I did something this Friday that I haven’t done in years. I went bar-hopping.
To be clear: there were only two bars, and I took a break to hunt Pokemon in between them. But I can’t remember the last time I went to more than one bar, let alone more than one loud bar, within a twenty-four hour window. I’d like to say it’s because I’m blossoming into a social butterfly, but it’s actually because I’m medicated.
I had a panic attack a few months ago. My mom took me to dinner at this restaurant she loved, and happy hour was in full swing by the time we got there. I was already in an off mood, my pulse hard in my ears and my temper escalating. The long wait for a table combined with a neglectful hostess stoked my anxiety into a flame, and when we were finally seated at a booth near the bar, I was oversensitive to the roar of the packed room. I asked my mom if we could leave but she mistook my wild eyes for me just being difficult, and I started to cry behind my menu. I couldn’t explain why I was so upset. It didn’t make sense to her, but it didn’t make me either: it was just a restaurant. I didn’t have the language for how I couldn’t even read the menu.
My anxiety has been a slow, steady drip since I turned twenty, increasing gradually enough for me not to take it seriously. For a long time it seemed normal to be anxious after a few rough years—a herpes diagnosis, an emotionally abusive relationship, graduating college, family changes. Surely some fried nerves were a rational reaction to the struggles of young adulthood. My other friends had real anxiety: sleep problems, intense fear, seemingly irrational insecurity, panic attacks where they couldn’t breathe or talk or eat or think. What I had was… Spoiled brat syndrome. Picky eating. Worry. Restlessness. Pain.
I had my first panic attack the day an article was written about me in the Washington Post. It’s a story I’ve told before: I sat on a curb in the West Village and sobbed on the phone to my ex-boyfriend. It makes a cute anecdote. But the long version is that when I still didn’t feel better after he hung up, I texted a friend who happened to be in training to be a psychologist. He told me I was “catastrophizing” and instructed me to eat something, to focus on every bite, focus on the taste, focus on counting each breath. If I still wasn’t better later, he said I should see a doctor and get a sedative. I went to the Five Guys on West 4th and devoured a burger, and I don’t remember how I got home. The next day I took a train back to Connecticut and was prescribed three days of Xanax. I took my first pill, and then a nap, and the world was quiet again, at least for a while.
It took me longer to realize that that panic attack wasn’t a rare occasion but instead a sudden escalation of a disorder I’d been dealing with for years. The wire casing of my nerves were worn down to the copper and it was inevitable for something to catch fire. Being Internet famous was as good a trigger as any. The last year has been a series of viral shit shows—that time I was on BuzzFeed, that time I inadvertently became Media Twitter’s catnip in a rapidly spiraling feud with News Genius, that time a hashtag I started was co-opted by MRAs—and the occasional panic attack became normal. I would have a few good months of quiet and then a few weeks of terror. December through February was a lovely reprieve, but then I fell apart again after finishing my TEDx talk in April. This time I didn’t get better. I began to hide from my very sweet roommate because the prospect of interacting with another human was terrifying. I didn’t go out on weekends and instead stewed in my bedroom for hours, wondering if my ex-boyfriend had watched my TEDx talk and wanted to kill me, making 3am noise complaints about the bar downstairs, canceling on friends and endlessly refreshing my Twitter mentions. I wrote a lot and had sex a lot and never slept enough or at reasonable hours. I was paranoid and furious and terrified. I became mean.
In June, a friend with anxiety and depression suggested that I was externalizing my anxiety as anger. I saw immediately that he was right. He suggested an SSRI like the one he’d been on for years. I’d been surrounded by SSRIs at Wesleyan: the ex who popped them like candy at breakfast, the fling who struggled with arousal, the best friend who was constantly forced off her meds because she couldn’t always afford them. I have never thought of medication as weakness. But I never saw myself as the type of person who needed an SSRI, because I didn’t have mental health issues. Did I? Was my anxiety real?
I looked at my life, my habits, my sensitivity to noise and the rattling temper that was beginning to scare me. Something was wrong, something was off, and it wasn’t the inevitable challenge of being a woman in a world full of shitty people. Okay, yes. I had very real and diagnosable anxiety.
Some people are scared of the prospect of going on medication, but ever since that first Xanax, I’d been curious about what a more permanent treatment plan would be like. But the idea of obtaining medication made me even more anxious: Did I have to see a therapist? Who could prescribe it? How did my insurance work now that I was on my own plan? What if I had to try a bunch of different types and they fucked me up even more? Everyone I talked to had a horror story about medications and insurance, and there was nothing I wouldn’t do to avoid filling out forms and Googling “What is a deductible?”
In the end, I got lucky. I started crying during a check-up with my new General Practitioner about something unrelated, and she had me take an anxiety screening. How many times during the last two weeks had I been bothered by the following problems: Feeling on edge? Worrying? Being restless? Becoming easily annoyed or irritable? Being afraid?
Every day. Every day. Every day.
I sheepishly told my doctor it’d been a hard two weeks. She didn’t smile. She asked if I’d considered medication. I let out a breath I’d been holding since 2012.
The best way I can explain my anxiety is this: It’s like I’ve lived in a crowded bar for the last four years. There’s a rowdy bachelorette party in the back screaming bloody murder. A pack of bros is between me and the door, and the only time they stop shoving each other is when a woman walks by for them to whistle at. My friends are frustrated with how anti-social I’m being, even if they’re trying not to show it. Hell, I’m frustrated with myself. I keep thinking, You’re in your twenties, you’re supposed to be enjoying this. Maybe it’ll get better if I have another drink, or if that cute hipster touches my face the right way, or if I just smile, if I just smile and fucking force myself to have fun.
It’s so hot and claustrophobic and expensive, but the noise is the worst part. The noise is unbearable. The noise is every frat party where I wasn’t chill enough, the noise is every college pre-game where I wasn’t wild enough, the noise is every happy memory tainted by his deceit. This bar is a thousand echoes of vile tweets and Wesleyan insecurities and toxic relationships. Beyond that, this bar is just not safe. The world is not safe. My brain is not safe. I am not safe. I am not safe.
Lexapro is that first breath of fresh air when I make it outside. All I know are the colorful lights of a New York City evening and that I can go home now. It’s quiet. Everything is quiet. I can handle the steady rock and shove of my life because at last I can hear myself think.
SSRIs have their downsides. I still hate filling in paperwork and calling my insurance company when their pitiful, confusing website breaks. I keep taking naps at 7PM and waking up dazed a few hours later. My arousal has all but disappeared, and when I do have sex, it’s to be close to someone I love, a high dose of emotional intimacy and security. But I can focus at work for the first time in six months. I can see my friends and make more than one plan a week without feeling like I’m going to scream. I’m more impulsive but less reactionary, and I’ve been unfollowing people who piss me off instead of revisiting their worst tweets to delight in my superiority. The fact that I can call my insurance company to figure out my automatic prescription delivery is a huge victory. Not long ago, I would have done nothing, despite knowing that my inertia was dangerous. I wouldn’t have had a choice.
Getting better isn’t easy. I don’t like my therapist much, and yes, I’m going to find someone else soon. My food issues are worse than ever. I recently got in a fight on a date about not wanting to try oysters. But I feel like myself, even as I’m aware that who I am is in flux. I’ll remember this as the mental health summer when I finally began to try. That is a victory in and of itself.
Going on medication is not failure or weakness or caving to Big Pharma. Mental health issues are just as real and serious as any virus or broken limb. I am proud of myself for finally recognizing my anxiety and taking the appropriate steps to manage it.
It’s last call at the local bar, but I’m not going home just yet.