Quiet Panic

Every year since as far back as I can remember on the days before my birthday my father would regale me with the story of the hours leading up to my birth. I was born during a cold snap in the winter of 1985, “the wind was so strong and the air was so cold I could barely make it to the bus stop,” my father would say with his accented English.

“Your mother was in the hospital and we had been waiting all day. The nurse told me to go home that you wouldn’t be born for hours,” he said with a knowing look in his eyes foreshadowing what would come. “So I went home and sure enough you were born.”

My mother’s version colors in what my father left out. “I was in a lot of pain but the nurses didn’t believe me. They just said, ‘calm down mami, calm down’ and treated me like a special needs child simply because I could not speak English.”

The machines, as my mother recalls, weren’t beeping but she felt something was horribly wrong. She called over the nurse who again petted my mother and told her to calm down. My mother, with her limited English vocabulary, resorted to pointing to the ground and inching herself forward on the hospital bed, screaming in Spanish and threatening to jump.

It took three nurses to restrain her and finally the doctor was called, it was then that they realized the machines were broken and that the baby, me, had been deprived of oxygen. “You were purple,” my mother recalls. “The doctor said you were losing oxygen, you had the umbilical cord wrapped around your neck.” This was the part of the story I loved best and would retell countless times even to my therapist and deadpan, “I was suicidal from birth.”

By all accounts I had a happy childhood. Thumbing through old family photographs and albums you see a smiling dark skinned child with unruly long hair. Most photographs are posed; toothy grins, my head cocked to a side, me with a hand on the hip. But the candid ones illustrate a sadder narrative; me looking off to a side, vacant, a bit crossed eyed. Me, standing in a corner alone chewing my bottom lip.

For the most part I kept to myself scribbling the margins of my coloring books or any piece of paper I could get my hands on. To this day, I prefer longhand to typing. I find the strokes of the pen on paper soothing unlike the clack, clack, clacking sound of the keyboard. When I wasn’t pretending to write I was stirring up trouble, going through my mother’s underwear drawer, tossing her delicates out the window, ripping up her mail and hiding her things. It was the tail end of the 80s and my parents were separated. My mother and I were boarders, living in a tiny bedroom in my great grandmother’s Harlem apartment. My mother worked long hours and went to school in the evenings in hopes of living the American Dream and I resented her for it. Not because she was bettering herself in hopes of providing a better life for the both of us but because she was never around to play with me.

Since I couldn’t play with my mother and I didn’t have any siblings, I enlisted the help of my older cousin Robert, who lived with his mother in a bedroom down the hall, to be my sidekick. The first order of business was hiding our mother’s belts and slippers to prevent our parents from disciplining us.

When the belts, slippers and empty threats failed my mother resorted to the time out. She would remove my toys, TV and coloring books and lock me in the bedroom. That’s when I’d go off. I’d scream and yell at the top of my lungs, jump up and down and slam myself against the wall. When that didn’t get my mother’s attention I’d bite down on my arms until I drew blood. When the combination of the salty tears and metallic blood oozed in my mouth, my anger would subside. The biting was an outlet for the rage that had been building up inside of me.

It continued off and on for about a year. At first I wanted to get caught to show my mother and the world what she had driven me to do. Let them see the pain I was in. At first, she cried unsure of what to do with me. But then, instead of coddling me like I hoped she would she punished me once more. I would bite myself whenever I didn’t get my way but I was smart enough to do it on the inner part of my arm where it was less detectable. I once tried to bite my inner thigh but it proved to be impossible.  No matter how angry I got I never took it out on my toys because I knew how rare they were in our house and if I broke them I wouldn’t have anything to play with.

The self-harm never escalated beyond the biting or slamming my head against a wall but the tantrums continue. Even now when my chest feels heavy, or my mind is racing, I lose the ability to speak. I grunt, growl or cry and reach for the nearest object and slam it against the wall. The year I moved out of my parent’s house and began living on my own, I went through three cellphones; a Nokia, an LG that had a sliding keyboard and a bulky blackberry, all three casualties of my rage. In essence they became the toys I couldn’t break as a child. I always feel foolish after an “episode” as my therapist calls it, no longer angry, still shaking, standing alone among the broken pieces of plastic having to get on all fours to search for the missing phone battery to try and piece it all back together.

The humiliation would only set in when I had to go to my phone provider the next day arguing that they had to either repair or replace my phone because of their equipment protection policy. They’d quickly inform me that since I had only opted for the policy on the lower end of their program, my coverage only “provides protection against device defects after the manufacturer’s warranty expires” and since my device was still under warranty and the damage did not appear to be accidental, the best they could do was provide me with a refurbished phone which always ended up malfunctioning or breaking on its own. I’d return weeks later and upgrade to a new model, forced to extend my contract for another 2 years.

When I wasn’t busy throwing tantrums, I was preoccupied with death and what it would feel like to take my final breath. My fascination came shortly after our Quaker Parrot, Cookie, died. She was a small green parakeet with a white face and belly and was so tame I could carry her without her squawking or attempting to bite me. I created makeshift obstacle courses for her with Barbie toy cars and my hula hoop. I’d grab Cookie off her perch and have her climb over the toys I set before her. I loved that bird. Cookie was an adrenaline junkie who enjoyed flying around the house so that I could chase after her. One day she flew up to the curtains and refused to come down. After failed attempts of reaching her with the broom and a towel, Cookie startled, flew off the curtain and landed on the ground head-first. She died soon thereafter.

