By Nanea Hoffman
I’m looking forward to therapy like it’s a treat. It’s a beautiful day—about to be a scorcher, but the late morning breeze still holds a hint of coolness. I’ve decided it would be good to walk the mile and a quarter to the doctor’s office; I can sneak in a little exercise on the way. I’m wearing sunblock. I’m nibbling a granola bar (breakfast) and mentally high-fiving myself for being such a goddamn adult.
I walk by the car wash. At the entrance, puffs of sweet-smelling chemical mist billow out, leaving a metallic taste in my mouth that is not totally unpleasant. I pick my way over the broken sidewalk, past the dilapidated coffee shop whose sign just says “DONUT BAGEL SANDWICH” in faded red and gold, past the Indian place and the Hawaiian barbecue joint, and across the busy highway. My steps are keeping time with the music from the earbuds I tucked in when I left the house.
My pulse is medium high, not just from the brisk pace but from the thought of speaking to yet another new doctor. I know this is a good idea. Everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but the litany of doubt that always precedes one of these visits is already running through my head: “What if I’m not actually depressed and instead I’m just some navel-gazing asshole who thinks too much? What if I don’t actually have anxiety? I mean, like, more than the normal amount? What if this is just how people are and I’m too lame to know it? People have mood swings and worry about stuff and it’s totally normal. I haven’t even had insomnia in months.” My anticipation has turned to acid stomach.
By the time I hit the lobby, I’m sweating. I’ve also forgotten the name of the doctor I’m supposed to see and the number of the department, and I can’t find the stupid email, so I ask the kindly white-haired volunteer at the information desk. “Oh, honey,” she says. “You’re in the wrong building.” She gives me the address; it’s three blocks away. I’m on foot, so now instead of being a few minutes early, I’ll be late. The part of me that’s always tired and resists even simple things like brushing my hair or mailing a letter is ready to give up and go home. But today, I’m a responsible grownup. If I hoof it, I can still make the 15 minute window before my time slot is cancelled.
When I reach the new building, it’s like someone has turned up the volume on the Litany of Doubt playlist. It’s going full blast. And when the dewy-faced receptionist informs me that the doctor I’m here to see is not listed in her computer, a wild guitar solo of “I KNEW IT” goes off in my brain. My body decides we must be under attack. I’m shaking and red-faced, and stress tears are coursing down my face. There’s no stopping them. They’re like special effects tears, except if you saw them in a movie you’d think, “That’s too much. It doesn’t even look real.” I don’t bother to explain or wipe them away, because now every one of my muscles is clenched, braced for some kind of impact.
Three thoughts occur to me:
1) I must actually have anxiety because this is a panic attack. I remember now.
2) It’s interesting that I’m cognizant enough during this panic attack to be mortified by it. Like an out-of-body experience. An out-of-brain experience?
3) I might be losing my mind. Maybe I hallucinated this whole appointment thing, which would actually mean I really need to talk to a professional right fucking quick.
The receptionist tells me I’m in the wrong building. De ja vu! I need to go back to the first one. I make it back down to the street, sit under a tree, and just let the waves roll over me. I remember now. This is real. It will pass in three to five minutes. I breathe and try to go limp. I whisper to each muscle, “Relax, relax. It’s okay. We’re okay.” I’m humbled. My anxiety has just reminded me what it feels like to be a passenger in my own body and not the driver.
At some point, I phone my husband, who is in the car nearby with our teenage son. Thank goodness I have the sense to ask him to take me off speaker. There’s a scream balled up at the back of my throat, but I talk around it. “I’m not doing too well.” I’m walking home—forget the appointment. Getting there now seems like a Sisyphean task. I’ve gotten as far as the car wash when he pulls up beside me. He must have raced home. I ask where our son is.
“I dropped him off. He knows I came to get you.” And now, my playlist has switched to “Parenting Failure, Greatest Hits Vol. 1.” My kid knows what my appointment was for. He knows I am not okay. He’s going to see me like this when I walk in the door. I don’t hide my mental illness from him, but maybe I should? How much of a mess am I allowed to be before I start fucking up the ones closest to me? What’s it doing to my teenager to see his mother a weeping, sweaty mess who has to be picked up off the side of the road like a bag of recycling? How much of this transparency is instructive and how much is traumatizing?
I knew so many things when I left the house this morning. I’ve forgotten almost all of them, but what I know is this: Anxiety isn’t just in my head. It’s in my body.
At home, my son folds me into a long hug, and though I hate that he has to witness this crap, I let myself sink into it. He’s tall enough that my head just fits in the crook of his neck, where I used to cradle his when he was little. “You are a good mother,” my husband insists. “You rest. Let him pick up his sister from school. It’s okay to let him step up.”
“I just want to be normal,” I say, even though as soon as the words leave my mouth, I know that isn’t true. There is no normal. I’d like to be different, though. I’d like to be someone who doesn’t have to pep-talk herself into picking up the phone and making an appointment, or maybe someone who doesn’t have to shepherd herself through ordinary activities with the constant patience and encouragement you’d reserve for a potty-training toddler. I’d like tear ducts that don’t go off like defective fire sprinklers.
I vow to call the next day and reschedule. It feels like I’m promising to lift a boulder. Maybe this time, I’ll drive.