Every time I pull into our driveway in the DC ’burbs, Google Maps announces: “You Have Arrived!” And damn, if truer words have never been spoken. I’m forty-two and looking fitter and finer than I ever have. I’m happily—and still very passionately—married. I have two teenaged daughters who actually confide in me, a dog and cat that run to greet me when I walk in the door of our lovely (if messy sometimes) home. And last year I started the job of my dreams, which is all about helping adolescents get access to birth control. This is the stuff that we are all supposedly running toward. And yet, three months ago, I came very, very close to running away.
It was all very calm and felt like a perfectly logical thing to do—and rather easy too. The idea came to me on a regular Thursday while I was having an Italian sub at a sandwich place near my office. I would just take my phone upstairs into my office, leave it on my desk, get my wallet, and go somewhere. I could take a cab to a friend’s house in Manassas and nobody would think to look for me there. Or I could get a train and then an Airbnb and just disappear into a crowd in New York City like I used to do when I was a young woman living there working in publishing. Nobody would know where I was, and that was the point.
I got onto booking.com and found an awesome place in Miami. I had my credit card. I could go to the airport now. I felt lightheaded and giddy thinking about it. It felt compulsively pleasurable to play it out. I wondered if I could remember my address to put it into the website.
When Good Days Go Bad
Because, if I’m being honest, it wasn’t exactly a “normal Thursday.” I had just dropped off a package at the UPS store with a gift for my nephew, and I couldn’t remember my address or phone number. I stood there having what I thought was a little brain fart—but what I realize now was a panic attack. I’ve had many panic attacks in my life, but this one was different. I giggled a little and made excuses about how the zip codes are the same numbers, just in a different order (which is actually true). After an increasingly awkward and incredibly long sixty seconds, the cashier finally, (quietly and kindly) suggested the address would be on my driver’s license. If I called her we could find my phone number too. I left the shop burning with shame, seeing stars.
And it hadn’t really been a normal week either. I had already had two panic attacks that week. One of them involved me waking up in the middle of the night with my heart pounding out of my chest—the blood thundering in my ears, sheets cold and soaked with sweat around me. The other one was a classic—shortness of breath, gasping for air. I thought I might be having an asthma attack, except I don’t have asthma.
And if we’re really going to tell this story right, it hasn’t exactly been a normal year. We moved back to the U.S. in the summer of 2016, after living for sixteen years in West Africa and Kenya. My interracial family had a lovely honeymoon moment over the summer (I mean, the retail here is SO GOOD), and then—like all of the rest of you—we got the brutal punch in the face that was the election.
Plus, there was a lot of other big and truly stressful stuff made worse by said election. We were dealing with immigration for my oldest daughter, who is adopted (long story filled with boring jurisdictional issues), and through that had to work closely with my ex-husband. Let’s just say people are exes for good reasons, which often do not involve working effectively together and communicating well about important things. That dream job I mentioned? It’s pretty much kicking my ass. And Charlottesville (did I mention I have an interracial family?). And yeah, there’s a little PTSD in there too. I’ve experienced some traumatic things in my time—including sexual assault (like so many of us)—and it turns out you can’t just wrap that shit up in duct tape and throw it into the basement and carry on indefinitely. Especially when your mental trauma circuit board is being lit up all the time by Twitter and the news.
Culture shock is such a sweet little term for what has felt to me like a mental zombie apocalypse.
That “Special” Energy
The full truth is that I have probably never had a completely “normal” day since I can remember having any memories at all. That’s because chronic anxiety has been so much a part of me, and so much a part of my family (it’s genetic), that I had mistaken it for drive and passion and productivity and energy and conscientiousness. American culture rewards anxiety, and man have I been rewarded! I’m a classic, white-knuckled, Gen X, gut-it-out, dig deeper, work-a-holic, overachiever. I do like to have fun though, and have a pretty happy set point. Happy plus anxiety is a very productive combination. Everybody talks about Manya’s special energy—like I’m lit from the inside. But it wasn’t soft radiance. It was incandescence. Inside I was squinting against the glare and burning myself up. I had butterflies in my stomach literally all the time. I woke up every morning of my life with a gnawing sense of dread and a feeling of being an imposter. I could never sleep through the night–and didn’t understand people who could. I compulsively logged calories and steps and food choices and chased perfection. Anxiety was me for so long that I really had no idea what normal was at all. And because I have a great capacity for joy, I didn’t even know I was suffering.
The Kiss ’n’ Ride Reckoning
I closed the Airbnb app. I didn’t book a flight. I finished my sandwich and went back up to my office. Brian sent me a text telling me I was hot and he missed me. I didn’t respond. I finished the day in a sort of out-of-body way. I took the metro home and Brian picked me up, as usual, at the Kiss ’n’ Ride (I just want to pause here and acknowledge the awesome whimsy of there being an actual official government sign that says: “Kiss ’n’ Ride.”) I had yet another panic attack on the way home—pain stabbed through my left shoulder and heart as I fought back a flood of hot tears, painfully swallowed the hippopotamus lodged in my throat, and struggled to breathe. Stars swam in front of my eyes and my head pounded. I was not okay. This was Not Normal.
And so I did what is always the right thing to do, even when—no especially when—it is really hard. Sitting in the car, parked in the garage, I told Brian the truth. I told him that I had almost run away from home, from him. I broke down and cried all the tears, and said all of the ugly things I’d been bottling up—fear, resentment, and rage. I admitted to myself I was ill. And my husband, who loves me to his core, and to mine, had the perfect response. He reached out to hold my hand.
“Honey, if you need to get away, that’s okay. Let’s find a way for you to get away. I can understand if you need a break from life, and from me. I can handle our life for a bit. But please don’t run away. I would be so terrified. It would shake my world and what I know is true. The girls would be broken. Please don’t run away from us. You are our heart. And please, honey, please, see a doctor. You don’t have to do everything the hardest possible way.”
