I really thought I had enough to be going on with when I thought depression was my only problem.
Once I came to understand that depression lies, I was able to get a grip on it. I mean, more or less. I gritted my teeth and held on through the valleys with the understanding that eventually, I would ride up to the peaks and be able to coast there for a while. That made things bearable. Well, that and, you know, sleeping a lot.
I’ve had thirty years of living with the depression diagnosis. I have flopped and fumbled and managed my way through an awful lot, but the point is: through. Through! I am managing, I am living, I am coping.
Anxiety, though? Goddamn.
Anxiety seizes up my throat and makes my knees shake when I try to sing in public. Anxiety makes me obsess over anything I have ever done wrong or even maybe said wrong ever and turns me from a perfectly pleasant person into a fearful wreck. Anxiety will not let me forget how I went from being an honor roll student to lucky to graduate in the top third of my high school class. Anxiety leaves me often unable to tell when people are joking. Anxiety makes it difficult to leave the house, to talk on the phone, and to shut the frick up when I know a conversation is going sideways and it is my fault.
And as of a few weeks ago, anxiety as made me cry in public in front of a several bestselling, awardwinning romance novelists. Awesome.
The only reason I didn’t just go take a nap in traffic is that it would have taken me twenty minutes just to get outside. I think I have mentioned the sheer ridiculous size of the Rio?
It’s honestly absurd. It all started with an elevator pitch. Or rather, how I didn’t have one. I’d been trying to think of one, but as the worst of my ex-boyfriends will tell you, I am bad at selling things. I am bad at snappy, quick descriptions. He got into Augusten Burroughs in spite of me, okay, that’s how bad I am at this.
Our marketing director stopped by while I was setting up my table at the RT Giant Book Fair, on her mission to pump each of us authors up and to check on our elevator pitches. “I don’t have one,” I admitted, and I know I was kind of frowning about it because even then I was still trying to think of something. “I’m hoping one will come to me today. I’ve been trying to think of anything that might work.”
“Run it by me. Just whatever you got.”
The first stage of a panic attack, for me, is that my brain freezes. This is inconvenient.
Then my lungs. Slightly more inconvenient.
“Well, okay,” I stuttered. “Um. Well. Let’s see. This is Craig, he’s a baker…”
Lame even to me. In the meantime my brain is kind of loosening up, if only so it can klaxon out abort abort abort and overrun any rational thought.
I am seventeen and I am at a QuizBowl meet and I have pressed the buzzer and I do not know the answer. I am eighteen and a returning spelling champion and I have just misspelled “parochial” in front of hundreds of my peers. I am nineteen and I am sitting in front of three professors and I have forgotten what little I know about playing the piano.
I am twenty-four and I have just been fired from my favorite job. I am twenty-seven and my partner of five years has just dumped me. I am thirty-eight and my cat has just died in my arms. I am every terrible moment in my life and I have done nothing right, ever, and —
“Okay, wait, this isn’t supposed to upset you, no, don’t panic, it’s okay, I can see it –”
I regained my breathing, and I chilled out my brain, but I had absolutely no control over the tears that began Niagara-ing down my cheeks, damn it. Damn it all. I have never been able to not cry when my brain decides it’s time for waterworks, never, not once, so I do this ridiculous thing where I am assuring everyone I am fine, but I am crying. I am apologizing, and I am smiling, and I am nodding and saying I am so fine, this is just fucking anxiety and I am sorry, but really, I am okay, it’s just crying. I hope my mascara isn’t running and I swear I will get my doctor to medicate me if it is the last thing I do, but I am fine. It’s perfectly okay that none of us has tissues. It’s fine.
I am having a panic attack and I cannot stop crying but I promise you, I am fine.
I am not fine.
The rational part of my brain had already gotten to the point where it knew the elevator pitch situation was not going to kill me. I think years of dealing with the depression thing unmedicated kind of helped to hone my ability to swiftly get a grip on things. The irrational part of my brain, though, that’s what everyone sees because it’s even faster. Oh no! We are so dumb! We are so useless and we fail at everything and why do you even try, ever? That’s the part that cries, I guess. So part of me is trying to get a stranglehold on dignity and put myself back together and the other part is just so embarrassed by everything that it just can’t stop being upset about being embarrassed, but being upset is what ended up causing the embarrassment in the first place?
I love a vicious cycle of illogic. Love it!
(oh hell no I do not)
I’d always feared having an unstoppable panic attack in public and here I was having one whether I liked it or not.
(spoiler alert: hated iiiiiiiit)
People are staring – I am a nearly forty year old woman, I pay my own bills and tend to a garden and I hold down a good job and I cannot cope with simple questions. I am an object of pity, and failure, and shame, sharply aware that people I like and admire are seeing me in this horrible state of weakness. My failure is acute and very, very public.
But I survived it, right? Tissue was found, chocolate given to me, a bottle of water provided. My eyeliner did not run. I tossed my hair back and put on a big smile and I talked to people. I sold a book. I signed things.
I was furious.
I didn’t ask for this. I know, none of us do, but we never feel the injustice of it as hard as we do post-attack. I didn’t ask for this. I don’t like feeling humiliated, I don’t like being a spectacle. I just want to be normal, to understand the absolute okay-ness of everything without the layover in Sob City. I can get back up and brush myself off and keep going but why should I have to. Why does it have to be so goddamn hard to just live life? Why is it always, always, always a clench and struggle way of being?
I don’t know.
I just don’t.
I got through the book fair (surprisingly fun once the horrible bit was out of the way, so I guess it was good that I fell to pieces at the beginning of it all), gathered up my things, and that’s when I went to pick up my sweater from the Hard Rock and go drop too much money at the Lush store. Also: ice cream. That is the important part, is the ice cream. I got a very large scoop, all wrapped up in a crepe, and I went to find a table.
I sat in the mall and I thought about it, about all of it. Every excruciating moment.
I thought about the humiliation and the way my brain can pull up a shocking number of my worst memories in a matter of seconds. I thought about how I absolutely detest crying uncontrollably at the drop of a hat. I thought about how my brain just freezes up and my ears fill with white noise and how I stop breathing.
I thought about how I don’t like the anxiety, and how I need to do something about it, because nobody should have to go on like this, and then I thought about how in the end…it happened. The thing I had been dreading and fearing since the A word got attached to me, the public panic attack, it happened. If I got nothing else out of the day, I got the fact that this can never happen to me for the first time ever again. It can always happen again, but to hell with it, it’ll happen and I will do what I can to pick myself up and move on because that is all I have ever done my entire life.
And as I said on Twitter that same day, well, this is why it was important to me to write a main love interest in a romance novel who was dealing with undiagnosed anxiety (and emotional PTSD but that’s a problem for another day). To show that we can make it, that we can make the stupid panicked decisions and keep ourselves walled up and be too afraid of failure to function and we can still be loved. We can get through. It isn’t fair, it isn’t what we asked for. People will call us drama queens and pity us and be angry at us and wonder why we can’t just sack up and handle things. Our own brains will do this to us. And we will be hot messes, we will cry and scream and stop breathing and maybe sometimes get stupendously drunk just to shut things up for a while and we can still be loved.
And we will totally try to cringe a little less when the next panic attack happens and the newest memory our brain dredges up is the one where we are sobbing uncontrollably in front of USA Today Bestselling Author Hope Ramsay.
Maybe that one is just me.