Superman rips his suit off.  I was at 10.

When I said I wasn’t that bad, that with my first bout of anxiety I was afraid to leave the house, my therapist said, “Let’s not let it get that far this time.”  Right.

This round is much easier, as I understand the drugs, and the drugs help.  To do what I intended to do, just do it with medicine.  To not let my brain get the grooves carved that say, freak out here.

I have a brain that acts out this way.  And I don’t give in to it.  I still move to a new city, I don’t quit my stressful job, I don’t stop writing.  I get medicine.  I don’t know if therapy for this has helped me at all, but I like therapy, so I go.

I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me.  – Virginia Woolf, The Waves.

I  marched in the Mermaid Parade last weekend.  Marched?  Walked with everyone, stopped and started, blew bubbles, waved ribbons around.  I painted myself blue, which was much more work than I thought it would be, four big tubes of blue, four layers of paint.  I had trouble with my face.  I am experienced with Mardi Gras, and Mardi Gras always means masks.  My sister helped make my face something.  I didn’t know how to feel, there, handling the chiffon tails of my costume, the gangbusters of people, my first time at anything I am so self-conscious.  I wanted to be the sea.

Sequins are still being found on the bottoms of my roommates’ feet, and in the cat’s litter box.  For a minute I was the sea.

Image: “Ocean Swells,” Arthur B. Davies, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cobra and Peacock

imagesAs many of you know, my favorite methods for having a nervous breakdown include migraines and panic attacks.  Yesterday, with no warning I could note, my bedroom, where I was peacefully watching “The Cat Whisperer” with my cat, became a very frightening place.  Even the bathroom down the hall was much too scary a place to go, in fact, to be inside my body in that moment was so scary I could not take it.  It was too scary to open my eyes, too scary to think about anything I could think about, too scary to not have my cat there, too scary to move, too scary to keep my eyes closed.  Pills.

The headaches make you crazy, coming and going, make you frazzled and worried and worn from pain, and jittery from caffeine, and this tells your nervous system to kick it one notch up and go all the way because clearly my veins are poison and I have to somehow outrun myself.

While I wait for my medicine to work, I watch “30 Rock,” which I always, always find funny, and listen to people yammer on about Disney World on some podcast.  Sometimes I try to do some yoga or meditate, but it’s very, very hard, even though I am in practice from sane moments.

I set my timer for 30 minutes over and over.  After 30 minutes, you’ll feel better.  After this 30 minutes.  Definitely after this 30 minute.  Thirty minutes, the human pill-taking gap to be jumped.  Wait.  Thirty minutes.

Funny, I had tried to go to a therapy appointment on Thursday.    I did not realize even a cab would take so long to get uptown.  I thought a cab ride would be a luxury, but with my headache, the potholes were just as bad as the bumping on the subway, and anyway, I ended up fifteen minutes late.

I figured out the building was a funny atrium off a big apartment building, climbed some stairs, buzzed a buzzer.  It buzzed back, and I opened the door.  Inside was a black guy sitting next to a lamp.  “Hi,” he said.  “Hi,” I said.  We were surrounded by peachy walls and at least five doors without any labels.  Would the doctor be out to greet me?  Hadn’t she just let me in?  I took out my magazine and tried to read a little.

My migraine was getting stronger, chopping away at a fat noodle-shaped section on the left side of my head.  Over the weeks, it trades off sides, out of politeness, I guess.

There was a shelf with odd old dishes lined up.  There were a few magazines on a table.  The chairs were mismatched.  The ceiling was a little too low.

I thought, as I often have in therapists’ offices, that this was my chance to behave really crazy, do something really, really crazy, but I can never think of anything I want to do.  Jumping jacks?  Scream obscenities?  Interpretive dance?  I wasn’t in the mood for any of that.  (This idea actually applies to the entire city of New  York, if you want to know the truth.)

Five minutes.  I called the therapist.  No answer.  Huh.  I called again.  The guy left his phone and wallet on the table next to him, and went into a room I assumed to be the bathroom.  He was in there a while, though.  He was trusting me, a fellow crazy person, with his thisses and thats?  He was crazy.  I should take his phone and sell it out on 85th Street.  But my head hurt, and I just wanted to go home.

Finally I walked over to the water cooler in the corner, pulled myself a cup of water and grabbed a handful of Cheerios from my bag.  As I had been leaving school that day, someone pulled an extra free breakfast of Cheerios out and handed it to me.  “Can you eat these?”  “Sure,” I said.  I ate two bites of Cheerios and split an Excedrin in half and threw that down with the water.

This was ridiculous.  I walked out.  So I had been late.  I would try again.  I would  try again.  I went back down to 85h Street and got on a 4 train home.

After migraine-to-panic-attack on Saturday I called my family.  They told me all the healthy things your family should tell you, including, “Every time this happens, no matter how many times it happens, it’s awful.  But it goes away.”

