This week I try my best to describe what it felt like to have a panic attack, how our conceptions of reality depend on other humans (and representations of humans take Ted Lasso has a panic attack), and how resilience is not sustainable. But the main point is that people are stressed out. If you are stressed out, you are definitely not alone.
Something that I have been thinking about lately is how things can feel drastically different than you expect them to. Take falling in love for the first time. Nothing can really prepare you for whatever that feels like for many reasons; it is always different and there are so many expectations that shape our understanding. Humans understanding of the world seems to be shaped by other humans.
I cannot remember my first experiences with the idea of a mental breakdown. What that would feel like. How it would happen. I saw my mother wrestle with her mental health. I am sure she was under extreme pressure at times but the most I could remember was her perhaps losing her temper. Saying things she might not have meant after some time passes. I saw here keep going. She is resilient. She is so strong. When I came home with a lip stud, she just cried.
A couple of months ago, our couples therapist recommended that we start doing something together that we both enjoyed. That we could do safely in the pandemic. That didn’t take work. Josh and I had been feeling distant. Both of our focus was on getting as much done and digging our way out of an endless hole of uncertainty.
The one thing we agreed on was watching Ted Lasso together. It was a weird escape that we both enjoyed. Ted Lasso, in case you, like me, are totally in a bubble of fog, is a show on Apple TV about an American football coach from Kansas who gets hired to coach professional football in the UK. He knows nothing about soccer.
If you can make it through two episodes, you will be hooked. Ted is painfully charming. His charm comes directly from his genuine kindness and extreme care. Ted to me values emotional connection and he uses that as a means to win. The ultimate goal for Ted is not goals, but for his team to feel good. Creating tension throughout the show about what it means to win. And letting go of expectations. It is interesting to contrast his style of “mental health” care with the more formal practice of psychotherapy that they do in the show.
The reason I bring this up is that Ted has a series of panic attacks. It is slightly unclear what triggers them. Or maybe it is clear, and I fell asleep during that part. In the first attack, linked below, Ted is watching a performance at a nightclub when they focus on something happening to his hands. And his senses dull. He cannot concentrate on the performance. He walks through the people and out into the night crying. There is a dizzy feeling ever-present.
When I saw this at first, I didn’t understand it. Or I understood it as a representation of what a stereotype of a panic attack would look like. Understanding the language of semiotics and moving on. Focusing on the areas of the plot that were of interest to me at the moment—the relationship of Sam and Rebecca (if I remember correctly). I thought this mental health bit was not interesting. That there were so many more things going on that I wish they would focus on. Thinking about it in the past, for me, I don’t know if I was interested in Ted’s layers. I just wanted him to coach. And bake biscuits.
For a couple of months now, perhaps since M was born, who knows, I don’t have a record, I have been really concerned with forgetting. Grappling with the strong desire to know everything and the reality that I couldn’t remember what anything felt like.
I talked to my therapist about it. I told her I was not sleeping at night. I would wake up and worry about early-onset dementia. I would see a person who was homeless and have an overwhelming fear that the lines that separated our lives were tenuous at best. Finding myself crying at the playground. And if I lost my mind, which I was sure was happening, who would care for M? No one would ever love her like me. This is a reality that is both beautiful and sad. It is not to say that people don’t love her, that she is not lovable, but there is a reality in the massiveness and devotion that I have for her that would be very hard to replicate. It is my hope that she experiences all types of love, including mine, for as long as I am able.
The fog crept in slowly. I didn’t notice it; I was too focused on just getting by. Can we ever really be aware of what is going on inside our bodies? It seems like a function that evolution deemed somewhat important but not wholly. Perhaps it would be just too much information for us to handle? I would argue its usefulness. But the vastness of time and space didn’t ask me. Or I was not around when decisions were being made on what and why our bodies are the way they are.
Two weeks ago, I forgot M’s evening treatment. I had had a really nice Halloween. M was dressed as a cat and we went trick or treating in Berkeley. It felt almost normal. (for some reason, I started crying looking at the photo below, I understand that it won’t have the same emotional resonance for you, but it feels like a joy I wish I could exist in constantly.) It was a square block of homes that had people standing outside as we walked as a parade around the block collecting candy that M would never eat but prized with her life.
As we drove home on the evening of Oct 31, I remember pushing back the feelings of worry about a book deadline on Nov 4th, a slow October sales month where we barely broke even, the desperate need for a home or space for People I’ve Loved, an open pipe leak under our house, the loss of a baby who I can’t think about without wallowing, and an exhibition opening on Dec 11th. Along with my ever-present health worries about M and the need to put in the work with my partner.
When I woke up Monday morning, I couldn’t finish a thought. I was dizzy. I got out of the shower with the soap still on my body. I walked downstairs, realized that I had forgotten to do M’s treatment and her night meds. I started to rally the morning meds, and suddenly I couldn’t feel my fingers. In my head, I tried to communicate with my hands. Instead of the conversation flowing naturally, it was like my hands just were not listening. The pills slipped through my nails, the tiny bits of meds scattering on the floor. How many pills were in that cup? Did I count 4? How many milliliters of famotidine do we do again? How many times do we make this a day? I had no answers. Nothing came. I do this every day. And nothing came. I forgot it all.
In the past, the information always comes. I need this information to come. To keep the system, our family, running.
I kept telling myself to snap out of it, but I had lost control of my mind. I was losing touch with my body, losing touch with reality. I could not control my thoughts. My neuropathways seemed out of line.
I asked my mother-in-law and partner to double-check the meds for me. To keep me in check. I told them that unfortunately, they couldn’t rely on me. I asked kindly. Something was happening that I had never experienced before. I wrote my psychologist. I told her I had lost my mind. I was having trouble with basic functions like breathing. She wrote back saying that she thought I was having a panic attack. I wrote her back saying that I needed a neurologist. That I had to get to the hospital.
At that moment, I couldn’t breathe, control my fingers, or finish a thought. I sat in front of my computer for two hours having the same debate in my head: You need to go to the hospital but there is nothing they can do. You need to go to the hospital but there is nothing they can do. There was so much to do and I could only have that conversation with myself over and over. I was convinced that the symptoms I had were the loss of mind—the beginning of the end of my cognition.
At lunch, I caved and took a Xanax, feeling like it couldn’t hurt. I typically don’t like taking them because I get foggy. So I was scared. I also thought that the physical manifestation of this constellation of symptoms was not related to anxiety. That it was something else.
And relief came. For almost exactly 6 hours. That was the first data point that I trusted that told me that this experience was rooted in anxiety.
Is everyone feeling this way right now? I asked Instagram. Feeling like it must not be just me. That the collective trauma of Covid must be weighing heavily on others if I feel its pull. And if you are there right now, I am sorry. I wish I could hold you with the softness and tenderness that you deserve. I feel that resilience can only take us so far if we don’t deal with the underlying pain.
This trauma, this panic, doesn’t feel like I thought it would. But I should have known. Now, as I rewatch Ted Lasso, I can relate to his experience in a comically parallel way. What I mean by that is: Who knows if our experiences actually were alike or if my mind is confirming my bias to help me make sense of things? The fact that weeks before having this experience I watched him go through it with little thought… it feels ironic that I was watching the show to escape the inescapable.
98% of people answered “yes.” I asked what it felt like for you, and you kindly answered:
The result is, and I am still coming to terms with this, I am going to have to let someone down.
There is no easy way out of this stress cycle. If you know a way, let me know.
Next week, I will present my exit plan.