Where can I hide when the problem is inside me?
For me, the hardest part of being a newspaper reporter was not working as another cadaver on the treadmill of journalistic mediocrity but driving the 3.4 miles to work in the morning.
It often took 30 to 45 minutes or more to go the distance—stopping on the side of the road, pulling my brain’s taffy, trying to stretch sense into a limbic system that swore it couldn’t breathe and threatened me with black and twisted, wrought-iron death but not allowing me to scream because I couldn’t get enough air.
Surely it’s a trifle of a drive, a bag of peanuts for most, and sitting on my lotus safe at home, I can dish out the same gilded nuggets of reason now. But not then.
Then it was panic/anxiety/schizophrenia—a chewed-up, carrion-themed nightmare.
I simply couldn’t drive. I had to distract myself by throwing ice water at my face or pouring it down my back. I’d have to change shirts once I got into the work parking lot. Luckily, I kept three or four extra in the back seat.
Funny thing. I’m coasting down the mountain from Lake Tahoe on a warm, blue afternoon, sticking the curves and letting the car drift so the journey toward the valley floor takes on the drowsy rhythm of travel, when my hands start shaking violently. I lose my grip on the steering wheel—the world concusses inside me, like cannon fire going off inside my skull, my brain the lead ball.
Here I am on a pleasant afternoon drive after a day at the lake, and I’m stuck in the last second of my life, death is right here right now but keeps changing and coming back with new and more horrific and heinous threats like a sadistic hunter with too much time on his hands between seasons. I wish it would just kill me and get it over with because this mental bayoneting is going to do me in.
But I’m still moving. I’m still driving the car. Three thousand pounds of steel and chrome in the hands of a man with a grasp on life like a single strand of hair in a river. And we’re going faster.
Total elapsed time since this episode began: about 10 seconds.
It seems like hours. What do I do? How do I stop it? I battle an urge to stomp the gas and veer the car into the guardrail and over the hill at the next turn or grab the steering wheel and spin it as hard and fast as I can and roll, roll, roll until the crunching noises stop, and it’s all over.
I can actually feel my death coming: my forehead punching through the windshield, my skin ripped off like a cheap Halloween costume as I’m dragged across the pavement, my skull crushed and shattered like a warm egg against a flat rock.
Somehow, my foot finds the brake, and I swerve into a makeshift turnout, and the car stops. Me, I’m still moving toward the guardrail at 100 mph, but the car is stopped.
The sheet music of regular consciousness has been crumpled up and the notes—the normal pieces of life like birds chirping and people talking on the radio and the sound of the wind—all fly at me from a distance inside the frayed wiring of my brain. (The doctors tell me my nerve cells aren’t getting enough serotonin.) A car passes by, honks its horn, and my mind crumbles like cheap masonry.
Everything I’ve been taught about life, from the act of involuntary breathing to the way gravity has a way of keeping me from being sucked upside down into the sky and lost in space—everything—now seems uncertain. I don’t trust anything. I need help. To that end, the psychiatrists have offered Zyprexa, Xanax, Klonopin, Seroquel, Paxil, Effexor, Geodon, Abilify, Serzone, Celexa, Zoloft, Anafranil—anti-psychotic and serotonin-leveling drugs, major and minor tranquilizers that change your personality or whatever’s left of it. Drugs that make you sleep 16 hours a day and wake up feeling tired. Drugs that you come to depend on and can’t survive without.
I can feel my heart booming in my throat. Is that blood I taste? What’s to stop my heart from just exploding like an over-inflated tire?
The thoughts race up and down like the colors on a barber’s pole, but I can’t break away.
My wife, who was half-sleeping in the passenger seat, is wide awake, smacking me on the face, throwing water at me, wondering why the hell we’re parked in the gravel.
“Snap out of it!” she says, pleading as she screams my name and tugs my shoulder. “Look at me! You’re not dying! You are not going to die!”
