11. Panic Attack Thursday

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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?

2. Something nice

<< 1. The issue of breakfast / 3. Raising an adult >>

“Think of something nice,” the paramedic said. I was connected to the EKG machine, my muscles were trembling, and the friendly, helpful people in the orange suits had trouble deciphering the wonky readout. “Are you cold?” he asked. “You’re shaking.” I wasn’t cold, the weather was rather warm. I was warm, and I told him so. “Close your eyes,” he said. “Think of the holidays.”

What holidays? Who the hell knows if there are going to be holidays this year? We have to pass through five different countries to reach Greece from Munich, and nobody knows how long this Corona thing is going to last and which of those countries will open their borders until then. I might as well think of something else. But what?

The feeling of my son hugging me, pressing his baby-soft cheek against mine, his little arms around my neck, just didn’t cross my mind—I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it didn’t. Neither did the image of my daughter, who’s turning into an intelligent and beautiful young woman day by day, resisting the unfortunate example of body negativity and teetering self-esteem her mother is providing. I could have imagined those two hugging me and telling me “I love you, mommy,” like they do every evening before they go to bed. This is the most wonderful moment of my day—any day. But I was just exhausted, and I couldn’t think of anything fuckin’ nice.

I’d been at lake Starnberg that day, with my goofy friend Tyler, Tyler of the striking blue eyes. I tried to hold on to some of that, the serenity when standing on the shore looking at the Alps in the distance, the view of the boats sailing on the water, or at least the image of the pretty eyes—my brain was mush, no point trying to remember conversations, no matter how pleasant or enlightening—but all of those things, though easy to put on the something-nice shelf, still slipped out of reach of my probing mind and merged into the reddish darkness behind my eyelids.

The paramedics gave me a sedative and were on their way. It still took me a long time to fall asleep. Urban stayed with me the whole time, stroking me, soothing me. In the end, he fell asleep, poor guy.

I still made him promise he’d take me to the doctor the next day. I have little faith in his ability to take care of me. Earlier, when I was hyperventilating and my hands were getting numb and my blood pressure was spiking to a number I just don’t want to know, he stood there, frozen in place, staring at me, asking again and again, “What should I do?” It was Dimitra, my guardian-angel Dimitra, who told me “you’re having a panic attack, get help,” and damned if I know how she figured it out through chat messages. “I saw it coming on,” she told me a couple days later. Maybe this is how she immediately knew.

The thing is, I always, always have to save myself. Every single time. I dread the time when I won’t be able to, when I’ll be unconscious and he won’t notice because he’ll be spending the evening in the basement, in front of his computer, like he always does.

I’m kind of tired of saving myself. I’m also tired of being the default problem solver. But I suppose now that I’m sitting here, on the couch, my only activities writing, going to the bathroom, and asking for stuff, they have to learn to solve their problems themselves.

1. The issue of breakfast

2. Something nice >>

What can I eat?

What should I eat?

Every decision is a pile of loose rubble I have to climb. It’s easy to get to the top, you naïvely think, because it’s not that high. Piece of cake. But when you set your foot on it, you find yourself sliding back. Others seem perfectly able to climb piles of rubble every day, though. Do they have superpowers? Or are you abnormal?

And, the big question: what should I eat?

It’s so hard to decide. I don’t want to be the one deciding anymore. But I can’t afford to stop either. Urban prefers to let issues resolve themselves. If I wasn’t here to put things to motion, my daughter would never go to therapy, she’d never get the help she needs. I am the one who fixes everything. God, I can’t be the only adult here.

Thank heavens I have Dimitra. She’s the one who guided Urban through my nervous breakdown—so they called it—last Thursday. Does a nervous breakdown cause high blood pressure? I’m sure something’s wrong with me. Everyone else insists it’s “just stress,” as if being unable to breathe and feeling that you should stop existing, now, is a problem that can be described using the word “just.” I don’t know if it’s just stress. I only know everything is hard.

I’m back from the doctor, and I’m hungry. What to have for breakfast is always the toughest decision. I keep chatting with Dimitra, and she asks me what I’d like to eat. Somehow, this simple question resolves it for me. Dimitra is magical that way.

PBJ sandwich, I tell her. I’m Greek, and I live in Germany, and in both those places PBJ is not a thing. Still, I tried it a couple of times—lots of American friends, you see, I wanted to know what the fuss was all about—and I developed a taste for it. I like peanut butter now—who would have thought?

“Do you have the ingredients?” she asks me. She always gets in problem-solving mode, and right now I really appreciate it. And I do have the ingredients, so I make myself a sandwich. But the Earl Grey is a little too strong. What can you do? I’ll use fewer tea leaves next time.

I don’t know why they didn’t see it coming. The kids are kids, so that’s okay, I suppose, how would they know? But that’s an old-fashioned, myopic point of view. Children are not dumb. They did know. They were irritable and upset. Mommy’s not all right. Is she having another meltdown? Why does she freak out when my brother and I talk? We weren’t fighting, we were just talking. “It sounded like you were about to start bickering again,” mommy said. But we really weren’t.

And why can’t mommy answer my questions?

I wish I could explain to them that answering is so hard. Just like everything else. Everything is just so damned hard.

The PBJ sandwich helped a little.