Can I overdose on…

I have ten Lorazepam pills left.

Why am I googling this? What the fuck’s wrong with me? Of course I can’t really overdose on ten milligrams of Lorazepam. I envisioned drifting into a nice deep sleep, just maybe not hurting that much anymore, if only for a couple hours. I mean, sure, if I didn’t wake up from said sleep, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Not that I’m suicidal. I’m not. Never was. What an absurd idea. I’m strong. This is why I have to suffer. Life doesn’t throw metaphorical bricks on people who bruise easily.

I used to have more of those pills, but I gave some to that friend I tried to care for last year. I couldn’t bear the thought he’d be left alone with his panic attacks, with nobody to help him. Of course, I knew he’d taken them before, and he wouldn’t be in danger of an adverse reaction – I do think of everything, after all, I wouldn’t endanger someone like that. Well, friend’s gone, so are my pills. My soft heart might have saved me from, I don’t know what. Temptation? I don’t think you can do much with sixteen milligram either, so nothing’s lost. Nothing’s gained either.

The pain is growing. In the past months, years, decades, I’ve been verbally and emotionally abused, accused, ignored, even neglected by people who should have been there for me. I’ve been made to feel as if I were completely worthless. I used to attribute that to my Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, but it’s not only that, I realised – and Dimitra agrees, so this is my sign that I’m on to something. Some folks just treat you like that, won’t even realise they’re doing it, or, even worse, they’ll feel justified in doing it. My former boss did it. My husband, the man who I now know always loved me, neglected me – unknowingly, because of his emotional handicap. Although now he has understood, and he’s transformed into my greatest supporter. Still, the hurt remains. Can I detach my worth from having been treated like that? Maybe. Can I detach my worth from still being treated like that by some people? Am I worth anything, after all?

The pills. I have a whole bunch of SSRI in the box. Can you overdose on those? Would my husband notice if something was wrong with me? I guess he might. He’s getting better at this. A couple years ago I bet he’d find me dead in the morning and wonder what’d happened. But now I think he’s more sensitive to signs of depression – like me lying in my bed all day, crying, and not being able to do anything at all. Which is how today has been.

I mean, I did put on pants. They’re pyjama pants. I still count it as a win.

How am I going to take care of my kids? They start school tomorrow. And, whatever do they gain from having me around, always in tears, asking myself why, why this is happening, why does everyone else seem to catch a break – lots of breaks, some of them. Why don’t I get to catch a break, too? Is this how it’s going to be? Dreams being broken, one after another, until you’re too old to make any of them come true, and then you just die?

I mean, if this is how my life is going to be, why not accelerate the inevitable?

Of course I won’t accelerate the inevitable. These are just thoughts. Depressive thoughts. I might need to up the SSRI dose.

To tell you the truth, I’ve never had such a bad case of depression before. I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t know how I’ll survive this.

I found this beautiful sign on an excursion yesterday (an excursion which, happily, kept me from crying for a whole day – thank you, Nicolas, for such a nice time!). It says, in German,

“Always have more dreams than reality can destroy.”

It seems to me that reality is winning.

11. Panic Attack Thursday

<< 10. A borderline borderline / 12. When “mama” turns to “papa” >>

When I was growing up, Thursday was spaghetti with meat sauce day (or Spaghetti Bolognese, as the Germans would say it, or makarónia mé kimá, as we Greeks call it, or ragù, as my Italian buddies insisted we call it, back when we were studying in Heidelberg).

Um. Where was I? Thursday traditions. It seems that a new one is currently in the process of being established: Panic Attack Thursday. I have to say, I don’t like that one at all.

The thing is, my fifteen-year-old hypochondria raised its ugly head. It knocks on the door sometimes—mostly during periods of stress—but the past months have been especially hard. A ballet muscle injury that’s apparently healed but still causes me pain, compounded by a second injury that an MRI couldn’t find a physical trace of, has me nearly immobilized for months. I mean, I walk around, sure, but it hurts. It always hurts. Then an idiot doctor (whom I’m never going to visit again) threw around the word “degenerative,” and now every little sting of pain in my other leg—the good one—has me thinking that no, this is not just an injury, and yes, I have some horrible degenerative disease, and I’ll be in a wheelchair soon, for whatever little time I have left before I die in pain from not being able to breathe as my muscles stop working.

