I had my first panic attack at thirteen.
Granted, I had no idea that’s what it was called. The un-tamable anxiety that coursed through my body would creep and ebb like tides, unsure of what I was feeling I’d fluctuate between trying to nap it away or pace the large carpeted home my family just moved into.
I believe it was then when I became truly aware of how trapped we were as children; bound to the decisions the adults in our life made regardless of the ways in which it affected us. As the second of five children I was able to exist in a clouded delusion of youth – up until a certain point. My older sister began to experience panic attacks at the age of eight, so I suppose the luxury of my birth order revoked my ability to be fully present to our circumstances until I turned thirteen.
Contextually, our family had just moved into a home within the Mormon district of Mesa, Arizona, and it was to be a much darker presence in our lives than even the mauve/charcoal brick and darkly shuttered windows outside entailed.
It was within the first day we discovered the bark scorpions. Turns out, only our cul-de-sac of the neighborhood sat atop their nest. We would find them scuttling about the house; on the walls, the ceilings, our bedrooms. The first time I was stung I was sleeping in my bed when one lashed out at the back of my knee as it wandered beneath my comforter. The second time was during a foolish attempt to fling a large scorpion off my younger brother’s sandal, when it lashed out and stung the ring finger on my right hand. Try to imagine the pain of a couple angry hornets accompanied by the sensation of said-limb being slammed in a heavy steel door. By themselves the scorpions would be enough to send anyone reeling into a constant state of fear. One decided to ninja my dad in the face when he slept, you never knew when you’d encounter a crunchy tan alien and be sent into a desperate fight or flight response.
On the third day, a matriarch of a local Mormon family came by with an upside-down pineapple cake (seriously, who eats those?) She hadn’t been inside more than five minutes before bursting with curiosity;
“So, did they tell you about the house…?”
Two weeks before my parents had signed the rental agreement for the house in Mesa, the Arizona State Legislature passed a bill allowing property owners the right to withhold information from tenants if they chose not to disclose specific information about their real estate.
The previous tenant had been a solitary man in his thirties who occupied the house for eight or so years. Eventually he had been convicted of being a sexual predator and possessing child pornography, and after a brief stint in jail (fuck you, Arizona,) he returned home and took a gun to his head. Due to nerves or shitty aim his death wasn’t instant, and he dragged himself from the kitchen to the laundry room to bleed out. He was found months later by an ex-girlfriend, whom the neighbors had contacted due to his absence – and an unbelievable smell emitting from the house. That definitely explained the residual odor that no amount of air freshener ever covered, and the tiny splatters on the sections of wallpaper the owners didn’t replace.
Thus began the hatching of panic attacks and depression. They pecked their way through my youthful haze of ignorance and a heavy fear settled in. If I had to pinpoint what exactly set me off, I would say it was the feeling of being trapped. In this particular incident the rental agreement did trap us there. With a racing heart beat and quivering limbs I constantly felt as though I was on the verge of an incomprehensible break down or sob fest. I didn’t want to live there, why couldn’t we leave? We had already moved three times in three years, away from the only friend I had made in Ahwatukee (Phoenix has mini cities) and further from our maternal grandparents who lived in Arcadia. We were the only non-Latter Day Saint family in our part of town, in the only non-adobe-stucco style home, which happened to be haunted by semi-poisonous arachnids and the aroma of a dead pedophile.
My mother perceived the panic attacks, shakes, and gasping for air as pre-teen dramatics, therefore I was left to my own devices to find reprieve. My siblings and I would often walk to the gravel-covered playground of a nearby school we didn’t attend or walk to a convenience store across the road to escape the tension and auditory violence of my parents constantly arguing. At thirteen and fourteen my sister and I had christened the constant sense of anger, fear, and conflict between our parents “the family situation”. A term that would reappear in conversation even up until this past year before my mother’s passing. When I was stuck at home I would wait for my turn on the ancient Dell computer that sat on the unfurnished parlor floor carpet, connected to a screechy dial-up modem. I would waste away hours reading anime fanfiction or chatting on AIM to my new schoolmates from Fountain Hills. If possible, I tried to spend the night with a friend out there as often as I could – the panic attacks were worse at home.
I started seeing a therapist for the first time in my third year living in NYC. It’s funny how unemployment finally allows you access to health insurance, where as being a low-income earner does not. I spent six months with my therapist unpacking my family history, how little faith I had in myself to function in this world outside of my youth in the Unification Church, and mostly how desolate the future looked to me. It was after a two-week drinking binge where my therapist put her foot down and finally suggested medication.
It worked for a while. It felt like a trapeze net that held me above an oubliette, it gave me a higher starting point in which to claw back out of the pit all the while seeing how much further down I could be. I spent about two years on Citalopram (Celexa,) and as my summer apprenticeship in Santa Fe working for the Opera came to a close, I began to feel the depression and anxiety suffocate me like a fish gasping on a dock. My coworker would often let herself into my apartment at the opera-owned complex, and find me lying motionless and staring on the carpet of the living room or my bedroom.