Almost 10 years ago, I was hanging out in my girlfriend’s room at college, drinking a beer and trying to get in her pants, when this odd feeling came over me. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like some horrible acid casualty, like some poor bastard slowly suffocating in a refrigerator—the kind poor kids find in vacant lots and play with until a rusty latch entombs them for good. What was going on? I lay on her bed, hyperventilating, my thoughts getting darker and darker.
I was dying.
The doctor at the emergency room told me I had just suffered a panic attack. That’s it. A panic attack. Embarrassing. He gave me a prescription for some medicine and sent me home.
“That shit’s never going to happen again,” I said to my girlfriend.
“You freaked me out. You looked like ‘Dude.'”
“Dude” was this guy from Florida who took a bunch of acid at a party one night, took off his clothes and started convulsing on the floor, screaming about God and the devil. The paramedics had to come and put him in a straightjacket and carry him off, buckled to a gurney while he argued with things that only he could see.
I gave her a hug. “Well, that shit’s not happening to me again. That, I can guarantee you.”
“You must be stressed over finals or something,” she said.
“Something,” I smiled, glad my little episode with mental illness had run its course, and I was back to reality. In fact, the Xanax they gave me got me a little high, and the other stuff made my whole body tingle every time I yawned. I went around campus yawning and tingling.
I’m at a press conference, covering the unveiling of the Nevada state quarter. I’m in one of my full panics. Death is near. Blindness is closer. I run into the hall and close my eyes, practicing deep, mindful breathing. I’m already on so many tranquilizers the whole scene feels like I’m dreaming. I run back into the room. State Treasurer Brian Krolicki pulls back the sheet covering the winning design. The wild horses win. All I can think about is being racked and pulled apart by the mustangs.
I was thinking of questions to ask the treasurer while trying not to go blind. The idea that everything would instantaneously go black, and I would be sucked into a world of dark pain was the latest manifestation of my panic. Lost. Unable to call for help. Don’t get me wrong—I had prepared for just such an event, memorizing how many clicks down my wife was on my cell phone should the worst finally happen. She was 11 clicks down. My mother, 3,000 miles away in Atlanta, was 14. My doctor was four. My wife’s mother was nine. My brother-in-law was 16. Surely one of these people could help me if I needed it.
These were delusions, yes, but they were as real as any physical illness I’ve ever had, and I was as shattered as any femur has ever been. In the midst of a panic attack, I did a short interview with the treasurer and hoped nobody noticed the water stains on my shirt—from when I had to leave and douse myself with a calming rush of sense in the men’s room. My skin was dry, and my lips were cracked from all the water.
I’d take a cup of ice and drop it down my back one piece at a time on my way to assignments, snapping rubber bands against my wrist and generally trying to survive in a constant state of fight-or-flight that brought my blood pressure to a hypertensive 165/110 and a resting pulse rate of 100.
All the while, I was using whatever I had left in me to try to write decent stories for the paper. Sometimes, I couldn’t face people and talk to them with my eyes open. I was in a constant state of panic and slipping away.
When I got home at night, I was unable to do much but sleep. I was unable to enter a Wal-Mart without freaking out. I played it off as a political statement.
“What’s to stop my eyes from burning out like headlights?” I asked my wife for the 10,000th time that day.
“You’re not going blind,” she told me.
I wanted to believe her. But this anxiety—it got inside me and circulated like counterfeit money. I wasn’t, as my wife had put it, the man she had married. I wasn’t a man. “I’m going to die,” I said again, this time meekly enough that I knew she would never be able to get over it; that this was it. After all the patience and all the hell I had put her through, she would never have the same respect for me again. Things could never be the same.
“Take some Klonopin,” she told me, sighing. “You’re not going to die. I promise.”
“It feels so real,” I say.
She looked at me with a worn sympathy as I chewed up three Klonopin and let them dissolve under my tongue for quickest effect.
My marriage was over.
A letter from my doctor:
To: Bellevue Hospital Psychiatric ER Physician
Re: Peter Thompson
Peter is a pt. of mine since May 2000. He was then suffering from a severe obsession and fear of dying of a heart attack. In March ‘02 left for Nevada. Recently came back with severe anxiety and a new delusion of becoming “blind.”
