23 and losing my mind. Afraid of my own heartbeat, 10 pm and the witching hour. I was no longer in control; my life had completely spun out and I was losing all touch with reality. The pulse of my existence was beating in rapid succession. Gasping for breath. There I was standing on top of a mountain toeing the line between life and certain death. The wind was engulfing me as if to say, “Jump. It won’t hurt, you are weightless”. I was stirring, continuously looking over the edge hoping to catch a glimpse of a better life. The truth was this, it was darkness and at 23 I was sleeping with the light on.
I don’t even know how it started or where it came from, it was just there, and I was scared as hell. My safe place had become the inside of the emergency waiting room. My life had become but mounds of medical bills, letters from doctors and progressive treatments.
I would catch myself counting down the minutes to 10PM, it seemed to be a sort of trigger for me. 9:50:01, :02, :03…tick-tock, “Our Father, Who art in heaven Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…” 9:53:04, :05, :06.. My plea was always the same, “God grant me the strength to make it through the night and please, I beg of you, free me from this monster within”. Tick-tock-tick-tock, like a throbbing migraine headache; the pounding, the sensitivity to noise, the fear had bolded, highlighted and underlined the sound of that clock. Tick.. it’s a reminder of the minutes passing by. “Why am I still awake?! God, can you hear me?!” Terrified of the 10PM trigger I became addicted to Benadryl. I was desperate and willing to try most anything for relief from this mind, this beautiful, ferocious mind.
On my bad days, I suffered with shortness of breath, dizzy spells, heart palpitations, and a fear of everything on the other side of the front door. I gave up caffeine, chocolate, alcohol and any article of clothing I may have been wearing during an attack. They were potential triggers and I just couldn’t risk it. A fear so captivating that I gave up all I knew, I gave up on life itself. With a certain fate consumed by the heaviness of uncertainty, I tried yet again to change the course.
In 2003, I met a man, a man that said all the right things, he even took me out for ice cream on our first date. It seemed serendipitous that we met online yet grew up in the same small town. His brother and my best friend were childhood sweethearts. Had the stars aligned? Within a few short weeks we were married. He suggested I leave my job to work for his father with the goal that we would take over the family business. We sold my corvette, a car I worked so hard for, to open a savings account so we could start a family. I was leading a charmed life. About two months in I suggested we get matching tattoos – perhaps tempting fate. As I look down upon my forearm, running my fingers over what was once a blank canvas, now rests the lasting effects of grief and fear. That’s when I discovered that charmed life I thought I was leading was a more like an unknowing perdition. I was sleeping with a stranger, I man I hadn’t met before. We bounced from house to house, nothing was ever good enough; not me, not the dog and not our life. He had a secret stash of photos from his past hidden in the drawer of his nightstand, he kept a separate house in Los Gatos for those long nights at work. Before I knew it one day turned to two before he would stumble in the door smelling of cheap perfume, such a cliché. He would pick a fight with me, his way of justifying his indiscretions. I was on a volatile, twisting drunken enraged road of emotional abuse. I was trapped, I had nothing of my own, my identity was gone. As quickly as our marriage started it ended just the same, I remember that night well. He said he had enough and that I better be home when he got there. Uneasy, I decided to take the dog for a walk to clear my head or maybe to escape. It was cold and damp, the waves crashing and the darkness, it seemed my only friend. The dog, sensing a storm that was coming. I remember thinking what if he sees me? Where will we hide? Oh god, he told me to be home when he got there. Before we could make it to the front door, he pulled in the driveway, friend in tow, he enjoyed the humiliation. Without warning he packed up his belongings, took the car and drove off. He didn’t hit the brakes and he sure as hell didn’t look back. What I didn’t know at the time was that he had already drained our bank accounts. I was penniless and abandoned left with my dog, my clothes and what little self-worth I had left. What was I really hoping for?! I clung so hard to the idea that if someone “loved” me hard then suddenly, like magic, I would be cured. What I didn’t factor in at the time was how broken I would be as a woman coming out of that marriage.
When love didn’t work I opted for the next extreme, isolation. I packed my bags and headed to Reno in search of a new beginning. Yet another disastrous decision. The isolation from the flawed life I knew to this. Not even wild horses could drag me away, although I had hoped they would. Like a piece of meat lured out the desert and then devoured by a pack of hungry coyotes. I had hit bottom and was no longer able to relate to anyone. My struggles seemed trivial to most. “Take a deep breath!” “Relax!” “Is it really that bad?” The answer appears easy but I can’t breathe – I’m gasping for breath. Relax?! What if my heart stops beating or slows down too much? No, it’s not that bad, its worse!
I tried psychotherapy, psychiatry, and I even met with a neurologist. I became a freak show behind closed doors; electrodes attached to my head through a funny little helmet-thingy. Challenging my brain with the most basic of functions; math, reading, writing and sounds. I was desperate to find a stillness, a calm vibration. And then the official diagnosis which had become the basis for the rest of my life. “Lisa suffers from a severe case of panic disorder sometimes with agoraphobia. Lisa experiences virtually every symptom among the criteria for panic attack, especially fear of losing control, going crazy, and dying. On numerous occasions, she has also experienced symptoms of agoraphobia, which have made it impossible for her to leave her home. For any person experiencing this disorder, it would be virtually impossible to be in a critical setting and participate in high stress activity or duty. If pushed, this would create an extreme risk of suicide”.
There it was, laid out before me. The monster now had a name, or two in my case. With a heaviness I sat, still, the only noise was the sound of my heart pounding and the faintness of the doctor’s voice in the background. It was in that moment that I had abandoned all hope that I would find the calm vibration that I had so desperately craved. I was on a journey that I didn’t understand, one that seemed fraught with peril, uncertainty and its share of fear.
My mind racing, I couldn’t help but to wonder if I had become what my own mother had feared the most – was I my father’s daughter?
As I reflect on the time since my diagnosis I have learned that I may never grow out of this illness. The “monster” may stay dormant for years, and then there will come a day when it creeps back in and reminds me its lurking in the darkness.
It took attending Storytelling Camp on Bainbridge Island with Team RWB to realize that this thing I had been trying to run from all these years, this thing that I let rob me of so many of life’s great adventures was now what connected me to the others. In a room where I was once a stranger, I had a family – an empathetic, loyal family that loved me, monster and all.