I was in the emergency room and a man was fingering my asshole while my boyfriend watched.
“Does that hurt?” the man asked. It didn’t. He’d used plenty of lubrication. But at 1 a.m. on a work night, I was beginning to reconsider this particular life choice.
I was here because, halfway through a date night at the movies, I’d gone to take a dump and discovered, upon mopping up, a smear of crimson where there ought to be none. And it was not my womanparts throwing a reality-show-level hissy fit because, once again, I’d refused to give them a baby.
My then-boyfriend, who had patiently endured dozens of small-trigger meltdowns and who had no doubt assumed he’d seen them all, poor bastard, tried not to look stricken when I slid back into my seat and hissed something vague about my bloody butthole. He attempted, calmly at first and then with an edge of desperation, to assure me that this was probably nothing and could we please just finish the movie?
But I’d already gone full Hertzfeldt. My anus is bleeding! I knew that if we did not get to a hospital right away, my rectum would prolapse and all of my organs would fall out and damn it, I was not going to subject my parents to answering those questions at the world’s most awkward funeral reception.
The dedicated, begloved individuals at Rex Hospital were unable to reproduce the results of my butt’s experiment. “Probably just a burst blood vessel,” they assured me, handing me a bill for a number that is typically measured in degrees Kelvin. “Nothing to worry about.”
I have a panic disorder. Everything is something to worry about, including nothing at all. I wasn’t subjecting myself to the embarrassment and expense of an examination because there was something wrong with my plumbing. I was there because there was something wrong with my wiring.
I had my first panic attack (that I remember, in any case) at 12 years old, at my own slumber party, once everyone was already asleep. I lay in my sleeping bag on my own living room floor, surrounded by friends and people I really really really wanted to be my friends or at least not make quite so much fun of me anymore, trembling and tooth-chattering as if I was either freezing or febrile. I was neither. My mother suspected I might be dehydrated, so we pumped me full of water, and that seemed to solve the problem.
So, for the next ten years, I would drink a shit-ton of water every time I had an episode. Sometimes it would work, but more and more often, it wouldn’t. It would be years before anyone realized water was just a placebo.
Throughout my teens, I saw a number of therapists and was prescribed pills for suspected maladies ranging from ADHD to depression: Ritalin, Wellbutrin, Adderall, Prozac, you name it. Some worked better than others, but if one problem was solved, another took its place. Mostly, I think, this is because my well-meaning doctors were attempting to medicate me for being an intelligent teenager, which is a disease you live with, not one you die from. Usually. But maybe they played a role in suppressing my anxiety; I honestly don’t know. In any case, eventually I refused to swallow one more fucking pill.*
There came a day, somewhere in my mid-20s, that I approached the end of my 12-mile commute to my dead-end job and realized I didn’t remember any of it, which is when I frantically veered into a Wendy’s parking lot to call my mother and ask her whether she thought I might be dying. I drank a lot of water that day.
Cue two or three years of hypochondria, insomnia, nightmares, paresthesia, on-the-job hysterics, and roadside 911 calls that I would cancel after two shameful minutes with the baffled but gentle dispatcher. Ulcers and Helicobacter pylori were ruled out as the sources of my ongoing stomach pain, but only after painful courses of antibiotics and a $2,000 endoscopy performed by a very cute Indian doctor to whom I may or may not have expressed some anaesthesia-induced admiration. The worst was the constant depersonalization: the fog I lived in, the feeling that my body did not belong to me, that all of my actions were being performed by someone else as I remained trapped inside, rooted down, unable to act or come fully awake. My life was ruled by a cycle of fog, fear, panic, and exhaustion.
My family’s lineage is full of this garbage. Anxiety, depression, and alcoholism are our favorite flavors, with the spicy notes of agoraphobia, claustrophobia, ADHD, and anger management sprinkled on for funsies. We’ve all been medicated and/or headshrunk for something. Mental illness isn’t one of those things that rears its head and controls every waking moment of my life; I’m grateful that no one in my family suffers from anything as severe as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or DID. But it’s always there, the white noise fizzle of television snow.
And ALL of that is to explain why I do the Walk for Hope, a Raleigh-based charitable organization that raised millions of dollars for the research and treatment of mental illness.
The 10K walk happens this coming Sunday, October 13. It would mean a lot to me, dear reader, if you might be convinced to donate a few bucks to Team Epic Dragon—even ten, even five, even one—and then tell everyone you know to do the same. My boyfriend and I made a simple, short, but heartfelt video PSA you can share:
Your mom will probably love it. Moms fucking love PSAs.
My meltdowns are largely under control these days, thanks to a long-haired, big-smiled, barefooted therapist named Elaine who helped me understand that panic attacks are scary and uncomfortable, but not dangerous; that fighting them only acknowledges and exacerbates them; that when they happen I should go to a quiet place and just wait for them to blow over.
Now they mostly just happen when I’m about to get on an airplane, or when it’s a week off Dragon Con and I’m just not fucking ready and I am 150% convinced that everybody hates me and will laugh me out of Atlanta forever, or when I’m stuck in a hot car for five hours to see a favorite author and I forgot to do things like eat. They don’t happen because I did something stupid like wake up in the morning, or because I have a headache I can’t explain.
There are so many people who have it way worse than I ever did. 1 in 4 Americans suffers from (or, if you prefer, lives with) some kind of mental disorder. It’s ridiculous. We ALL know someone who’s been affected, even if they’ve mastered the art of keeping it to themselves. I would be grateful for any and all forms of help—even just a share or a shout-out or a like.
tl;dr: I live with anxiety that once got so bad I thought my butt was going to fall out and that is why I would really like you to support the Walk for Hope.
* I am not one of those homeopathic hippie headcases who eschews all forms of mass-produced chemical assistance. The right combination of therapy and medication can be essential to managing mental illness. But I don’t think I was ever prescribed the right medication, and I got sick of the way drugs were making me feel (or not feel).