Side note #1: My leg muscles are fine. I just did thirty-two squats, just to establish functionality, and I didn’t even break a sweat. Can somebody inform my fucked-up right hemisphere?

Anyway. Yup, that’s a panic attack for you.

So, Thursday evening. As these thoughts started spiraling in their well-known, intrusive way, I recognized them for what they were early enough to call for Urban to bring me the Lorazepam. I took one and had him stay there with me in bed and stroke me for a while. What a dream of a husband, you’ll think, and you’ll be right.

After a while, and as I was getting cold and my muscles were starting to shake, he remembered something: “You know that panic attacks are in the side-effects of the anti-depressant, right? And so are muscle pains.”

This didn’t really soothe me, but I asked him to bring the insert and read me the side-effects. “Are you sure it’s a good idea?” he asked, but I told him that yes, it’s a good idea, at least I can ascribe pretty much everything I’m feeling to the drug, and that will definitely make me feel better. So, he brought the list and started reading.

We giggled at “sleepiness-insomnia,” and by the time he reached “painful erection,” both of us were laughing at the insane range of symptoms—many of which are “often,” not even “occasional” or “rare.” It dawned on me that, for a drug with so numerous side-effects to be so successful, what the drug is treating must be way worse, and then I contemplated how debilitating anxiety and depression are—so debilitating, in fact, that you’d rather have painful erections, vertigo, muscle aches and constipation than deal with your own brain attacking you.

Yeah, human beings are fucked up.

Anyway, I’m still not sure that I don’t have some horrible degenerative disease, but I’ll just allow my brain to be illogical for a while longer. Sometimes, these things take care of themselves. Hey, I made it to thirty-eight, while battling phobias, depression, and a faulty personality. It’s not a small success.

Of course, another huge problem presented itself when I woke up on Friday: what the fuck do I have for breakfast?

I was too tired of this shit, so I just had a cappuccino and didn’t have breakfast at all. I mean, if I emerge from this a couple kilos lighter, it certainly won’t be a tragedy.

6. To take, or not to take (the drugs)

<< 5. Victory coffee / 7. All advice is good advice >>

If you ask me, one of my greatest flaws is being such a good, obedient student. When figures of authority give me instructions, I have to take them seriously. Not because of the merit of the advice—I do examine its validity by cross-checking, asking for second and third opinions, researching on my own—but because I don’t want to disappoint them. Somewhere inside me the little goodie-goodie student still wants to be the teacher’s pet and would do anything for their superiors’ approval.

This is me, and damn me if I know why. It’s disappointing, really.

German doctors are frustratingly conservative when it comes to prescribing medication. I know the reasons: they’re liable, and they don’t have a way to know exactly how responsible each patient is. So, on Friday, after my breakdown of Thursday evening, and while I and my husband were trying to explain to the very understanding lady doctors the seriousness of my situation—my blood pressure was already at 150 at 9:30 in the morning—they advised against taking anti-anxiety meds.

This drove my stress to new levels. I didn’t necessarily want to take the sedatives, I just wanted a safety net, a way to know that, should I get another panic attack, should my blood pressure spike again, I could at least take a pill and relax and know that this wouldn’t be the day I got a stroke (long history of strokes in my family, by the way—you understand my fears).

They were reluctant. Potential for addiction, they said. You have to go to a mental health professional, they said. Lorazepam is only for emergencies, they said. But it was 9:30 in the morning, and I was already freaking out. Wasn’t this a fuckin’ emergency? They basically wanted to send me home, after a serious breakdown, with the instruction to “relax.” And I am a goodie-goodie student. I don’t want to disappoint my doctors. I want to be brave, to do the right thing. I want them to be proud of me.

The flaw in their reasoning, though, was that the factors which had made me unable to “relax” didn’t magically disappear just because relaxation was prescribed by my friendly physicians. My contract is still ending in five weeks, after which I’ll be unemployed and, in light of the newest developments, unable to apply for unemployment benefits because I won’t be actively looking for a job. I physically can’t get out of the couch right now, I’m certainly not going to start sending out resumes. My brain is mush. I need rest. I’ll be needing rest for a long, long time, after the decade I’ve had.

