Existential Dread in Suburbia

Do you feel anxious? Do you feel depressed? Yeah, me too.

I had a series of panic attacks this past summer. Quite suddenly, my high-functioning, socially acceptable anxiety just tipped over into full blown panic. And seemingly overnight, I lost my grip with reality. I went from being a busy mother-of-two with a budding career in fitness and nutrition to a deeply terrified, non-functional shell of a human. I couldn’t get out of bed. I thought I was going crazy. I thought I was dying. I was afraid I would hurt myself or those around me.

The panic attacks lasted weeks, and the weeks felt like they lasted forever. They swallowed me up. For the first time in my thirty-two years, I imagined it would be easier to just stop living, even though my life was ostensibly so good. I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I was confused and desperate and shameful to be having this experience even though I loved my kids so much, even though I loved my husband and my friends. It was the scariest and most heart-breaking experience of my life. I just wanted relief and I had no idea how to get it. I think you’ve heard a story like this before. Stay with me.

So — I went to the doctor. A small guy with a pleasant “dad-like” face, who slightly resembled a frat boy I went to college with. I imagined him playing beer pong as he sat across from me in his dark navy scrubs, legs spread wide like he owned the room. Meanwhile I was collapsed within myself on the exam room table, shaking and starving. I had lost more than 10 pounds in the few weeks prior, unable to stomach any food. My love of pancakes and peanut butter had all but disappeared. My appetite had become nonexistent. And I stopped wearing makeup, so I was feeling a little stripped of my feminine power as I described my experience to him that day in July. At least I had showered.

The doctor had a slight speech impediment that reminded me of a 5-year-old on the playground that was trying to teach me about something I knew way more about than him. He was attempting to have compassion…I think?

“You have to find out what is causing the panic attacks.”

Yes. Obvioulsy. I told him my medical history and he scoffed off my previous autoimmune diagnosis. He told me “that disease doesn’t exist.” And then he told me that there was no point in running lab work. It wouldn’t matter even if we were to find anything wrong. It’s a mental issue and regardless of the data, the solution would be the same. Antidepressants.

“I have good insurance. I’d like to run the labs to see whats going on,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter if you have good insurance. They won’t pay for it if I don’t tell them there’s a good reason to run the tests.”

He sat back in his seat and clicked his pen. His loyalty to the machine was showing. And yet, I sat across from him, clawing at the backs of my arms. I shuddered in reluctant agreement. Of course, on the inside I was screaming. ‘Good reason?’ Muscle tremors, dizziness, blurred vision, rapid excessive weight loss, heart palpitations…no certainly there could be no biological trails to follow. Didn’t he know how functional I was just a few weeks ago? Didn’t he know my life felt like it was ending and I couldn’t do anything to stop it? Didn’t he know this wasn’t my fucking fault?

I felt his subtle accusation, that I was doing this to myself. The implication that I was just seeking attention. That I was weak. All my fears about myself made manifest in that interaction. But I was desperate. I did need help — needed to be able to get out of bed for my kids, needed to pull myself together and get a grip for my husband and my mom. I acknolwedged the doctors limitations in being able to see me at all, let alone offer me a solution. So I decided to try the anti-depressant. It felt like the only outstretched arm. After I agreed to try zoloft, the next four weeks were utter hell.

I felt like my brain was on fire; a dizzy-making migraine and light sensitivity, ringing in my ears, nausea and diharrea, heart-racing insomnia and the constant feeling of agitation. I felt like I was doing permanent damage to my brain. That I would never be able to get off the medication. That I was no longer in control, that the only way out was to drive into oncoming traffic. There was no possible relief, it seemed.

But then relief came in little moments. Days went by and I started to push past the feelings of exhaustion. I gave myself chores and daily goals to hit. Life got a lot smaller for me during those few weeks. If I was able to do the dishes and go on a walk in my neighborhood, it was a huge success of a day.

Over time, I started going to therapy. I started meditating, I started journaling and reading and eating a little more. And the terror started to back off, slowly. And then in the absence of the room-spinning panic attacks, I became deeply depressed, even on an antidepressant. I had no motivation, complete lack of interest in literally anything, and a strong desire to drink. But I had been sober for two years.

And luckily I didn’t drink. I wrote. And I talked about it. And in talking about it, I started to realize that so many of us are starting to come unravelled, actually. I saw that so many of my friends and family members were struggling with similar experiences of varying degrees. I started to wonder why we were all feeling so squirly. What’s going on? Is it something in the water?

