By Karen Blackwell
The alarm clock rang, shrieking into my ears like a pulsating siren that wouldn’t stop. It was time to face another day.
I turned off the alarm. The room began to spin and dizziness seized me. I reached for my beloved Xanax and popped a pill. Fear choked me like a rope around my neck, and I forced myself into the bathroom. I had to take a shower. I had to get ready for work. I couldn’t keep calling in sick…they would fire me.
For some reason, the panic attacks seemed to strike most often in the shower. It was a major victory to make it through the washing, the shampoo and the rinsing without crouching on the wet floor. I would pray…that was it. No, I would sing. I would pretend to be okay.
I wasn’t fooling anybody. I was not okay. I hummed nervously. Just a few more seconds and I could turn the water off. I was going to make it. There, I made it.
Grabbing a towel, I searched for myself in the steamy mirror. I had gotten so skinny! Was that me in there? My heart had been beating so loudly for so long that it seemed like others must be able to hear it. Why couldn’t they?
I crept back into my bedroom and put on my underwear. I could do this. I could get ready. I shivered as I sat down on the floor in front of the full-length mirror. A cigarette. I needed a cigarette. I reached for the pack and the lighter. I lit the cigarette, took a deep drag, and set it in the ashtray.
What if I started a fire? I searched around the round ashtray, looking for stray embers. Okay. It was okay.
I took another drag, rested the cigarette very carefully in the ashtray, and pushed the play button on my cassette player. The music helped. The singer sang about being strong and courageous. About having faith. Where was my faith?
My hands shook as I put on the eyeliner. When was the Xanax going to kick in? It seemed like I had to take more and more these days. Why couldn’t I ever relax? Why couldn’t I be like normal people?
I remembered the first time I had a panic attack. I was sitting in my car at a park, eating lunch. Suddenly, a horrible feeling raced up my spine into my head and I felt like I was suffocating. My heart raced and it seemed like I was dying. It felt like my heart was going to explode. A sense of unreality set in, and I wondered what the hell was happening. It felt like I left my body, but I couldn’t get out of it at the same time. Was I having a stroke? My breathing sped up and sweat appeared on my brow. Then it was over.
Time to blow dry my hair. What about the cigarette? What if the live ashes blew around and got on the carpet? I took a quick drag and put the cigarette out. I waited, making sure it was completely out. There, it was all right now. The loud motor of the hair dryer whined back and forth like a jackhammer. My shoulders went down as I turned it off.
Done with my face and my hair. Good.
I had laid out my clothes last night. Obsessively. Panty hose. Slip. Skirt. Blouse.
Breathe, Karen, breathe. The dizziness was trying to come back. Deep breath. Listen to the music. Shoes.
I walked into the kitchen and poured a bowl of cereal. I wasn’t hungry, but I had to eat something. Coffee? No, no coffee. The doctor said no stimulants. Nervously, I poured the milk and grabbed a spoon out of the drawer. The crunching sound of the cereal echoed in my ears. Done.
Time to brush my teeth.
I looked in the mirror. I looked just fine. No one would know.
Back in my bedroom, I took out another pill and cut it in half with a razor blade. Another half would help. I had a long day to face. I gulped it down.
I grabbed my keys and headed for the door. The highway was waiting for me. I could do this. I could do it.
Karen Blackwell is a survivor of panic attacks, anxiety and bipolar illness. Today she lives and works in Albuquerque. She is the author of Swing Low: One Woman’s Journey Through Manic Depression. [See a review of the book in the Summer 2010 issue of the NAMI Challenger. ed.] She can be contacted at Karen.Blackwell@yahoo.com.