Last summer, a new friend and I started walking the hills of my neighborhood. She’d load up her little squirt, I’d load up mine and off we’d go. She’s a perceptive sort, this friend. The kind you sense an immediate kinship with, though you’re not entirely certain just why. Not surprisingly, I feel most myself with persons of similar intensity. I tend to lay it all out there, which I have discovered makes some people just uncomfortable. So be it.
So this friend of mine, very early on in our walking endeavor, asked me: “Jennifer, are you an anxious person?” This came out of nowhere, or so I thought. Initially, I assured her that no, I’m not, not essentially. But then I added a few qualifications. I told her about my stint with anxiety when I was ten, as if it was a one time event I outgrew. I said I still wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking (BAD time to think) about Jonah or John or Gabriel or the lot of us and can’t go back to sleep. But no, I’m not an anxious person. Right.
A few months into our walking routine I started taking a low dose of Prozac (you can read about that decision HERE), and I must say, it worked like a dream. Not only did it assuage my PMDD symptoms (bi-monthly episodes of uncontrollable crying, raging, and despair, which took a good week to recover from both mentally and physically), but those anxieties that surfaced in the middle of the night diminished significantly. No more panic attacks at 3 a.m. No more feeling as though I would crawl out of my skin if I could. I simply rolled over and went back to sleep.
Then came the inevitable speed bump. As my insurance company kept switching up my meds because of cost or availability (shifting from generic to name brand to tablets to capsules, changing manufacturers), I had cause to reconsider taking the pills at all. One tablet worked great, the next not-so-well, but good enough. The next (those terrible blue capsules) gave me recurrent headaches that made me give up the endeavor entirely for about a week (and let me just say, taking a pill every day is an endeavor—nevermind those naysayers who call it a crutch or the easy way out).
During that pill-free week, the tears started to flow, the headaches still lingered in the back of my brain, and the world took on a potency and a depth that, frankly, I hadn’t realized I was missing. I yelled more. There were strange, disturbing dreams. I woke for hours in the night. I’d gone on the medication because my behavior was hurting my family, and I was losing the ability to care for them and myself. After extensive, and possibly excessive, soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that I still need the pills (but only if they’re the little blue tablet sort), as much as I sometimes miss the intense way I see the world when my brain chemistry isn’t being altered.
The pills are my critical mass. They’re what’s required (for me, at this point in time) “for a specific result or new action to occur”—that action being life, which is all about carrying on. And I don’t mean that in a trudging uphill both ways sense. I mean getting up again, and again, especially when hope gets desperately thin. Some part of me—however small, however remote or half-hearted—believes people can change. The way we choose to follow or pass over certain thoughts and the behaviors that result from them is our critical work of attention (or inattention, as the case may be). And it’s not so much about getting it right every time as it is dusting off our sorry selves and giving it another go. As an oft-quoted saying from the Desert Fathers goes:
“What am I to do since I have fallen?” The Abba replied “Get up.”
“I did get up but I fell again.” “Get up again.”
“I did, but I must admit that I fell once again. What should I do?”
“Do not fall down without getting back up.”
And of course it’s about love. The author Paul Coelho writes that love entails “a constant state of anxiety, a battlefield; it’s sleepless nights, asking ourselves all the time if we’re doing the right thing. Real love is composed of ecstasy and agony.” Soren Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” That makes a lot of sense to me. Anxiety’s the crack in my shield. It’s my vulnerability—what takes me over and reminds me that I’m not nearly so strong as I thought I was, and that no, I cannot not do life alone. How preposterous to think I ever could. I need other people. I need help. Who knew?
Leonard Cohen, apparently.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in. —from “Anthem“