M.S. Severely impaired by this obsession-delusion. Occasionally feels like “going crazy.” Depressed, anxious ++++. Has suicidal thoughts. No gross neurological symptoms.
Diagnosis: Schizophrenic form psychosis with severe obsessions-delusions.
Pt. Needs acute psychiatric care. Please evaluate and help.
I wake up, my feet and hands cuffed to a gurney. This is the third time this has happened. If the handcuffs are made of Velcro, you’re OK. It’s when they’re made of steel, and you’re being guarded by some policeman looking at you like a warm body ready to heat up his cold case files, that you have something to worry about. Once in Reno, I remember being quizzed by an officer in a windbreaker from the hate crimes division. I had met some people while I was out drinking, or “self-medicating,” as it’s called. Three drunken white guys from Vegas. We were rolling around Reno listening to Mobb Deep before we went around one too many corners, and I ended up puking on the guy’s seat covers. I was kicked out somewhere on Fourth Street and nearly run over and beaten. Really, I have nothing but the utmost respect for the Reno Police Department, but when a drunken white guy in a hospital says how he just beat this nigga named Biggie Smalls to death and buried him behind a Sav-On and is taken seriously, you’re not all too surprised when, next year, a show on Comedy Central called Reno 911! becomes something of a hit. Again, just for the record—I didn’t kill Biggie Smalls and bury him behind a Sav-On.
I buried him behind a Rite-Aid.
“Do you know where you are?” asked a pleasant woman.
I looked around. Pretty obvious. The hospital.
Not so obvious: “Do you know how you got here?” “Do you know what city you’re in?” “Do you know the name of the hospital?”
Baltimore, at a place called Union Memorial. News to me.
Apparently, I had drunk myself into another blackout and had to be pulled off a balcony by two Baltimore City police officers during a suicide attempt.
“Why would you want to kill yourself, Mr. Peter?” asked the lady. I struggled to move with my restraints. I wanted to look at her. This sympathetic voice. She was a nice-looking black lady with calm eyes. I was still drunk enough to want to hit on her, but I knew, measuring my state, that I didn’t have much to offer her. She was my suicide sitter while they waited to admit me, and she sat at my side for an entire day. I knew it was her job, or maybe she volunteered. I just couldn’t figure out what my life meant to her. She made sure I had water and was so nice to me, she made me cry.
I was admitted to the hospital as a danger to myself and set to see the doctor the next day. Until then, typical psych ward rules: no belt, no shoes, no phone. A heavily regimented existence. It was, I learned, a popular place to duck pursuing law enforcement.
A few patients were bedridden. Most were drug addicts. A lady named Blayne told me everything I needed to know while I begged a male nurse for some ice water. “This gal right here,” she said of a morbidly fat woman, she’s “Stink on Wheels.”
She certainly smelled like it.
Blayne got abrasive with her. “Why don’t you just take a single fucking shower?” she demanded.
Stink on Wheels didn’t care. She looked as though she had been in the psych ward for 30 years and would be in there for 30 more. Shower or no shower. The next morning before I saw the doctor, I got my vitals taken right after her. Just the area where the blood pressure cuff had been on her and then transferred to me smelled like a plastic bag full of sewer-rat shit. People don’t just get handed names like Stink on Wheels. You had to earn these titles. What had I earned? Debt. The anger of friends who couldn’t understand what the hell was wrong with me. A wife who had learned to hate me and my condition. Only my sister would take me in.
“I’ll be leaving today,” said Blayne with pride as I was called to the doc’s office for evaluation. This was some kind of wishful thinking on her part, obviously. “I’m gonna get fucked up,” she promised. “Fucked up!” She stuck out her hand, insisting that I give her five.
I didn’t want to give her one.
The doctor looked at me over the tip of a pen as if fine-tuning his diagnosis. “You have a substance-abuse problem,” he said. “What are you mixed up with? Heroin? Crack? Pot? Coke? Meth? Tell me how you think you ended up here.”
