Well, you know I have a love, a love for everyone I know.
And you know I have a drive to live. I won’t let go.
But can you see its opposition comes rising up sometimes?
That its dreadful imposition comes blacking in my mind?
The first time I was prescribed medication for anxiety, I was seven.
In the middle of a math test, I began to feel funny: lightheaded and sick to my stomach. I told my teacher, Mrs. Hamilton, and she put her braceleted arms around me and said my heart was beating as fast as a hummingbird’s. I noticed she looked scared when she told the other kids to stay in their seats until she got back, and then she walked me to the nurse’s office.
That wasn’t the first time I’d had these strange spells, which came on quickly and frightened me. At their worst, they made me think I might be dying. So although we didn’t have a lot of money, my mom took me to a specialist for tests. The doctors sent me to school with a monitor that recorded my heart activity throughout the day. This made me feel kind of special, and at recess I unbuttoned the top of my shirt so the other kids could see the wires and electrodes adhered to my chest with sticky patches.
Nothing unusual happened while I wore the monitor, so other tests followed, and the doctors eventually diagnosed me with anxiety attacks and put me on a very low dosage of medication. I wasn’t sure what anxiety was, but I was glad I wasn’t dying, and glad it could be treated.
Because I hadn’t yet mastered swallowing pills, my mom tried to hide the pink capsules in spoonfuls of ice cream. Sometimes I still gagged on them, but I felt relief when they finally slid down my throat.
If I’m sick, I know it immediately when I wake up. I don’t know why it’s come on, and I don’t know how long until it will pass. I close my eyes again and inspect myself with my mind, how I’m feeling on the inside, as tenderly as a pediatrician presses his fingertips against a toddler’s abdomen. I ask myself, Where does it hurt? And my self answers: here, here, and here. Everywhere.
As a kid, I looked happy and well-adjusted. I loved telling jokes and did well in school and had lots of friends. My family had its problems, but we loved each other, and I never felt unsafe or neglected. But looking back now, I see ways in which I was atypical, like how in kindergarten I had a locket and would write the name of my parents on a scrap of paper and fold it up tiny and close it inside, because I was afraid my parents might die while I was at school and I’d need something to remember them by. I could bring myself to tears just thinking about it.
Music made me cry too. I listened to “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and a George Jones tape over and over on my Playskool cassette player. I would sit and weep at these songs, which seemed overwhelmingly sad, and look out my window at the trees lining our backyard. They seemed sad too. So did the sky, and the river, and the road.
Everything hurt me.
I get up and take a shower, because I have to. My body feels heavier than normal and more fragile at the same time. When I shampoo my hair, I might try to shed a few tears to relieve some pressure in my chest and abdomen.
I try to eat something bland and innocuous, like a banana, before I leave for the day, and sometimes I take Dramamine to help keep my stomach settled on the bus. On the walk to my stop, I try to focus on what is beautiful around me, and on all that is going right in my life. I tell myself they’re not so sad, the slow traffic and the wet train tracks and the sagging bridge. I tell myself the people waiting for the bus with me are not sad: that man has not just lost his wife, and that woman is not worried about how she is going to pay the rent or about how her mother hurt her when she was a child. I tell myself the way I am seeing the world is distorted, like I am looking into a carnival mirror that doesn’t change the way everything looks but changes the way everything feels.
It’s like this all day. My coworkers or students may not know anything is wrong; they may mention that I look tired or notice I seem irritable. By the time I get home, I’m exhausted. When I go to sleep I pray that in the morning I’ll feel normal again.
My doctors didn’t want to keep me on anti-anxiety medication for long, so I went off it soon after I began taking it, after my attacks subsided. I did well for a while. Then, in fifth grade, my symptoms returned, but with greater force.
The anxiety was joined by something I couldn’t identify then but now know as depression. It felt heavier and more sinister. My body buzzed with it, painfully. I cried often, without apparent cause. I couldn’t eat without feeling like I would vomit. I didn’t want to move from my bed, begged not to have to go to church or school. I began wishing I could go to sleep and never wake up, because sleep was the only time I felt relief. When I told this to my mom, she decided it was time for me to see a professional.
I met with therapists, but I don’t remember much of this except how they had me draw pictures and play board games, which I didn’t see the point in. I felt like they weren’t being straight with me and weren’t treating me like an intelligent person, and part of me began to suspect they could do nothing for me. After our sessions, they would talk to my mom, and on the drives home, she seemed as frustrated and at a loss as ever.
Eventually the pain became overwhelming. I cried constantly, refused to work at school, and begged my mom to find someone who could help me. After a particularly difficult day, she and my dad drove us an hour away from our house and admitted me to a children’s psychiatric hospital, leaving me under their care for a month.
Again, I don’t remember much from being there. I remember there was a black kid my age named Darryl Strawberry, like the baseball player. I remember my psychiatrist told me to think of birthdays as trips around the sun and that cracking my knuckles wouldn’t give me arthritis later in life like I feared.
Although surely this happened, I do not remember him giving me pointers on how to deal with my anxiety and depression when it arose. I remember feeling like I was letting him down in some way because I couldn’t give him an outward cause for my condition. I hadn’t been abused, hadn’t witnessed anything horrible. I was simply always anxious and sometimes uncontrollably sad. I felt like he began to suspect I might just be a kid looking for attention.
My mom started having anxiety attacks around this time, too. She had one, in fact, while talking to my psychiatrist, and he told me about it later. “This is so hard on your mother,” he said. “Think about what you’re doing to her.”
I also remember the fire alarm going off in the middle of the night and all of us gathering in the parking lot in our pajamas in the freezing rain. I picked up one of the smaller children, a little girl who was skinny as a pin and wearing only a thin nightgown and no shoes. Later, I was chastised, because there was a strict no-touching policy among patients.
