I was six when I had my first panic attack.
I’d gone back to my grandmother’s house after church on a Sunday night, something I did often when I was young. On this particular night, the church service we attended focused on heaven—on what it would be like to spend eternity with Jesus and the angels. But instead of being comforted, I was afraid. I didn’t like the idea that forever had no end, none at all, and I felt suffocated by the idea of being in one place forever. It didn’t matter that Jesus or his angels would be there, that the streets would be paved of gold, or that there were be no more sorrow or pain there. In fact, I could not imagine how it would be possible not to experience pain or loss or sorrow if I had to stay in one place for always, especially if those people I loved didn’t make it there, too.
That night, as I crawled into bed beside my grandmother, I started to cry. She asked me why I was crying, what she could do tell help. And so I told her. I told her that I was afraid of forever, that something never-ending was so far beyond my comfort zone and so enormous as to be horrifying. She told me I needn’t be afraid, of course, and somehow she soothed my fears enough for me to go to sleep.
That was, really and truly, my first indication that I was different…Different from my family, different from my friends and the other kids my age. I thought about things they did not, or at least if they did consider the things I did, they were not bothered by them.
This would become commonplace for me—being troubled by things that did not seem to trouble other people.
I was 13 when I threatened to commit suicide. I wrote a note to a friend, told him about how sad and lonely I felt, how I thought it might be better if I just didn’t exist.
I don’t remember if he meant to show anyone the note, but I do remember that one of my teachers found it. She went to the principal’s office with the note, and my parents were called in. They didn’t understand why I was so sad—but of course, I didn’t really understand either.
I was taken to my first counseling sessions after that. We had to drive half an hour to the closest therapist, because our little town didn’t have any mental health professionals. I don’t actually remember much about the sessions, though I was certainly more than old enough to have a good memory of them. Mostly what I remember is that it didn’t help much, but I pretended that it did.
I spent the rest of middle and high school hiding most of my anxiety and sadness, though there were still times it would rise to the top. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 17, and I had to take the test three times. Mostly, I was too nervous when someone else was in the car—but I also just hated driving. It frightened me. The bad stuff was usually explained away as PMS, or maybe just because I was a teenager, or maybe I was too emotional.
When I got to college, everything exploded. I took my first drink of alcohol during my freshman year, and I found that my thirst was difficult to satisfy. I drank too much. I smoked too much. I was too promiscuous. I dated men and women.
The social club I’d joined (which was much like a sorority) ordered me into counseling. I went to a session or two, but I wasn’t really ready to talk, and in any case the focus seemed to be on how much I was drinking instead of why I was drinking so much. The club told me I couldn’t come back without going to counseling. I told them to fuck off, and I spiraled into more drinking, more sex, more fights with my friends and my off-and-on again boyfriend.
I’d reached a point where I felt anxious all the time, and I cried a lot. I saw a psychiatrist, who put me on anti-depressants for the first time and gave me a name for what I was feeling…Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
I always managed to keep good grades, and somehow I found myself preparing to go to graduate school, and then actually going, making a move that I promised myself would help me change things. I felt better than I had in ages.
When I was 24 and in the final stages of grad school, I returned home from a summer abroad and very soon thereafter conceived my son. There was pressure on all sides for me to marry before the baby was born—pressure from the people who had been helping me pay bills while I was in school and who would be helping me while he was a baby, pressure that I couldn’t ignore.
And so, at 24 and four months pregnant, I married my off-and-on boyfriend and we moved in together. Our son was born 8 weeks early because I had preeclampsia, and he had to spend 5 weeks in the NICU. After pregnancy and 6 months of pumping-breast-milk-because-the-kid-wouldn’t-latch, I returned to my anti-depressant regimen under the care of a general practitioner.
My son’s father and I didn’t live together a full year before I asked him to move out. The relationship had always been tempestuous, and we knew we did not want to raise our child with both of us so unhappy, so we didn’t.
I returned to graduate school to work on a PhD, and I moved back into my parents’ house. It was only an hour from my university, and my retired mother was willing to stay with my son during my classes and while I was teaching. I stopped drinking, and I mostly stopped smoking. I tried counseling again, but the cognitive behavioral therapy approach to my anxiety didn’t work. I continued on with the anti-depressants and the anti-anxiety medication cocktail, and it mostly worked.
At 32, I live in New Orleans with my child and my second husband, an amazing man who I met at a birthday party for a college friend….Her older brother. I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink very often either. I left graduate school over a year ago.
But not long ago, I admitted to myself and my husband that the anti-depressants had stopped working, that they hadn’t been working for a while. And so I went to a new doctor. He gave me a new word for crazy: bipolar type 2 disorder. Looking at the criteria, the diagnosis is a far better one than MDD or GAD. The medication he prescribed works better. And so here I am, trying to get better.
Over the years, I’ve been called overly-empathetic, pathetic, emotionally unstable, emotionally manipulative, too emotional, bitchy, and a laundry list of other things that were code words for crazy–because I felt too keenly, cried too easily, and fought too hard. Because I panicked.
This new word is a better one, but a harder one to come to terms with. Another word for crazy. A real word. A difficult word. It’s not even a code word for crazy—but maybe that’s good, because I’m finished with code words.