“I was drinking,” I said. “I’ve been out of medication for a few weeks, so I started drinking.”
“Have you ever been tested for Hep C?” he said. “HIV? Have you ever shared a needle?”
“Just at the hospice,” I said, trying to lighten up the interrogation. It was like trying to explain a triangle to a piece of driftwood. He already had his mind made up.
“Hospice,” he said, writing something down. “So how did you get here?”
“The cops brought me.”
“You weren’t arrested?”
“Which leads me to believe you have a pretty serious alcohol problem.” He looked through my chart. “Are you employed?”
“No,” I said. “The last job I had was as a reporter.”
“A reporter?” He looked astonished.
“For a newspaper.”
“And that’s in Nevawwwda. So your drinking got you fired, is that what happened?”
“No, one day I just I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t drive. We had a story to do on seed collecting. It was after the Waterfall Fire.”
“ ‘Waterfall’ fire?” he said, making a note of this strange inconsistency of words.
I told him that I just got up and left the job in the middle of the day because I couldn’t even be a person anymore, let alone write 1,000 words on seeds.
The doctor wrote down the word “seeds.”
“I went over the edge and became completely obsessed with the thoughts, which just brought more panic, and it just turns into a cycle. Retina stains started forming in my eyes, and the rays from the sun were hitting me like little arrows. I just wanted to go back to my cheap motel and fold up into the wall like a Murphy bed. I tried cutting myself, but the blood was warm, and I wanted something cold. My mind was blocked like a septic tank full of cement.
“Here were these nice people out spending their Saturday wading into pricker bushes collecting seeds to replant a burned-out area on a hot July morning, and I couldn’t even hold my eyes open long enough to look at my notebook and write down what they were saying. I was no longer human. No longer a man. Just a scared little fucked-up kid on heavy-duty mind drugs.”
“What kind of seeds were they?”
“Bitter brush, I think.”
Like every doctor before him, he came to a similar conclusion, what amounted to me to be a psychiatric death sentence.
The answer to my problem: File for disability. Get food stamps. Basically pack it in. You’ll never work again.
“You just don’t seem to respond to medicine or therapy,” he said.
“I try,” I said.
“That’s why there’s disability,” he said. “You have a severe anxiety disorder. It’s when …”
“Axons, dendrites, neurons, neurotransmitters, biochemical cascade of signal transduction …,” I said. “I’ve read everything on it for the last 10 years. I know.”
“So you know a little bit about it.”
“I think I’m going to go blind. Like those Cambodian boat people. Something psychosomatic. I can’t drive. I have trouble walking. But I’m not going on disability.”
He sighed. “I’d like to keep you here for a while, but I can tell you don’t want to be here. I’m discharging you and writing you a prescription for Effexor and Klonopin,” he said.
“Doctor,” I said. “Do you think I’ll go blind?”
He hesitated. “You know who Charles Richter was?”
“Earthquakes—the Richter Scale?”
“Right,” said the doctor. “You know he lived his whole life in Southern California.”
“Was he on disability?”
The doctor laughed as much as he would let himself. “Stay away from the liquor,” he said. “You can’t drink on this medication, or you’ll end up right back here.”
Instead, I ended right back in Nevada. In 10 years, I’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, alcoholism, agoraphobia, severe depression, irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder…
I’ve spent more time on the couch talking to analysts than watching TV.
I’ve tried cognitive-behavioral therapy, regression therapy, Freudian analysis, Jungian analysis, electroshock therapy, Catholic Church therapy, Zen Buddhism, smacking myself on the face, rubber-band therapy until my arm had blood blisters.
It tends to run in families, this constellation of mental illness, this wastebasket category that serves as an umbrella for people who supposedly make up 2-3 percent of the U.S. population at some point in a given year.
Like a shape shifter, the disease modifies itself, disguises itself as you get used to it. It has cost me friendships, a marriage, a job and countless years of my life.