As 2012 rolled into 2013, the following three things happened in the span of one and a half months:
- The girl I thought I’d one day marry very suddenly told me she didn’t want to be with me anymore.
- I went on anti-anxiety meds, which made me feel like I had the flu, and when I tried to go off them, I ended up in the emergency room.
- My mother’s breast cancer came back after ten years of remission.
As I write this, I realize that it’s the first time I’ve identified that those three things all happened very closely together. It didn’t just feel as though my world had ended. It literally had. I came home from work one day to meet my girlfriend for dinner. I was in love and excited to see her. We had been dating for ten months and had talked about moving in together. I walked up my block, and there she was, sitting on the steps. She kissed me hello. We walked inside. I put down my bag and started to ask her what she felt like eating, but when I turned around, I saw the tears streaming down her face. I thought maybe someone was sick or had died or some other horrible thing had happened, and I rushed over to sit next to her.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, not looking at me. “But I have to break up with you.”
At first, I tried to convince her that she didn’t need to. When it became clear that she didn’t love me anymore, there was really nowhere to go from there, and I wanted her to leave immediately. I gathered up all the sweatshirts and jewelry and love notes from the past year, handed them to her, and told her to leave.
“Are you gonna be okay?” she asked.
“Not really, but whatever.”
“But… you’re not going to hurt yourself, right?”
My depression and anxiety always felt like a point of contention between us. I felt that she didn’t really understand and that my mental illness made her uncomfortable, so I tried not to talk about it. I hated thinking that she hated that part of me, especially since it was a part I hated, too. But I also knew I would have to live with it forever, and who wants to hate any part of themselves forever?
Even though my girlfriend didn’t blame my mental illness for our breakup, I did. So I immediately decided that I should “fix” myself by going on anti-anxiety meds and anti-depressants. I found an elderly man who might have been the most ridiculous psychiatrist in New York City. He couldn’t hear anything I said.
“How are you?” he would ask, and before I could even respond, he’d say “WHAT?” I’d end up sitting there, staring at him, wanting to laugh, and also wanting to scream at him, “JUST GIVE ME THE GODDAMN PILLS.”
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He wrote me a prescription for Buspar and Prozac. The Prozac didn’t really affect me. The Buspar made me feel like I had the flu. I slept 10-11 hours a night and was exhausted all the time. I’d come home from work at six and immediately get into bed and fall asleep. My boss asked me to go on a work trip out of the country, and I couldn’t imagine doing that when I felt so awful. So I called my psychiatrist and asked what he recommended.
“Just stop taking the Buspar,” he said and hung up, eager to get to his vacation plans. I immediately stopped taking my pills. That night, I barely slept. My chest was pounding so hard I was convinced my roommates could hear it. When I stood up to get dressed for work, I felt dizzy and nauseous but still went in.
All day, I felt as though I were walking through thick water. Every tiny burst of energy, from climbing the stairs to opening a door, would cause my heart to thunder in my chest. I had no appetite, which is how I knew something was very wrong. I was supposed to leave for my trip the next morning. The organizers of the conference I was going to hadn’t responded to me with the visa letter I would need to enter the country and wouldn’t tell me which hotel I was staying at. They told me to just bring $800 in cash. I became convinced that this was a horrible idea and would probably lead to my death. That night, I somehow managed to fall asleep around 4 am and then woke up two hours later with my heart pounding louder than ever before.
“WHAT THE FUCK??” I yelled, and my cat leaped up and stared at me, wide-eyed. I Googled “Am I having a heart attack?” and became convinced that I was. I got dressed and walked to the hospital in my neighborhood. The ER was quiet, just a few men by themselves and one woman with a small child.
“No one will let me die here,” I told myself, and that calmed me a bit. I watched the TV in the waiting room without absorbing anything. Then, I watched the soda machine. Finally, the nurse came and brought me to a back room to take my pulse.
“You’re fine,” she said.
“But… what? Something is wrong with me. My chest is pounding, and I can’t breathe right.”
She sighed, and left, and then came back and brought me to a busy unit with doctors rushing around. I laid down on the bed and waited. Eventually, a man walked over.
“Hi, I’m the shrink.” He literally said that. “Are you anxious about something?”
“I’m anxious about the fact that my chest is pounding. This is not psychological. It’s physical.”
“Okay, but there’s nothing physically wrong with you,” he said. He left, and another doctor came by to give me an EKG. He sat in a chair next to the bed.
“You seem fine, but I can tell you don’t feel well.”
Tears sprang to my eyes. “I don’t. I’m supposed to fly internationally today, and I just can’t. Please. I shouldn’t fly like this, right?”
He was kind. “No, you shouldn’t fly if you don’t feel like you can.”
It was what I needed to hear. I called my boss, sobbing, and told her I was sick and at the hospital and that the doctor said I shouldn’t fly. I promised to get a full refund for the plane fare.
