20 Days

Twenty days ago, I was just like you.

Remember me? Sarcastic thirty-something bachelor with the snarky blog? By day I managed a staff of fifty employees at a Santa Cruz resort. In my free time I performed standup comedy, with reasonable success. I made it to the finals of a couple standup competitions, booked some weekend gigs at comedy clubs, opened for bigger names. When I wasn’t working or comedying I hung out with friends and hosted BBQs and shot hoops and occasionally strummed the guitar.

A lot can change in twenty days.

Today I bought a coloring book. I didn’t buy it as a gift. It wasn’t for a neice or nephew. It wasn’t even for nostalgia. No, I walked into a Toys R Us store and picked out a Star Wars-themed coloring book with the intention of sitting down in center of the carpet and coloring like a five-year-old, because at this point I’m desperate to find activities that won’t overstimulate me or somehow add to my stress, or–worst of all–aggravate the intense pressure in my head.

Here’s what happened: On April 29th, I woke up in the grip of a vicious panic attack. I’m not the kind of guy who gets panic attacks. I had no clue what was happening to me, nor how to manage the experience. I wasn’t brave. I shook and moaned and cried. Finally I ended up calling my dad, and he talked me down…temporarily.

That first night was bad, and it snowballed from there. Each day I struggled to fight through waves of panic. Fighting panic is counterproductive: you tense up, your heart races, you feel like jumping out of your skin. My resistence only compounded the fear. I layered fear on top of panic on top of fear. Worst of all, the adrenaline and lack of sleep teamed up to create a wicked pressure in my head that doesn’t abate, doesn’t release. It’s as though my brain is caught in a slowly clenching vice.

Full disclosure: this condition probably didn’t come out of nowhere. I had been suppressing emotion for years, and living a life of which I’m honestly not proud. I am now becoming aware that there is an ocean of fear and depression bubbling deep down in my subconscious, and that I’m going to need to reckon with all of it before I can possibly get better.

My close friends will recognize that this isn’t my first encounter with intense fear. About six years ago I was briefly hospitalized as the result of a traumatic drug reaction, and spent months in a very similar hell. That experience faded over time, and it’s possible that this one will too, that the irrational fear will lose its ability to control my life, and my brain will recalibrate. But it’s looking like that’s only going to happen via a long journey of therapy and self discovery. I’m going to need to learn to approach my life in completely different ways. I can’t hide behind ego or bravado. I need to be open and honest, and practice techniques to manage panic. I’m going to need to find a way to sleep consistently. And because of my previous experience, I have to do all of this without the benefits of medication.

These days I work on jigsaw puzzles and play with erector sets while listening to the soothing-voiced droning of self-help audiobooks. Movies are out. Music is out. Ditto TV and novels. Comedy, for now, is a memory. I haven’t seen friends in weeks. Currently, my life revolves around my family, my girlfriend, and breathing. Reminding myself to relax. Avoiding overstimulation, minimizing fear. Accepting that I’m sick, and that it will be a long time before I get back to a healthy state of mind. Accepting that I may never be 100% anxiety-free. Each day is a challenge. Nights are agony. I generally sleep three hours or less, and I live with the constant knowledge that each night could very well consist of waking up again at 3a.m. with a head full of buzzing electric bees, facing the next six-plus hours of hell alone.

But I’m not alone. My parents and girlfriend have been amazing. They’ve spent multiple nights holding my hand and stroking my head while I tremble and rave. I’m incredibly lucky to have a dedicated support network. When I get through this, it will be because of them.

This blog entry wasn’t easy to write, and I don’t know how long I’ll leave it posted. It’s difficult and scary for me to be honest about this condition. For the first couple of weeks I kept insisting it would pass. And it will, I truly believe that…but not any time soon. This is my new normal, for a while.

I’m sick, but I’m not giving up. Today is scary, and tomorrow might be worse, but I’ve had good days. I’ve slept a few nights all the way through, and even on the worst days there have been moments when I’ve felt almost normal.

I can and will get better. Not today, not tomorrow, but possibly soon. There’s hope.

After all, a lot can change in twenty days.

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