MHI: MY SCARY VALENTINE
Trigger Warning: This article addresses mental health.
MY SCARY VALENTINE
By Maria Alexander
February 14, 2005
That was the day it first happened. I only remember it because it was Valentine’s Day. I wasn’t dating anyone. I hadn’t yet met the man who would someday become my husband, but I would in a week. I hadn’t yet even met the Frenchman I would date for three years who would take me to France for a year. That would happen in a couple of weeks.
No, something far more hellish happened first.
I was driving to work that morning from my Hollywood apartment to the Fox Studios in West Los Angeles. All I can say is that it was a miserable job. That might have contributed to what was about to happen. Or maybe it was because I was about to cross Doheny Drive, which was where I had experienced emotional trauma that same day eight years earlier. More likely, it was because my body and brain decided for some biochemical reason that today was my “lucky” day.
As I approached the intersection, a plunging sensation coursed through my body, followed by dizziness and the unmistakable yet completely irrational fear that I was about to die. My sight even dimmed a couple of shades. I immediately pulled over, trembling. I must have just had a blood sugar crash. For the last several months, I was being treated at the USC Diabetes Center for hypoglycemia. I’d been working with a nutritionist who taught me how to eat to prevent blood sugar crashes. This certainly felt like one.
I flipped open my cell phone and called my nutritionist. She asked me what I’d eaten that morning. I told her. “Sounds like you had a very good breakfast. You shouldn’t have had a blood sugar crash,” she said. “Still, call me if it happens again. Okay?”
After I hung up, I called my mother, who was diabetic. “You should drink some orange juice right away,” she recommended. “And have some protein in thirty minutes.”
That sounded reasonable. I happened to be parked across the street from a small market. I went inside and purchased a little container of orange juice and a bag of almonds. I sipped some of the juice and then drove to work, where my car climbed the concrete spiral of the Fox Studios parking complex before I found a parking space several levels up.
As I worked at my terrible job, I couldn’t quite shake an emotional and physical residue from the incident. I didn’t change my eating habits. I stuck to what I’d been taught by the nutritionist. When the day was over, I returned to my car. But as I walked toward it, a curious feeling of dread gripped my heart. Why? I’d had a blood sugar crash. That was all. I was fine now. Fear tingling in my chest and throat, I gripped the steering wheel and started the engine. I was fine. Everything was okay.
Or so I kept telling myself.
The next morning, the same thing happened again at the exact same intersection. With a death grip on my steering wheel, I kept driving. This isn’t a blood sugar crash, I told myself.
This is something else.
But I still didn’t know what else it could be.
That evening when I was done with work, every step I took up that parking spiral felt like a death march. I started shaking and sobbing when I saw my car. I can’t drive. Something horrible will happen. I’m going to die…
If you know anything about Los Angeles, you know that driving is central to our city’s culture. Otherwise, you’re at the mercy of public transportation, which takes at least three times longer than driving and far less safe. If I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t work. I had no other reliable means of transportation. And I couldn’t just quit. Like millions of Americans, I was living paycheck to paycheck.
With all this in mind, I took deep breaths, wiped my tears, and told myself repeatedly that I was okay. Even if I wasn’t, I would be okay, and that I had to be okay to drive. I made it home, but I fell apart in the parking garage of my apartment complex as soon as I parked.
Just what the hell was going on?
I scheduled an appointment with my therapist, even though I thought my car would drop into a sinkhole at any moment as I drove to her office. She said it sounded like I’d had a panic attack on Valentine’s Day morning that triggered acute generalized anxiety. Panic attacks can feel like blood sugar crashes, she said. People often mistake them for heart attacks. I can see why. That morning I honestly felt I was going to die. (But I didn’t, to the chagrin of my mortal enemies.)
My therapist asked me if I wanted a referral to a psychiatrist for medication. I refused. If I took medication, that meant I was broken. My unwillingness to consider medication baffles me in retrospect because I was really suffering. My therapist didn’t pressure me. She suggested instead that I develop mental strategies to distract myself while driving, like doing simple math problems in my head or singing. Driving was a constant challenge, but I stayed safe by slowing down and focusing on my environment.
Soon, that strange fear bled into my daily activities. In early April, when I was at the World Horror Convention in New York City, I walked across the lobby with the feeling that the floor would collapse underfoot and swallow me whole. The sensation of falling — or rather that I was about to fall — accompanied me everywhere. The only time I had any relief was when I went to bed at night. Blessed sleep dispersed the terror. Thank goodness.
I started dating the French guy a month after the convention. In a classic display of his chronically underdeveloped listening skills, he determined that I was actually depressed, not anxious. He recommended that I start taking St. John’s Wort. While I disagreed with his assessment, I figured an herb couldn’t hurt, especially since I wasn’t taking any other medications with which it could interact. So, to please him, I picked up a jar from Whole Foods and started taking 900 mg a day.
To my complete astonishment, the anxiety stopped. Unconvinced that a simple herb could alleviate something so serious, I experimented by going off of it for a week. The anxiety returned. Weird! I went back on the St. John’s Wort and a week later the anxiety disappeared again. I kept taking it for the next three years. In 2008, I discovered I no longer needed it after food poisoning at the World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City. I couldn’t handle much in my stomach for a few days thereafter, much less pills, and noticed that the anxiety had gone away completely.
Thank goodness for the Frenchman’s bad listening skills. For once. (That said, I was very lucky not to have any side effects. Please consult your doctor before you start taking supplements, whether or not you’re taking any medications.)
During those three years, I learned that Germany and other countries had done extensive studies on St. John’s Wort, where they’d uncovered its anti-anxiety properties. When I was living in France from 2006 to 2007, I found I couldn’t buy it at the grocery store. The French doctors considered it medication. I had to have a prescription for it.
I’m not gonna lie, though. My dance with anxiety didn’t end forever. Age and hormonal fluctuations can change your biochemical topography so that conditions like anxiety return in new forms. Heart palpitations in the middle of the night. Maybe a sudden new fear of heights or experiences with vertigo. Researchers have barely scratched the surface of understanding the effects of hormones on the brain, particularly for uterus-bearing folx. I’ve embraced traditional medicine when in need, and it, too, has served me well.
If you know me, I might seem to be the least likely person in the world to have ever suffered anxiety. Many people have told me over the years that I’m the bravest person they know. I’m the outspoken sword slinger, a fearless and badass onna-musha. Right? I understand it’s tempting to judge someone’s insides by their outsides, but that often doesn’t give the complete picture. Besides, anxiety and bravery aren’t incompatible. You might even define bravery as doing something while you’re scared. Or at least while feeling really crappy.
There’s no shame in being scared, and certainly none for suffering from anxiety. Just know that the people you consider the bravest have been there.
Maria Alexander is an active HWA member, and the multiple Bram Stoker Award®-winning author of novels, short fiction, poetry, and essays. Learn more about her work at www.mariaalexander.net.