I remember that the air conditioning blew on us inside even though it was January, and I couldn’t figure out how to get the hot water to work in the shower but was so timid that I never worked up the nerve to ask, so I took cold showers until the day I was discharged.
Every night before bed I take a pill, and it’s the same type and dosage I’ve taken for a long time.
All my closest friends know I take medicine, and while some of them can’t imagine themselves making the decision to take mood-altering drugs, I tell them honestly that my medication doesn’t make me feel any less myself. I never feel slow or numb; to the contrary, I still have many days where I feel too much. But mostly, I just feel like myself, which is exactly how I want to feel.
I know that medicine doesn’t always help people who have severe anxiety and depression, but it does me. I know too that I’ve been taking it for so long that there’s a chance I could taper off of it and be okay, at least for a while, but the risks involved scare me, so at my checkups, I talk to my doctor, and we decide together what to do. So far the decision has been to keep at it.
I am so thankful for the existence of this medicine that makes it possible for me to be happy. I am so thankful that when I swallow it, I could cry.
When I got sick for the third time, I did not feel or act like myself.
It began just before I got married in my senior year of college, and then worsened afterward. I started vomiting, or wanting to, each night, and because I’d just started having sex and had heard morning sickness could occur in the evening, I wondered if I was pregnant. But I wasn’t.
The crying bouts came back, and they were longer and more violent. I would wake at night and pace and sob. I wouldn’t let anyone touch me and wouldn’t respond to anyone who talked to me, but I did respond, audibly, to the voice I heard in my head. This wasn’t a schizophrenic voice — merely my own internal voice. But it was very persistent, and it was telling me some pretty bleak stuff about how I should feel about myself. It told me I was horrible, damaged, an abomination. It told me that other people hated me and I should hate myself too.
These spells as I came to call them (this word felt appropriate because when they occurred, I felt like I was not in control of my actions, like someone had spelled me) became more frequent, and my behavior more erratic. I once jumped out of a car at a red light and ran down the street and hid — in a church parking lot, ironically enough. I threw books across a room at someone I loved. I locked myself in the bathroom and sobbed until I had no more tears in me. I once ended up in the emergency room, dehydrated from crying and vomiting. I hurt myself. I behaved wildly and irrationally, like an animal in pain, which is what I was.
My poor new husband, unable to help me, eventually called my mother. Because she herself has suffered from mental illness her whole life, she responded in a straightforward manner and took me to our family doctor immediately.
I sat and tried to answer his questions, tears dropping onto that thin paper that covers examining tables. After a while, he told me that he was going to start me on antidepressants and refer me to a psychiatrist. “This has been a cycle for you since you were a child,” he said. “You have a chemical imbalance in your brain, and should take medication to regulate it, just as people with thyroid disorders or diabetes need to take medicine. You will probably need to do that for the rest of your life.”
Although I didn’t like the idea of being dependent on medicine, I was relieved to have the doctor give me hope that I could feel better, feel normal, again one day.
I studied poetry in grad school and it isn’t lost on me how many great poets were addicts or suicides: both common ways to deal with severe psychic pain. I don’t have to name them because you already know who they are, and you know the the musicians, the visual artists, and the actors, too.
I bristle, though, when I see this romanticized, or considered a necessity for artmaking. I won’t lie: sometimes I wonder if I would be a writer if I weren’t like I am. If maybe I would’ve become an elementary school teacher or a lawyer, chosen a profession that was happier or more demanding.
I do my best work when I am well. When I am sick, I feel like I need to write as an outlet for the pain I feel inside myself and think I see in the world, but I am often too lethargic or anxious to do the work. It’s not until I’m feeling better that I’m able to get things done.
I’ve learned that I have to be gentle with myself, and I know that I can’t always do things other people can do. I must actively manage stress. I must avoid alcohol. I need at least eight hours of sleep and regular meals, low-impact exercise, and plenty of time with people I love who make me happy.
The relationship between body, mind, and spirit is undeniable and mysterious. I try to respect that and not judge myself too harshly, and I try to forgive those who might judge me without understanding what serious anxiety and depression is like.
Although this condition is something I can’t remember living without, I am still growing in how I think about it and deal with it. For instance, I have never written about it before now. I’ve chosen to do so now because there’s still a great stigma that surrounds mental illness, and I’ve found real comfort in reading about the experiences of other people. I would love to be even a small comfort to someone else. I want others who might have similar stories to know they aren’t alone.
I worry sometimes about my future, and whether my condition will stay the same or worsen, and what that might mean for my career and family. I worry that maybe I shouldn’t have kids. I worry that I will alienate myself from others, or that the people closest to me will tire of my periodic, deep, inconsolable grief.
But I can’t live there. The closest I have to a personal motto is paulo maiora canamus, the opening line of Virgil’s fourth eclogue, which Wordsworth used as an epigraph for his “Intimations of Immortality.” It means, “Let us sing of somewhat higher things.”
Why we think of up as good and down as bad, I’m not sure. That directionality seems arbitrary, but everyone knows that heaven is above us and hell is below. When we are sad, we are feeling closer to hell than to heaven. We are feeling low. We are feeling down.
I think we must try, though, through our artmaking or loving or any of the myriad actions we perform in a day, to “sing of somewhat higher things.” I love that modifier “somewhat” there — it is forgiving, and it suggests that while we may not rise to the height that we want, we can at least go farther than this. We can elevate our thoughts, our feelings, our moods — our brokenness — through our singing, and hopefully, at the end of it all, find ourselves closer to heaven than not.
Dyana Herron is a writer and teacher from Cleveland, TN. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University and currently lives in Philadelphia, PA.