Sunday, March 27, 2022

On A Scale of 1-10

I don't know what it's like to not be stressed. My anxiety runs high about one thing or another at any given moment. I come by it honestly, if not unnecessarily.

I haven't lived a day without heartburn since I was 13 and probably earlier but I didn't know what it was. I popped Tums like candy for years until I discovered ranitidine over the counter. They say that's going to give me cancer, so they removed it from store shelves. Now I take famotidine every morning. I don't know the difference, but it does the same thing. I don't worry about the potential cancer, surprisingly.

My cuticles are the longest sufferers in my anxious state. I pick at them until they bleed. I cannot stop. I do this in moments of alarm, when there seems to be nothing concrete, when I'm uncertain, in public and in private. So pretty much all the time. You can always tell when it's been a rough week.

I fall asleep with the television on. If it's too quiet, my brain does not stop replaying the day's events. I will assess every single decision until I've convinced myself it was right or wrong. The TV gives me something to focus on. It has to be something I've seen before, otherwise I pay too much attention and I get wound up about losing sleep.

I take responsibility for my quirks. I don't eat and exercise like I should, and I admit my nocturnal rituals may be more habitual than helpful. I blame my mother for my abysmal cuticle care. I deal with it all.

But sometimes the famotidine wears off too soon:  too much day, not enough antacid. Sometimes I don't have a Band-Aid in my purse: too much cuticle blood, not enough first aid. Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and the TV has already turned itself off: too much nighttime, not enough distraction.

On a scale of 1-10, I learned to live life hovering close to a ten at an early age. I vacillated between "this is normal" and "what's wrong with me" for years. At slumber parties I would be in awe of girls who could fall asleep in silence. I envied women with healthy, pink cuticles, and hid my own in shame. I asked myself why I am the only one among my friends to develop a discerning palate for reflux remedies? Not all antacids are created equal.

Some people have no problems unwinding. It will take me days to come down from a high anxiety event. It will weigh heavily on me.

All this I accepted as part of who I am. But, in January 2021 the anxiety reached a peak that sent me to an edge I had not seen before. It scared me.

During a webinar for journalists reporting from potentially dangerous situations my mind hit a brick wall. It's an off-hand comparison I've made hundreds of times in moments of fatigue, but this time it felt like my thoughts hit a wall and would not move forward or beyond what I was hearing.

U.S. Capitol riots. Coronavirus pandemic. Protests in the streets. Journalists targeted. Bullet proof vests and flack jackets. Media credentials weaponized. It was too much. My entire body rejected it.

My brain began spinning like a boat with no pilot. My heart raced, dizziness and nausea washed over me, and I thought I would vomit. I tried deep breaths. I tried slowing my heart rate. I put my head down. It felt like more than one of my worst fears coming true: I thought I was having a heart attack, which would leave me laid out on the floor in an overweight heap in an office that wasn't even mine.  And no one would see me. Or worse, someone would see me. I couldn't decide which would be more mortifying.

Moments like that are a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was terrified of dying on an office floor in front of my coworkers, wondering if any of them actually knew CPR or whether any of them would actually perform CPR on me. Those fears turned into a higher heart rate, shallower breathing, and anxiety that skyrocketed past a ten. Round and round it went. The numbers on my FitBit were proof.

I tried to convince myself my blood sugar was to blame. Maybe it was too low. Maybe it was too high. Maybe it was something I could manage, control or wait out. But in my heart I knew it wasn't my heart or my blood. It was my head. I somehow understood that I did not need to be alone at that moment, so I shuffled next door to my boss's office.

"I am not okay right now," my voice shook, "I've never had a panic attack before, but I think if I did this is what it would feel like." More nausea.

My boss cared for me, allowing me to sit in his quiet office for as long as I needed. He brought me apple juice. I didn't know what to do with myself so I announced I was going home. He drove me there and made me promise to call my doctor. I made an appointment for one week later.

I worked from home for the next few days which left me an even bigger wreck at the end of each day. I slept on the couch because it allowed me to fold my body up tighter around my anxiety. I never turned the television off and simply looked for other programming when HGTV reached the end of its broadcast day at 2 a.m. I reasoned with my brain to stop worrying about anything and everything that was out of my control. No such luck.

I called every morning to see if my doctor could get me in sooner. No luck there either.

Finally, I found myself masked and topless, lying on a cold table with electrodes stuck to my chest. I held my breath for the EKG. I breathed deeply for the stethoscope. I answered many questions. My doctor told me I did not have a cardiac event.

"Then we need to talk about something else because I can't live like this," I begged through my mask.

Selfie in my doctor's office

Then and there, my doctor prescribed Citalopram. I was only vaguely familiar with SSRIs. Citalopram treats anxiety and depression. She also hooked me up with an antihistamine "until the SSRI builds up in your system". It takes a little time, but I swear within 24 hours of the first tiny pill I was already feeling better. Maybe that was all in my head too, but it didn't matter. Results mattered.

That same day I timidly returned to work. I felt mentally weak and childlike, even embarrassed for my display of leaving the week prior. I felt like any sudden movements or loud noises would send me spiraling. I made it through that day with what I call my Spotify "peaceful mix" in my headphones. Each day, each pill helped me get to a much better head space. And in the weeks that followed, I talked with several people who helped me get more comfortable in that new place.

I have not always done a very good job of protecting my mental health. I, like many journalists, compartmentalize the things I see and hear every day. I make light of terrible things. I mutilate my cuticles in lieu of drinking. I get short-tempered. I also try to rise to the occasion in high stress situations and lead teams of people through them as best I can.

I know my mental health has changed dramatically since January 2021. Now, I protect it. I treat it. I pull the plug on what's not working. I make no apologies for my personal time and what brings me peace and joy.

I also still sleep with the TV on, take heartburn medication daily and turn my cuticles into raw meat. I do my best.

On a scale of 1-10 I'd say I do what I can.

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