The symptoms were always the same. They were saved in an inkpad file on my phone, where they were easily recallable. I’d complain of a lack of breath that turned me blue, and austerity of speech that sapped my character and rendered me mute, limp and lifeless. Fingers too apathetic to type. Lips to apathetic to move. Too tired to joke. Too lazy to think. Too afraid to die. It was a perpetual motion machine of terror — a Ferris Wheel of Anti-Bliss from which there was no jumping and no refunds. It was like this, on-and-off-but-mostly-on, for fourteen years. So I’d go back to the E.R. — the only place I felt completely safe.
I took 52 trips to hospitals, clinics and emergency medical facilities between 2011–2014. I’m three away from a lifetime achievement award, I think. I’ve been properly pricked, vetted, probed, questioned, CT scanned (with contrast!) and monitored. They would always proudly proclaim I was fine, and that I was free to leave, and then they would cast me back into a world waiting to welcome me back with open arms. Still, I was dying. Sure of it. And, several years later, still not quite sure I’m not.
The hospital was the only semblance of order in a chaotic whirlwind, where I fought to hold onto the last thin blade of my sanity, to keep from falling off the face of the Earth. I could be hooked up to machines to make sure I’m plenty oxygenated, hydrated and cleared of any tumors, lumps, cysts, diseases, disorders, illness, deficiencies and inefficiencies. I could take solace in knowing I was taking up residence in the only place where sounding crazy and/or dying young was perfectly normal. Boring, in fact. But why was I there?
If you think of the human stress response like a faucet — you can turn it on when you need to wash away something unpleasant or threatening — my brain is what happens when that faucet has sprung a leak and turned itself into a fire hose. It is a cacophony of delirious thoughts, fears and worst-case scenarios turned up to 11 and played on an endless loop. This horror show grew all-too-deafening and immersive in the first part of this decade. An example of certain thoughts I thought and resulting behaviors I behaved:
- I had an excel doc that contained a comprehensive list of steps I needed to take to repair my lungs, which I believed are rotting from the inside, and adhered to them religiously.
- I thought every Thursday or Friday afternoon meeting with my co-workers was, in fact, the meeting in which I was about to be informed they no longer needed me.
- I deleted my browser history every hour.
- I’d never answer the phone the first time you’d call.
- I would always sleep with the TV on so I had something to listen to that wasn’t me.
- I would go full days without food, because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat.
- I would trash my apartment the way an F4 tornado would, so I’d have a built-in excuse not to allow people over.
- To this day, if you tap me on the shoulder to say hello, I also jump like a seven year-old watching Saw.
- I would spend seven hours on a Sunday alternating between playing two chords on a guitar and commenting on dozens of Instagram stories, without changing my clothes or leaving a 12x12 area, and then follow that by spending the next four hours crushing beers and binge-tweeting before passing out at 3 a.m.
- I would stay in alone if I was not invited someplace. I would escape to my couch and half-gaze at NFL Network.
I’d spend every morning gingerly shuffling around my apartment in a half-conscious haze, every evening pacing around my apartment in a half-delirious trance, and every night laying face-down on a pile of pillows to help me breathe easy, scared to death my life was ending before my eyes despite all the reassurance in the world. I get how ridiculous it sounds.
My condition was not sexy. It wasn’t trendy. It wasn’t even particularly sympathetic — or interesting. Not only was it difficult to convince the medical professionals in the hospital that I had something physically wrong (I didn’t), it was just as hard to convince mental health professionals there was anything going on beyond a “panic attack.” I seemed fine. And that was enough.
Not enough people talk about how anxiety is essentially excessive risk mitigation. It isn’t just the worry that’s problematic — it’s the behavior that you engage in to distance yourself from your emotions to help you hide your pathology from others.
For example, I mostly communicated — still, really — with people via text. Facial expressions are sensory overload, and real-time conversation feels too “real.” I would talk “at” people rather than talk “to” people — communicating only exclusively in quips, jokes, idioms and zingers. I still rarely do favors, and if I do, I make sure they’re easy favors that require merely a one-time commitment of an hour or two, like picking up someone at the airport or pitching in to help someone move. Easy wins. Slap-singles.
Moreover, all but two of my ex-girlfriends have been long-distance relationships. I also tend to push people away to avoid being “found out,” and to keep from “letting them down.” And, I spend the vast majority of my day alone so I don’t ever have to explain or excuse myself when symptoms bubble up. I just mailed someone $20 that I owed them since July. It’s almost March.
