A year ago I thought I was dying. I know what you’re thinking, “But Amy, we’re all dying,” and trust me, I’m the first to agree with you on that one. But this was different. This wasn’t some vague but tragic certainty that all living things must eventually perish. No, it was a stone cold in my face Grim Reaper ready to whisk me away to a netherworld I don’t believe in. I’d be driving down the 101 in my 1999 Z3 and whoosh, there he was on the shoulder, a hulking semi ready to crush me. I’d be jogging through Hancock Park when suddenly he’d seize my legs and I’d collapse, numb from the waist down. Even falling asleep became a nightmare – he was in my closet, under the bed, outside my window, daring me to shut my eyes. What I couldn’t recognize at the time was that this bony apparition staring me down was not in fact the embodiment of death, but of an even greater threat to my life: anxiety.
The great thing about death is it’s final. You don’t wake up after a heart stopping cardiac attack or a decapitating car accident and think, “God, I’m in so much pain, I feel like I’m dying.” Nope, you are in fact just dead. Now what that means – DEAD – has filled libraries with books and churches with parishioners for centuries. I’d love to get into a whole philosophical debate about my own personal (terrifying) feelings on what the big sleep really means, but this is my blog, my agnostic thoughts, and thus: death = not living.
By contrast, anxiety is very much living. I’m still breathing, my aortas are still pumping, my fingers are still punching little black squares on a MacBook Pro. The problem is, anxiety of death actually causes deathlike symptoms, and so the sufferer becomes trapped in a M.C. Escher-like staircase of doom. Couple the physical manifestations of anxiety – difficulty breathing, dizziness, numbness in extremities, heart palpitations, sweats – with a moderate lifelong case of hypochondria, and you can begin to imagine the world of shit I had stepped in.
My first inclination was that I had a brain tumor. It didn’t help that I had recently finished Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, in which the lead character’s father dies quite abruptly in the prologue from said illness. Even the slightest pulsation in my prefrontal cortex and I would begin putting my affairs in order: call mom, tell her I love her; write will; throw away underwear with holes and stains. A CT scan eventually settled the tumor / headache debate, but I still couldn’t let go of the possibility my brain might be bleeding from a treadmill accident from the previous summer.
Luckily for my hypochondria, webMD reassured me that there were a whole host of other horrifying conditions which I could be suffering from. Meniere’s disease, meningitis, COPD, BPPV – nothing was off the table. Except maybe AIDS. (When I was 5 years old, I remember getting out of bed in the middle of the night and finding my mom downstairs working on an order for her flower company. I collapsed in a fit of sobs, knowing I had contracted AIDS that day from playing on the jungle gym. My mom had been planning to tell me about sex and drugs much later, but this episode forced the talk at a tender age. Needless to say, I’ve been very careful to avoid intravenous drug use and unprotected orgies.)
While the googling of my symptoms led several times to discussions of anxiety, it wasn’t until I began seeing a therapist that I was finally able to accept the correct diagnosis. I wasn’t suffering from a physical ailment after all, rather this disease of the mind: anxiety. I felt like my conscience had been suspended in a pool of fear, drowning in its perception of life and death. How had it come to this? For 27 years I had lived in relative ease, going through the motions of everyday life: wake up, eat breakfast, read the paper, look at Facebook, work out, go to class, get drunk, repeat. Sure, there’d been upsets along the way – dark nights of the soul, break ups with lovers, deaths of family members, a near fatal car accident – that had rattled me. But for the most part, I’d been content to live my life the way it seemed I should.
Seemed I should. What does that even mean? What should I be doing? What should you be doing? What on this tiny little planet in this gigantic mind boggling universe should any of us be doing? That is one helluva question. And it is my mission to answer it. My life depends on it.