“It’s fine, Joanna,” she said. “These things happen. Just rest and feel better.”
There. I didn’t have to go. I left the hospital and started to walk home. My mom called. I had probably left her a disturbing voicemail earlier.
“Honey? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I told her.
When I got home, I talked to my friend about my trip to the hospital.
“Wait, your psychiatrist told you to just stop taking your meds? That’s really dangerous. You could call mine. He might be able to help.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be a connection between quitting the Buspar and this whole episode. I called the psychiatrist, and he was amazingly generous. He listened to my story and repeated what my friend had said about the dangers of going off a drug cold turkey. He suggested that I go back on the Buspar and then taper off very, very gradually over a three-week period. I took a pill and, within an hour, all my tremors and nausea had gone away. I followed his plan and, by tapering off slowly, I was able to get off the Buspar without any other side effects.
A few days after the ER visit, my mom called to check in. I was much better. She was not. Her breast cancer was back after almost ten years of remission. When she told me, I felt the breath get sucked out of me again. But this time, I wasn’t frozen in place. I knew it wasn’t about me. And somewhere amidst the tangle of grief I was in, I knew the one place I needed to be was with my mother, holding her hand, making her playlists to listen to during chemo, and telling her jokes about screaming goats to make her forget she wasn’t hungry and to eat her breakfast anyway.
I was paralyzed with fear at the thought of losing my mother. Most of the reasons for my fear were selfish. Without her, who would have known or even cared that I was in the hospital? Who else would call every day at random hours to ask whether I wanted a bagel for breakfast when I came to visit in three months? Who else could I trust to love me unconditionally, forever? I didn’t want to tell her or my father how scared I was, so instead I called my sister. And whenever I could get time off work, I took the bus down to Baltimore to see my mom.
I put everything I could towards being there for my mother. And towards training for a half marathon. And towards planning a conference in Malaysia. And then, thanks to a $300 budget flight from Kuala Lumpur to New Zealand, towards my first ever overseas trip by myself — during which I performed poetry in a bar with my two friends on the other side of the world, rode a boat to a small town where I stayed in a expatriate Texan man’s spare bedroom, hiked through a National Park, and paddled a canoe by an island populated entirely by sea otters.
When they rolled over on their stomachs, it reminded me of my cat, and I laughed, and it wasn’t a moment when I thought, “Everything is going to be okay.” Because everything is never okay. But it was a moment when I didn’t have to push the pain out of my eyes to see. Maybe because I was no longer trying to wrestle my pain to the ground or outrun it.
It was there, with me, in that canoe, and it’s still with me now, even though my mom went into remission (thank EVERYTHING) and I found love again (thank everything and Tinder), and I will probably never go on meds again (though, if they work for other people, then I absolutely support other people taking them).
And maybe I’m wrong to not take them. God knows I’m not “cured,” whatever that means. I worry that people are mad at me 95% of the time and, sometimes, I can’t sleep at night worrying that, when my parents are gone, no one will be left to love me. But I can’t blame all of that on my illness. I know some of that is fear, and fear is human, and I don’t want to apologize for it.
It’s scary to feel alone. It’s scary to grow older and to realize you have fewer and fewer friends, and that your parents are getting older, and that you don’t have a plan for starting your own family. It’s scary to think that it all boils down to me being there for me, and that my past suicidal thoughts mean that I was unsafe to myself, my own worst enemy.
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I forgive other people a lot of things. I forgive myself almost nothing. But then I remind myself that I was also the one who dragged myself back to my own life. I do that, time and time again, every motherfucking day. Am I mad at myself forever? Can I forgive myself for my own illness? Can I hold my own fear as I go through my own treatment, whether it’s a canoe ride or a therapy session or a run through the Brooklyn streets just when the weather starts to turn from freezing to perfect? Can I stop scouring my body or brain for imperfections to hate? Can I start recognizing that I crafted this one beautiful life? I made it for myself. I made it, for myself.[Headline image: Photograph of a woman whose back is to the camera. She is watching the sun on the horizon as it skims the trees in the distance. Her head is tilted to the side. Everything is slightly blurry. The sun reflects off her plaid shirt.]
Joanna Hoffman is a poet and teaching artist living in Brooklyn, New York. She has competed four times on Finals stages at the National Poetry Slam (2006), Individual World Poetry Slam (2011), and the Women of the World Poetry Slam (2011 and 2012). Her work has appeared in literary journals and publications including decomP, PANK, Union Station Magazine, The Legendary and in the Write Bloody Publishing anthologies We Will be Shelter and Multiverse. Joanna’s full-length book of poetry, Running for Trap Doors, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press and featured in the American Library Association’s list of recommended LGBT reading for 2013. You can find her website at www.joannahoffman.com.