That night I showered him in wet kisses and clung to him like a barnacle in our bed—every part of me tangled up in one of his long limbs. I was scared if I let go for a minute, I might float away to a place where I wouldn’t be able to find my way back.
Getting on meds was anything but straightforward. It took weeks to get an appointment, because American healthcare is messed up. While I counted down the days to my appointment on September 11th, I stayed up, night after night, using my usual insomnia and that incandescent energy to pore over recent lit reviews on Google Scholar comparing all of the different classes of SSRIs. I made a massive spreadsheet and developed a rating system to compare the different drugs according to different side-effect frequency percentages. I read ENDLESS reviews and comments on comment boards. I catastrophized that I would never have sex again or gain fifty pounds, or both. I created a tracker in my bullet journal to track workouts, and meditation sessions, and religiously breathed when my Apple Watch told me to.
When I finally saw the doctor, I proudly presented all of this to her like a final class project that I should get an A on (because God knows—anxiety chased me to a LOT of achievement in school), and asked for the drug with the best statistical side-effect profile—while also saying that I probably didn’t really need it since I was going to be perfect about all of the working out and meditation.
She just looked at me for a long moment, ignored the spreadsheet, wrote me a ’scrip and said, “Manya… you’re going to feel so much better.”
And the short (and blessedly anticlimactic) version of the story is: I do. At least for now.
More of Me
Within days of starting meds the butterflies living in my stomach for decades were just… gone. I actually sleep through the night now! (WHAAAT?!) For the first time since I was thirteen, I’m not thinking about food or calories or my weight—like, at all. The huge space that those thoughts have always compulsively occupied was suddenly free to think about and do other things. Like enjoy a walk. I have always really puzzled over how a person could just “let go” of anything at all. I was incapable of letting go—of thoughts, of worries, of responsibilities… of anything! I now understand what it means to let go. I just breathe and observe the worry, and decide I’m not going to focus on it. Meditation actually works for me now. Worries are there, but they aren’t demons with talons through my heart and diaphragm. Also? I’m still having orgasms and have actually lost some weight (see: not thinking constantly about controlling food).
I was so afraid that meds would numb me and take away the things that make me ME: my energy, my passion, my sensitivity, my drive, my sense of responsibility. But what I know now is that anxiety was keeping me from being the fullest version of myself. I thought it was driving me forward, but it was holding me back—strangling me as it raked its spurs on my flanks.
Even when things were going really well and I was happy, anxiety was taking up a huge amount of space. And when things were rough (as life is wont to be, because it’s life), anxiety became a vortex—pulling me down, down, down, and I never knew where the bottom would finally be. I still feel everything—but my reactions are proportional now. I am acting—not reacting. I’m less defensive, more present with people. I don’t feel backed into a corner, or like a fraud. I’m not worried anymore that I will be swept away—or run away for that matter. It was taking so much energy to manage my mind, control my emotions and appear normal—I was exhausting. The relief is profound, and I regret that I didn’t get help years ago.
And come to find out, running away is a pretty common fantasy, though nobody is chatting about it on Instagram. Literally every person I have had the courage to confide in has confessed that they have thought about it too. My neighbor friend—a much older woman who is wise, and who I love—told me that when she was newly married she used to drive to the airport and fantasize about getting on a plane and leaving DC. Another friend confessed that she makes up business trips so that she can escape and reconnect with her me-self. In this crucible that is American life in this moment, I think I do need to find some ways to escape and just be free. I’m figuring out what that might look like and how to be intentional about it—there’s no need to leave carnage in my wake as I JetSki into a sunset somewhere.
The Myth of Arriving
As I write this, I’m sitting in the living room of that lovely house in front of a fire. It’s a little messy. My kitty and dog are curled up on either side of me. I’m snuggled under an impossibly soft blanket and the first snow of the season is beginning to dust the branches on the trees outside. I’m taking the girls to the ballet this afternoon—we love all of the cultural adventures in DC. I’ve Skyped with Brian who has escaped to Tanzania on long work trip, and is now over the novelty and dying to get home. I’m missing him painfully, and also enjoying the deep sleep that comes when you are alone in your own huge bed. One of the things that I seem to learn over and over is how rarely life is either one thing or another. I truly love my job, AND still fantasize quite regularly about quitting. I truly love my life AND I want to escape it sometimes. I adore my family, AND they drive me batty. I am joyful and successful AND grappling with mental illness. I’m strong, courageous, and have grit in spades AND I am exquisitely sensitive, broken, and will likely be on medication for the rest of my life. Those things would appear to be mutually exclusive, but they coexist. That doesn’t mean that I’m failing in some way—it means that I’m a grown up, grappling with this thing called life that only seems to get more complex as I get older. Google Maps might cheekily announce that I’ve Arrived, but there’s no such thing, because we don’t achieve life. We live it. Life—and marriage—are dynamic and ephemeral, and I think it only stops being paradoxical when we stop growing.
One thing that does seem to have gotten simpler over time is my marriage. After a decade together, and through surviving lots of shocks, Brian and I have settled into a deep, intimate partnership that feels mostly easy and safe. Given that connection, Brian was deeply shaken to learn that I had seriously thought about running away, and, no doubt, felt wounded and betrayed. In spite of his fear, his response in that moment was one of empathy, caring, and trust. His reaction—and the challenge to see a doctor about meds—will go down in my book as one of the most important ways he has ever said, “I love you.”
I have given myself permission to plan an escape whenever I need one. And I know that when I’m finished escaping, I will be very happy to arrive back where I truly do belong: at home with my husband, where our beautiful, messy, paradoxical life, awaits.