I have schedules and budgets and “how-tos” strewn about my desktop to make every contingency for every uncertainty. I also have a pathological fear of asking for things, for fear of angering the people I wish to ask. Then — of course — I’ll wait until the last minute to ask for a great many things, angering the people I wish to ask for not asking sooner. Risk mitigation. All of it. On a mass pathological scale. So in that case, it would make sense that I’d end up in that hospital so many times. What better way to reassure yourself that you’re perfectly healthy than being under routine emergency medical care? And they’d tell me I seemed fine. And they were right. All of the craziness is concealed inside the cabin.
But you cannot hide it forever. Sometimes the rift between what is and what you’ll never see is too great to be airbrushed out. And once that chasm ransacks your mind, it takes dead-aim at your body. Shortness of breath. Belching. A warm, fuzzy head. Dizziness. Weak chronic cough. Weakness. Cramping. Fatigue. Labored breathing. Incomplete breaths. Fast pulse. Insomnia. Confusion. Wheezing. Closed throat. Difficulty swallowing. Vocal cord paralysis. Hoarseness. Bloating. Daily occurrences. Far beyond real and bordering on surreal. Sweats in the mid-afternoon that left me running out the door and gasping at bitterly cold winter air, which turns into a hyperventilation spin-cycle of despair. In my excessive risk mitigation, and constant worry, I’d developed the very symptoms to the diseases I feared I had, without ever having the diseases themselves. This is the true pain of being in pain. And then I’d check out of the E.R. around 3 a.m., get three hours of sleep, and roll into work the following day, smiling.
It is true. I am not sad. I am, overall, a very happy and awesome human already, who just happens to not be very awesome in all areas of life all the time. The area of “dealing with shit without feeling a whole bunch of things,” in particular, is one that I struggle with. (Also: I cannot dunk. Very sad.)
Somewhere out there, someone is reading this, and probably nodding in silent agreement, wondering if they’re supposed to struggle in their own silence. I don’t think they should. I think that’s how people end up in the E.R. I think that’s how people end up alone.
This is for the one person, the one person who I know is out there struggling, suffering and swallowing their pride, holding out hope that tomorrow when they wake up it will all be gone, and then waking up disappointed because that feeling of dread is still hanging over their head like a wet towel in a blizzard. Maybe they’re on their way to the hospital, thinking they’re on their deathbed. It’s you I’m going to talk to. Here’s how I stopped being a hypochondriac and started living my life:
I actually got sick. I had shoulder reconstruction done. I spent time in hospitals for good reason. And I actually had a desire to get better, to get rehabilitated, rather than to just make sure I wasn’t dead or dying. I spent day after day in medical facilities under people’s care. And I did what they told me to do. My health improved. I lost weight. My skin started to glow. I felt happier — less anxious. I drank less. I ate better. I rejoined the world and rediscovered my love for myself and for the world. By 2016, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in a hospital or had a panic attack. I became supremely confident in my ability to defeat my mental demons, convinced myself I’d been cured, and coasted. And I’d mistaken winning a battle for winning a war. This was a mistake. I hadn’t actually fixed anything … I’d treated it.
By 2017, I’d become a hypermaximalist, hell-bent mess. Again. A bit off. A newly-acquired hitch in my gait. Trembling hands. Odd mannerisms. A ghost concealed from the world, communicating mostly through text, chasing other ghosts. Headaches. A weak, dry cough. Openly weeping for no reason. Sour and nihilist. Sick to my stomach every day.
I remember walking back into the urgent care facility, for the first time in three years, listing my symptoms. Shortness of breath. Belching. A warm, fuzzy head. Dizziness. Weak chronic cough. Weakness. Cramping. Fatigue. Labored breathing. Incomplete breaths. Fast pulse. Insomnia. Confusion. Wheezing. Closed throat. Difficulty swallowing. Vocal cord paralysis. Hoarseness. Bloating. Daily occurrences. Far beyond real and bordering on surreal. Sweats in the mid-afternoon that left me running out the door and gasping at bitterly cold winter air, which turns into a hyperventilation spin-cycle of despair. I told the nurse I have a history with hypochondria. She took my temperature, and said, “You’re very brave.” I didn’t understand.
“You’ll be fine …” she said. “You’re just going through withdrawal.”