I have some experience in advocating for myself when doctors think they know me and my body better than I know myself, so I suppressed the obedient child I hide inside and insisted on the Lorazepam. In the end, they relented. “Only for emergencies,” they repeated, as if breaking down after fifteen years of constant, debilitating emotional and work stress wasn’t an emergency.

At home, I still had difficulty justifying to myself taking the Lorazepam. Both Dimitra and Chet tried to talk some sense into me: you have to take it, they said. You’re still in shock. Your sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, you can’t calm down on your own. You shouldn’t have the extra burden on top of actually healing. “Listen to me, take it!” Guardian-Angel Dimitra said, appealing to her authority as my newly-appointed life coach (I only do what she allows me to do, at least until I get a grip on the situation). “I’m totally not worried about you and addiction,” Chet said, and I totally believe him. Why should he be worried? I’m not worried either. If anything, I’ve been constantly downplaying my symptoms. Even yesterday, after three days of high blood pressure, valerian, Lorazepam, uncontrollable crying at the sound of the telephone—it could be my aunt, that’s no small trauma, lemme tell you—I was still telling Urban that I probably exaggerated, and that calling the paramedics was an overreaction.

Urban laughs at me when say these things. He laughs and hugs me and tells me “all right,” but in an adorably, lovingly condescending way. The message is clear: “You can’t judge the severity of your situation.”

And, of course I can’t. Two years ago, I was trying to learn Arabic, be a geriatric ballerina, raise happy and healthy kids, contribute to science, lose weight, and fix my husband’s emotional development issues, all at the same time, while doing my best to cook healthy meals for my family and keep the household in order. A month ago, I was recording and editing podcasts, doing beta reads, editing full novels, planning and writing novels of my own, decluttering the house, homeschooling two children—one of whom has a slight learning disability, for which I organized therapy sessions with a psychologist at the local family center—and taking care of shopping and meal planning, (you can’t possibly imagine how much my seven-year-old eats), while trying to keep the other adult away from the children so that he doesn’t freakin’ lose his patience again and undo all the good work I was doing.

Well, it catches up with you, doesn’t it? I’m not a good gauge of my strength anymore.

So, bring on the Lorazepam. Just for a little while. Just until I can put these things in perspective and realize what I’ve been doing to myself.

Dimitra decides when I take it and when I stop. I’m not the boss of me anymore!

4. The storm and the calm after

<< 3. Raising an adult / 5. Victory coffee >>

On the Sunday after the breakdown, for the first time in fourteen years, I experienced silence.

If you don’t think that’s a big deal, then you’re not familiar with the concept of chronic tinnitus: a constant ringing, humming, or buzzing in your ears that never, never goes away. I’ve had chronic tinnitus for fourteen years—actually, I have several tinnitus components, of different frequencies and intensities, which fight with each other over who gets to be the loudest.

It was 2006, about the same time of year—late spring—when it started. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Doctors prescribed medication, but it didn’t help at all. I was stressed about my studies, depressed, suffering from phobias and a sense of overwhelming self-loathing (is there a name for that condition?) but I lived in Greece, where mental health issues are still brushed off with your typical macho shrug and get-over-it attitude. I didn’t get a lot of help. My parents tried, but they didn’t understand my problems at all, approaching them with cold hard logic, which you definitely cannot apply to phobias. They eventually sent me to a psychologist who was used to working with young children, and whose approach was “you’ll do this, because I’m telling you to.” Needless to say, it didn’t work.

My solution to all my mental health problems was to get a PhD scholarship and move to Germany, the land of peace and Ordnung. After years of introspection and self-therapy in this safe environment (and some real therapy, with a real person, of the certified kind), I’m proud to say that I’ve come a long way. Still, the tinnitus remains. But hey, that’s faulty wiring, right? Tinnitus is not psychological—or so I thought until today.