“You could buy yourself a plane ticket,” they also said.  “And you could just come back here.”  My school year is almost over, and I could do that, very soon.  “I don’t want to,” I said.  “I want to be here.” I was surprised I was saying that.

I do love New York more than ever, more all the time, the summer smells of the street, even sweating here, looking for the shady side of the street, and I love that the lady at the shop where I bought safety pins wears a sari, and that the guy who runs the register says to me three times, “Bag?” until I understand and say no.  The comfort of the subway always doing the same thing.  The citiness of it which is more citiness than anywhere in America.  Listening to mom tell her son about why the people in the subway ad are working on a pretend person.  The old guys on Eastern Parkway who sit outside their building at a card table and play dominoes every day after work.  The first spring day I saw them out there, I was so happy, they were my robins.

I didn’t want to leave town, I just wanted to be sane again.

I’ve done this before, this migraine/panic attack cycle, and I’ve gotten out of it before, too.  Mostly it seemed to require patience, until it runs itself out.  This is my brain saying it’s had enough, and it knows I have time to fall apart now. Unfortunately it is right.  Four days of wrapping up at work, and my brain gets a solid two months to go as crazy as it wants.

Did I not do this big thing?  Did I not settle in enough?  Did I not make enough friends?  Did I not invest enough in my new place?  Did I not take good enough care of myself?  Did I go back home too much?  Did I spend enough time in my neighborhood?  Exercising?  Reading?  Writing?  Praying and yoga and stuff?  Was I too brave, or not brave enough?  Should I have been more outgoing?  Was I too outgoing with the wrong people?  How do you actually select your new life, your new friends, your new places, in a new place?  How does that happen?

What does it mean that this is even possible, people getting to know some new and other you when they haven’t had the right to know what you used to think of as the real you?  Although it was definitely not a continuous personality, the you turtle-shell shy fifteen to lazy, secretly mouthy seventeen to devilish twenty-five to half mule/half eagle of thirty-five.

Some time and place is required to let my brain chew on all these questions, and review, as it does in dreams, everything that has happened, what it might mean.  I feel my subconscious is about six months behind my consciousness, most of the time.  Which is what I intended to do some of with the therapist except I was late, and what I can, gentle reader, do here for free.  Tell, and review, or reveal, that I am peacock/cobra now, heavy, delicate, earthbound, defensive, symbol of unrequited love (of various sorts), sharp-tongued, and can I lie?  Liking the plumage.

IMG_0823“Peacock and Cobra,” James Prosek

Sanity

Immediate apology: this is not about going crazy.  It’s about getting sane.  I know that’s less interesting.

But: some people like to read about how sanity can return.  Especially the currently insane.  If you’re not insane, and think you could never be, or that no tough, clever person could ever go crazy, then you can stop here.  And if you think insanity is sexy and exciting, like Van Gogh was sexy and exciting, you should go read some poetry by some dude on acid.  Or try cutting off your ear.  Enjoy.

After several months of antidepressants,  my panic attacks and anxiety have settled down.  I dropped back to worrying, only occasionally, that I might get crazy-anxious.   Normal-anxious is like oh, I’m worried about these bills.  Crazy-anxious is like, oh, God, the walls are pressing in.  It’s definitely hard to understand if you’re not, you know, insane.  Six months ago, I never would have believed it.

It comforted me to refer to myself as insane, as sick.  It suggested that I could get sane, and well.   I have.  (Knock on wood.)

I told an old friend, “If I had done drugs with you back in the day, this wouldn’t seem so scary to me.  I would be used to having my head messed with.  It wouldn’t scare me so much.”  He agreed that this was a great loss.  My previous experiences with mind-altering substances weren’t good preparation for psychiatric drugs.  Because I am a ninny.

The first drugs that messed with my mind were actually for migraines.  One induced my first official panic attack.  Then, with another, I had that oft-mentioned “thoughts of suicide” thing.  Yeah, that’s unpleasant.  At least the tone of these thoughts didn’t sound like me (even crazier, right?).  So I felt sure that it was a side effect, and not something I’d brought to the party.

After such unpleasant experiences, I had to be in a lot of discomfort to try another drug.  It took months of wrestling crazy-variety anxiety for me to voluntarily add the anxiety of ingesting new chemicals.  I thought taking antidepressants would mean I was weak and crazy.  Well, I was weak and crazy.  Before and after I took the pills, I obsessively read about them.  I realized, to my chagrin and to my amusement, that you can’t really believe any of those drug reviews because they’re all written by crazy people.  Especially the reviews of anxiety drugs!  If leaving the house could scare me silly, how do you think I felt about pills from a bottle covered with stern official medical warnings?

(Aside: I love the website crazymeds.com , which is irreverent to the point of crudeness.  It’s the only place I found descriptions and explanations on this topic that left me wry rather than depressed.  Sample text: “If you’re in shock about or trying to understand the whole overwhelming deal of medications and being classified as some flavor of mentally interesting / mentally ill / batshit crazy, or want to know what this site is all about, just keep reading.  I know, the meds suck donkey dong.)