From my understanding, the Unification Church doesn’t hold much bearing on mental health issues and services people may require. Much like my mother’s Bell’s Palsy that resulted from untreated Lyme’s Disease, medical issues like depression, chemical imbalances, bipolar disorder, were often pinpointed as being “attacked” by spirit world. Some impure thought, action, or lifestyle choice of yours opened up your subconscious up to evil spirits who were now controlling you. There were times when I would phone my mother and confess I was too depressed to get out of bed, how everything felt meaningless and that I wished that there was a way to make the pain go away. My mother would quietly listen and then respond explaining my sadness was a result of the way I chose to live my life. If I had chosen the ‘true’ path, stayed within the church, believed in God, and had gotten blessed (“married” in church-lingo,) that none of this would be affecting me.
In church run summer camp events, religious workshops, or on trips to Reverend Moon’s Cheongpyeong retreat center in Korea, Unification Church members would sit in rows and physically beat on each other with fists to release the evil spirits out of each other’s bodies.
My mother never truly admitted to her own depression, or that mental illness also ran rampant through both sides of my family. She even spotted signs of a chemical imbalance in one of my brothers, who showed signs of severe depression as young as three years old, but never acted to have a medical professional look into why a diaper-clad toddler would lay about the floor, motionless and sad. It wasn’t until we were older when we began to look back at my mother’s behavior and see beyond her veneer of cheery optimism; that she too felt unequivocally helpless and depressed.
When I returned to New York from New Mexico I moved to Queens, where Medicaid limited me to lower-economic level health clinics servicing downtrodden outpatients of the outer-boroughs. Without much attention or interest, a psychiatrist with a ‘Monkees’-esque toupee scribbled out a prescription for Zoloft. I was bounced to another Spanish-speaking family clinic in Rego Park where the new psychiatrist wasted no time putting me on Effexor.
As any mental health blog will tell you; Effexor is a bitch to get off of. My friends and boyfriend at the time witnessed the physical effects Effexor-withdrawal had on me at a time when I couldn’t afford the cost of my medication. I began to develop withdrawal symptoms similar to Parkinson’s; involuntary shaking, balance issues, and trouble speaking. Even when on the medicine, the depression and anxiety still followed me around, waiting for a moment to slip in when I was alone in my room wondering what to do, or alternatively standing on the outside perimeter of a swing dance event I couldn’t emotionally engage in.
If I had to circle back and say what I think the root cause is, I’d still go with the feeling of being trapped. I often feel trapped as an introvert, stumbling in my social interactions and chalking up the constant sense of loneliness to being ‘too different’, only now on the other side of the line outside of the Unification Church.
I question my ability as a person to develop the tools to be a successful person. I’m approaching thirty and I find myself unemployed – again. Without a savings account – again. In credit card debt- again. No amount of self-help books, positive thinking women’s online business courses, or pep talks from friends ever boost me above the waters murky surface. Attempts to crank the wheel of my thought processes towards optimism often cracks a demented smile on my face - nothing feels more insincere than telling myself things will pick up. It’s not that I think I’m a pessimist, but ‘realist’ feels more applicable. I can march up and down the hallway of my apartment repeating mantras; “It’s MY time, I’m ready for the NEXT STEP!”
…But the reality often ends up being that I’ve spent another day at home applying to food service or menial-labor desk jobs, because gigs offered to me in my industry all seem to be labeled ‘unpaid’. I can’t tell my roommates how much of a failure I feel like since I had to put rent on a credit card again, and that no new prospects have cropped up. I don’t particularly want to end up broke and unemployable the way my parents have, but I’m not sure how else to qualify it when I’m digging through our apartments communal fridge and discover I’m the only one without food – again. You know what the best medication would be? A good job with a steady wage and a sense of purpose (like that time I was building wigs for cancer patients.)
For both economical and personal reasons I’ve chosen to ween myself off of Effexor – slowly. The mental and physical effects of the withdrawal are still there, resulting in an involuntary twitch of my arm or an entire day spent sleeping to ward off sadness. Jiji, my kitten helps; a purring tuft of black fur nestled against my stomach in the morning temporarily chases the demons away, and I think she’s a major reason I was able to carry after my mom passed away.
Ultimately, the tiny white beads inside the orange Effexor capsules weigh out to be a lot more than milligrams or a piece of mind. For me it’s accepting that biologically/circumstantially depression and anxiety are very real, they’re not God’s way of telling me he’s displeased and letting Satan punish me for choosing the life of an atheist. But like most of my life’s journey, I will have to develop the muscles to survive on my own and I hope I will become strong enough to stand without the pills. Even on my darkest days.