Frantic, fearful, and desperate to get my life together, I returned to Cambridge in the middle of August to move into my off-campus apartment. I believed that those summer months had been a complete and utter failure, and I was in a constant state of self-loathing as a result. With junior year classes starting in only a few weeks and my varsity sport getting back into season in a month or so, I told myself that time was running out for me to rid myself of the pathetic weakness I’d somehow acquired and regain the willpower I needed to get my life under control. This self-imposed deadline, rather than inspiring me to take better care of myself, overwhelmed me with even more anxiety, and I only spiraled further and further downward.
My first night back, after a long day of unpacking, I decided to go out for a drink and get my mind off of all I had on my plate. Hours later, I found myself in front of my apartment building, far from sober, unable to find my keys, and in a state of utter panic. I was panicked that I couldn’t get into my building so that I could sleep off what would surely be a nasty hangover. I was panicked because I had started my night with no intentions of getting so inebriated, yet somehow, almost magically, there I was. But more than that, I was panicked because it dawned on me in that moment that this experience was symbolic of my entire life—I was completely disoriented at every level of my existence- physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual—and was just about as far from feeling OK about who and where I was as I could possibly be. I was locked out of myself, unsafe and scared and with no equilibrium or balance. I realized that I was trapped in my life, in this nightmare from which no matter how hard I might pinch myself I could never awaken.
With my head suddenly awhirl, a million thoughts pinged around in my brain, and I couldn’t control a single one of them. From the mundane ‘all I want right now is my bed’ to the catastrophic ‘my life has completely fallen apart, and it’s all over for me’—my mind had flipped a fast-forward switch, the acceleration pedal jammed, and I was trapped for the ride. Around me, the birds were starting to chirp, the early morning light in the sky growing brighter, and I imagined all the healthy, happy, and put-together people getting ready to start their days with a brisk jog, or a cup of coffee and the morning paper, and here I was, bedraggled on the stoop of my building with my mind spinning, locked out of my home, out of a clean and controlled and organized life, and out of a sane existence.
In the weeks and months that followed, I fought to keep my head above water in the sea of my own despair, gasping for breath and for the increasingly elusive idea of sanity. By this time, I’d entered a daily outpatient eating disorder program that required me to arrive in the late afternoon and stay through dinner. I gave up my team sport after accepting that I just couldn’t handle the commitment. I began needing letters from my treaters requesting paper extensions or explaining missed classes, something I’d never had to do before. I became a chronic patient, not just to my doctors but also to myself, whose intense, all-encompassing symptoms placed her constantly in an existential crisis mode.
My newly acquired psychiatrist, whom I was told specialized in eating disorder psychopharmacology, increased my Prozac to 80mg a day. Although I was physically activated during my days with 400mg of Provigil, I was emotionally comatose and utterly devoid of any affect other than debilitating misery. I didn’t understand how I was continuously becoming more depressed despite having a higher dosage of my antidepressant. I was so broken by this point, however, that I kept my confusion silent and just did as I was told. The only medication I knew I could rely on was my nightly 10mg of Ambien, with which I’d developed a nearly two-year relationship. It still did its job just as well as ever, knocking me out after twenty minutes or so and giving me my only reliable escape from reality.
Once-simple aspects of daily living, like brushing my teeth or taking out the trash or even changing out of sweatpants, became difficult tasks that I struggled to accomplish. It was mentally and physically exhausting to get myself up and ready for class each morning, to have to put on the mask I wore every day that said to the world, ‘I’m OK. Don’t look at me or be concerned about me, because I’m doing just fine.’ This whittled away at my core, until there was nothing integral about me any more and I felt like I was simply an actor playing a part every second of every minute of every hour of every day. I was going through the motions of life but could no longer call what I was doing ‘living.’ Even more, I was starting to think about the meaning and purpose of life, itself, thoughts about whether or not I was cut out for it at all becoming more prevalent in my internal dialogue. These thoughts, which initially scared me because they felt foreign and invasive, soon began to feel a part of me. Worse, they began to make me feel a new sense of relief, because I knew I had the ultimate answer should it come to that.
By wintertime, living had become a daunting task. I was going through my days with the sole purpose of getting to my nights and to my Ambien and to my sleep and to temporary oblivion. The days were becoming obstacles that I had to traverse, but suiting up with the proper gear every morning was becoming increasingly more difficult. Finally, one night in January, my bag of pills started to speak to me, its quaint blue floral pattern beckoning me to look inside and let the eternal sleep it promised in its contents sweep over me. I sat mesmerized, looking at it with tunnel-vision sitting just a few feet away, talking to me louder and louder as the minutes passed until my head was full of noise. I didn’t want these thoughts, I didn’t want to listen to them, but they weren’t going away. I was desperate not to live this way but I didn’t want to die. I picked up my cell phone, called home, and told my dad that I couldn’t go on like this anymore. I asked for help.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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