“The worst thing in the world would be to know that you were losing your mind,” someone told me.  “Not really,” I said.  “Been there.  Done that.”  Accepting you’re sick in the head, getting brave enough to be labeled as sick, and take scary pills.  Ugly clouds.  Two small silver linings: I have huge new empathy for the mentally ill (many of them are way worse off than me), and I’m no longer afraid of losing my mind.  Been there.  Done that.

Think; Are

I could tell you that your thoughts are just electrical and chemical activity. I could say that your thoughts make your personality, at least in part.  This would mean that tweaks to your electrical and chemical stew would change your personality.  In theory, you can handle that.

You might say, the real me is me when I’m sober.  I don’t have a brain tumor, or Alzheimer’s, or any other kind of dementia.  And before I drink those three mimosas, I am me in the morning.

Maybe.  We have Descartes to blame.  You think, you are?  How do you know?

My grandmother has started losing details and sequence.  At a family wedding, she asked over and over again, What were we doing next? The rehearsal dinner.  What’s a rehearsal dinner? Some of the time she seems perfectly with it.  Then her brain is all blurry in the “rehearsal dinner” section.  Sometimes her confusion makes her more irritable, sometimes it makes her more grateful.  Is she really a more grateful person, or a grouchier one?  Or do all these years at the end not “count”?

Once  a minister at our church had a heart attack.  He came back from the hospital a different person: grouchy, unable to remember anyone’s names.  Which person was he?  Before or after?

After three months of recurring panic attacks, I started taking antidepressants.  I’ve always hated the idea of psychiatric medication.  I’ve exercised hard and meditated and taken supplements and talked my neuroses out, begged and bargained with God and doctors, but I was still a mess.  Unable to stop a normal train of thought like, “What if I need to get out of here?” or “What if I freak out again?”  Normal brains just rattle on past those kinds of detours.  Mine required full effort to resist them.  It was exhausting.

Nine days into the antidepressants, I noticed that when I started to worry, I couldn’t worry with the same gusto.  I could worry for the normal minute,  I just couldn’t get myself inspired to follow the same detour.  I kind of wanted to, I had the instinct to, because my brain has gotten used to doing that.  I couldn’t, though, any more than I can cry on cue.

Emotions are electrical and chemical reactions. Thoughts are electrical and chemical events.  Me as cool customer and me as sick with anxiety are different personalities, different people, even.  I thought the former was normal me.  I think on the medication I feel like myself again.  But what do I know?

Flatness and Rounding

This week, Egyptians lost their patience, scaring themselves and the rest of us.  David Kato, a gay rights activist in Uganda, was beaten to death with a hammer at his own home.  And I ran away from the car wash like someone had a gun to my head.

I love the drive-through car wash, and I’ve always loved it.  Cozy, comforting noises.  Watching the soap glop around, and then the water droplets stretch and fly off.  After easing completely off my anti-anxiety meds, and feeling good all week, being in line for that car wash started to make my brain spaz out.  There was no escape from the line.  And then I’d be stuck in that car wash for five solid minutes.  No escape.  Once my car’s turn was up, my brain were as terrified of that car wash as I would normally be of a huge roller coaster.  Someone was with me, so we swapped places, and I went into the convenience store.

The Egyptians reminded me of the American revolution, how messy and violent it must have been.  Everyone who relies on tourist money must be worried.  It’s a big moment when your fear of change is overcome by your fear of staying the same.  Hearing the word Egypt, I see the painstakingly flat, neat figures of ancient paintings I love, but here Egyptians are round and vulnerable and vibrant and changing.  As of course they always have been– I’ve just spent a lot more time imagining ancient Egypt than modern Egypt.  Someday I hope to give them my tourist dollars, and get a look at both.

The display of gum at that gas station looked like Vegas to me.  The intensity of lights and sounds and smells with a migraine is similar.  I went into the bathroom, and it felt like a tomb.  The ceiling and walls pressed in on me.  Back outside, the sunset was dabs of pink clouds that looked way too pink.  I can’t believe anyone takes drugs on purpose to create these kinds of sensations.  I took a pill so the sky would stop pressing down, and the gum would look like gum again.

The Kato case got overtaken by the Egyptian crisis, in the news.  I find it troubling not just out of compassion for his suffering, but because demonizing homosexuality is an unethical and ineffective way to deal with our fear of sex.  Sex is scary and powerful and mysterious for everyone.  It doesn’t help to set up some particular group as the “perverts,” flat wrong.  It just makes us all more afraid.

I’ve mostly written about my panic attacks just so they doesn’t fester in me as something shameful.  My brain is afraid of car washes, airplanes, and movie theaters.  Whether that’s tragic or comic, I can be shamelessly objective in observing it, and try to stay round and vulnerable.  It helps to report and muse.  And my new meds may help, too.  My fear of changing is less than my fear of staying the same.