I can still remember my mother’s face when she told me my beloved Cookie had died.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means she’s not alive anymore and won’t be coming back,” my mother explained.

I broke down in tears and asked my mother if Cookie could come back. I promised to be good and well behaved, but again my mother said no. Then I asked her if we all died, if one day I would join Cookie in this thing called death. My mother frowned then said, “yes, but not for a very long time,” she promised.

I was skeptical of her response and insisted on seeing Cookie, “she’s probably asleep!” I cried. “Leslie!” my mother scolded, “She’s no longer breathing, she’s dead.” I was sent to my room so that I wouldn’t witness the disposal of the bird’s body. I laid in bed kicking and screaming into my pillows but nothing would ease the pain. My heart was racing and so was my head, I needed to find an escape and so I did something I never thought I’d do; I held my breath.

I was never a fan of holding my breath I always gave up too quickly before the panic set in. But once Cookie died I became fixated with the other functions of the human body that would cease to exist should I take my last breath.

“I wouldn’t be able to drink juice or to swallow,” I’d think and the moment I thought it I’d find my mouth dry and feel unable to pass saliva down my throat. It was as if I had forgotten how and I became paralyzed by the fear of losing the ability to remember the mechanics of everyday involuntary functions.

Then that quiet panic would set in and my mouth would fill with saliva and I’d have no other choice but to spit it out.

“I’m dying! I’m dying! I can’t swallow!” I’d yell with my hands trembling and my nose flared.

My mother would rush to my side and rub cold water on my face to calm me down, she’d wrap her arms around me and shush me as I let out loud angry cries onto her chest. “I can’t breathe” I’d say.

“Calm down, just stop thinking about it and it will happen on its own.”

“But I’ve forgotten how!” and I’d sob for hours and complain of a pressure in my chest and the inability to breathe.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties and began going to therapy that I realized that the unexplained affliction were really panic attacks. The biting was my way of coping with my feelings and releasing the anxiety. With help from my therapist and psychiatrist I’m getting better at managing my emotions and compulsive behaviors that manifest in either overeating, compulsive shopping, picking at my fingernails or digging into my skin until it is red and flaky. I often journal or use coloring books to ease the stress and keep my hands busy. It quiets my mind and I’m able to focus on the task at hand my breathing normalizes and the quiet panic eases. This and a combination of medication have increased my productivity level. Before seeking help, I was sure I would lose my job because I was always in a terrible mood and would snap at people easily. Sometimes I’d become so overwhelmed with emotions I’d have to excuse myself and go lock myself in a bathroom stall to cry as I rocked my body back and forth to soothe myself as my mother had done when I was a child.

My chemical romance began with Cymbalta. For about a year I took the recommended dosage and I saw a change in moods right away. I was smiling more; laser focused and got things done. The pressure in my chest disappeared altogether and I no longer had rage episodes.  It seemed to be what I had needed all along. My doctor was so happy with how well I was responding that she changed my dosage from 30mg to 60mg and I instantly felt better. But after a heated argument with my spouse I decided that the 60mg weren’t enough to ease the pain and I ingested another 60mg without consulting with my doctor. Within days of the recreational upping of my dosage, triggered by the heartaches of the day, my life fell apart. 

I couldn’t see straight, my vision was blurred and I had to squint or close my eyes for long periods of time in order for my vision to normalize. I was constantly thirsty with dry mouth and could no longer sleep. I was restless and miserable. Once I began to taper back down things got worse. My mood swings intensified, I had feelings of hopelessness believed I couldn’t breathe. I could no longer sleep because my legs would kick up in the middle of the night and I would have to get out of bed to shake them out or run my hands over them to try to stop them from trembling or flaring. I would wake up in a panic and drenched in sweat. I had hallucinations of someone trying to break into my apartment and of being paralyzed by the effects of the drugs so that I could no longer run for my life. It took a little over six months for me to fully get over Cymbalta.

Terrified by my experience on Cymbalta, I took a year off from prescription meds and found myself overwhelmed with anxiety and depression. There were days when I couldn’t get out of bed, physically exhausted from tossing and turning from the previous night and crying over the dumbest things. I once cried watching an M&M commercial because unbeknownst to the red M&M the brown M&M had set him up with a woman who loved to eat chocolate. I was outraged by the brown M&Ms betrayal “steer clear of Kristin she can’t control herself around chocolate, she’ll devour you,” the redheaded woman warned the brown female M&M. “Really?” said the brown M&M raising her glasses and plotting away. Who does that to a friend? Why was I sobbing over a television commercial? I needed help and went back on antidepressants.

I was placed on a small dose of Paxil and I was miserable on it. I felt jittery and restless just as I had when coming off Cymbalta, and after a couple of days of it I stopped taking them. Next I tried 50mg of Zoloft and it seemed to do the trick. Unlike the honeymoon phase with Cymbalta, on Zoloft I never felt like I was on drugs. I felt normal like I hadn’t taken anything at all but my mood and temper seemed better and coping with bad situations seemed easier to handle. For the first time in a very long time I felt at ease.

Through therapy, I’ve uncovered that my behavioral problems as a child; the acting out, disposing of or the hiding of my mother’s personal belongings, the tantrums and biting myself was my way of coping with the anxiety I felt over my parent’s separation. It was a way of acting out the fears and panic I couldn’t verbalize. Now I have other tools to express my fears. I just need to remember to breathe.