About a month ago, a buzzing in my left ear started. It came and went, seemingly at random. It was different than my old friends, the other tinnitus components, and it drove me crazy: I felt it, it wasn’t a more or less discreet companion, like the gentle ringing and chiming that had been with me all those years. It was intrusive, disturbing. It kept me from sleeping. One physician told me he couldn’t do anything about it, that this was not an acute problem, and I could listen to some music to mask it—he’d give me a referral to an ENT doctor eventually. How this affected my mental health was all the same to him. I went to the ENT doctor anyway (thank heavens for the German health system which allows me to visit any doctor I want, as often as I want, no cost, no questions asked), who told me he couldn’t diagnose anything I was not experiencing at the time of the visit, and advised me to keep a record of the problem and drink lots of water.

Fast forward to two weeks later.

The intermittent buzzing was not intermittent anymore. Day and night it was there and getting worse. On that Thursday, as we were putting the kids to bed, I realized the buzzing was louder than ever and my heart was pounding. I just sat for a while, relaxed, but my pulse was still too quick, and the unease didn’t go away. My body felt off, like I was sick, and I knew something was seriously wrong. It finally dawned on me that a persistent buzzing in the ear could have a vascular cause.

I asked Urban to take the batteries out of our youngest one’s nightlight and put them in my blood pressure meter. The result was not reassuring. I got more stressed by the minute, and even though it was cold and dark and I only had pajamas on, I put on my shoes and told Urban I’m going for a drive—on second thought, a walk, who knew if I could drive in that condition. He said he’d wait for me.

That’s when I flipped out. Urban can’t really operate on little sleep.

“You’ll wait for me?” I shouted. “It’s late, you have to wake up early because the kids have school tomorrow, you’ll be cranky all day because you won’t have slept enough, and then I’ll have to pick up the pieces.” I was imagining the fights, the screaming, the slammed doors, and I was already hyperventilating. Tears were flowing—I have no idea why—but he gave me a big hug and promised he wouldn’t be cranky. I went for a walk.

I had my phone with me, and I was texting Dimitra during this whole episode. Outside, as I walked alone in some back streets in the night, the tears kept flowing. I don’t remember what I wrote to Dimitra, but somehow she knew it was serious. “You are having a panic attack,” she wrote to me. “Go back home. Tell Urban to call Markus”—our neighbor—“ and have him drive you to the hospital.”

I don’t know how she knew. The next day, she told me she’d seen it coming for a long time. But I’m stubborn, and I insist on doing everything, and Ι rarely take breaks. And that’s not even the real reason why this happened to me: the emotional strain had more to do with it than any physical activity.

I’ve told you Dimitra’s my guardian angel, right?

Dimitra insists on me taking Lorazepam during these first days, even though the very strict—and a little cruel, if you ask me—doctors sent me home with a blood pressure in the red and the warning not to take it—only for emergencies, they kept insisting, because a blood pressure under 180 is not dangerous for someone my age.

On the Saturday after the panic attack, I woke up with vertigo and a very, very loud ringing in the left ear. The buzzing was gone, but this new sound was nearly unbearable. At the same time, I was horribly sensitive to sound: just opening up the tap caused me to recoil. Everyone had to be very quiet—Urban was nice enough to warn me every time he wanted to turn on the coffee machine. I asked him to bring the kids to his mother, and when he returned, we tried to decide if we should visit another doctor.

I didn’t have the strength to explain the whole convoluted story to yet another non-specialist who’d only have the generic advice I’d already heard, so I drank water and waited to see what happens. The vertigo subsided quickly, and the tinnitus and sound sensitivity—it’s called hyperacusis: what a nice word, instantly understandable to Greek speakers—were less severe by the afternoon. At that point, I relented under Dimitra’s nagging, and I took a Lorazepam.

The symptoms disappeared a couple of hours later, and I enjoyed a good night’s sleep. On Sunday morning, I woke up with a normal, low-level tinnitus—lower than it had ever been in the past fourteen years. Not gone, mind you, but still, the difference was striking.

It was 5:30 a.m. when I went down to the kitchen. For the first time ever in this house, I could hear the buzzing of all appliances. I stepped out onto the patio and took in the early morning sounds: the chirping of the birds, the distant humming of the cars on the Autobahn.

It’s Sunday afternoon now, and although all my old tinnitus buddies are here with me, they’re chilled. Respectful. They don’t intrude at all.

Oh, my God. I have to tell my doctors. Is there a chance I can actually live like this?