And then weeks turned into months, and life went on. And in the quiet moments when I would journal or meditate or run, I started to wonder — what if there was nothing wrong with us at all, actually? Yes, that felt eerily like the truth.

What if it was just that we were trying to force ourselves into a life that we weren’t meant for. What if our panic attacks and our disassociation and our malaise wasn’t a broken brain. What if our brains were actually way smarter than that? What if what we thought was a mental illness was actually a biological defense mechanism. What if our brains had an immune system of its own sort. What if our brains were just trying to protect us, alert us, redirect us to the life that was right for us. If that were true, would we maybe be less afraid of our intuition? Would we maybe look at our fear, look at our sadness, look at our anger and be brave enough to explore it? Ask it ‘why?’ What if all of this discomfort wasn’t because we were inherently sick, but it was more of a subconscious refusal to participate in the bankrupt values of the society that has hijacked our human biology and spiritual drives. What if that?

As I talked to more and more of the people in my life, I became exceedingly aware that we have all been profoundly manipulated. I got angry about it. I started to feel as though we have all been robbed and lied to. We have been played. I began to suspect that there was nothing wrong with any of us, actually. There was nothing in the food. There was nothing in the environment or the water. There was something in society, though, and the way that society subversively strips us of our humanity. There was something in the technology and disconnection and industry and advertising and overstimulation and power-imbalance and slavery.

Looking around at the lives we live, it seems obvious to me now — that we were never meant to detach from our inherint biological drives in exchange for a bronzer makeup palette, drive-thru coffee with flavored sugar and fancier types of metal around the engines that propel us from one pointless job to the next.

We were meant to protect ourselves, procreate, connect and relate to each other — to explore and create and touch each other. And what we’ve been given instead is a sales pitch — that we need to be enslaved by a system that provides us with dead-end opportunities for outside approval; as if we need permission to be ourselves, to listen to and acknowledge our intuition. We are all given the power to see the truth and to call bullshit on that which conflicts with it.

So yeah, are you unhappy with it? There must be something wrong with you. Mental illness. You might need to be highly medicated for the rest of you life, possibly institutionalized.

And with that, the system has conditioned us not to trust ourselves. That type of lying to ourselves, the erosion of self-trust— that is a ragingly obvious recipe for depression; that is a frustrating, crazy-making loop. No wonder we are all having panic attacks. We’ve hit our limit. We have no more fucks to give about participating in this society that just wants our money and obedience; that just wants us to be pretty and quiet. I spent so much of my adult life, when I had high-functioning anxiety, and then when it became a larger panic, shameful of the way that I felt; certain that it was because my brain was just broken. And I was afraid that it meant I wouldn’t be capable of having a “normal” life, that I would need to be medicated and institutionalized and all of that. The Emily Dickinson curse. Would I endure the same fate? I understand her plight a lot more, now. I think she just started to become disenchanted with the same truth that we are all becoming privvy to. This growing existential dread that seems fairly universal to the modern human existence.

And so what if we want to opt out of this broken system? What if we seek a fate brighter than that of poor, sweet Emily? What if we want to run away, but don’t want to have to be alone, either? Sure we can choose differently, but the alternative is isolation. A cabin, alone in the woods, off the grid.

Alone, disconnection, isolation — is just as crazy-making.

It’s a trap. We are backed into a corner. Do you see what I see?

It’s fall now, and I haven’t had a panic attack in a few months. It has been an impossibly difficult season of my life, but if I am honest, I have had more decent days than bad days as of late, and life is starting to feel bearable, mostly. Still a feeling of trauma underneath the persistence. And toward what am I persisting? I’m not sure. One foot in front of the other, for now.

But if I have a hope, and I think I do, its that I am starting to realize that actually, we own this experience. Hey, we own this story. Actually, this place is ours. It belongs to us. We get to say what this is supposed to look like. And if we want the relief — I want the relief — it is up to us to tear this place down, and build something in its place; an actual place for us.

Maybe these beginnings, whispers of a revolution, will bring us all back from the edge of panic. Maybe if we simply say “enough now,” our brains will slowly stops sending out the alarm. Maybe if we just start to take what we actually need — which, as it turns out, is not some fucking white, male doctor telling us that we are responsible for our own angst and, ‘here is a pill’ to dull us into submission — maybe we will actually have the opportunity to participate in evolutionary progress instead of a decline toward mass self-destruction and melancholia.

“You need to find out what is causing the panic attacks.”

I hear you, doctor. But do you know what you’re asking for? Are you ready for this?

Writer, Musician, Activist.

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