He sat in the brown leather armchair, bronze buttons outlining the seams. He stared at me over his oversized glasses as I lied there on the couch—puke-green and lumpy. He wore a burgundy sweater-vest atop a cream shirt, monochromatic burgundy tie, khaki pants.
“So,” I said, thumbs twiddling, “that’s what my panic attacks sound like . . . violent orgasms.”
“That’s a joke.”
“Ah,” he said, placing his pencil into his notebook, “I understand that humor can be used as a coping mechanism.”
“I believe our time is up. Thank you.”
And thus was my first ridiculous experience with a real-life therapist.
I had long-suffered from anxiety attacks. The ones that cripple me into passing out. The ones that have been labeled as “overdramatic.” The ones that made me feel outcast as a teen and crazy.
When I went to college, I thought I’d see a therapist once my panic attacks started to return. I would start hyperventilating, then faint, but could still hear everyone around me. After years of dealing with them, I still didn’t understand why they happened. So, I went. There he was, like Richard Dreyfus from What About Bob with all of his seriousness and lack of personality.
I didn’t seek out help for years afterward. If they can’t get my humor, I convinced myself, they won’t get me. They have to get me. I thought everything would be labeled as a “coping mechanism”, that I was “crazy” and “melodramatic.”
In my twenties, I moved from an amazing job as a technical writer at Disney to live in Austin with my now-husband. I was this formerly successful and independent woman who suddenly had no interviews, no prospects, and no friends. I self-medicated my loneliness with pints of mint-chocolate chip, wine, and Gilmore Girls. I would sit alone in my fiance’s apartment and cry about Rory’s bad decisions into pint after pint.
Then, after years of being gone, my good old-friend Panic came back into my life. I was paralyzed with anxiety. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed out of fear that I would panic and pass out while no one was home. I just stayed under the covers and sobbed. All day. I gained weight. I wouldn’t shower. I hated myself.
“Why don’t you see someone, honey?” My darling would prompt every so often.
“They don’t know how to help me.”
“They think I’m faking.”
“I don’t want to be labeled as a crazy person.”
The excuses kept coming.
One night, I had another panic attack, but I couldn’t break out of it. I woke up from it just to go back in. I began to seize. I could hear my fiance crying and telling me I was OK, but each time I tried to break out of the black, I’d fall right back in, my whole body going numb. I could hear his pain, and I tried to tell him I was there, I was still there, but my body kept betraying me.
The next day, I began looking up therapists.
I spent hours reading profiles.
“I approach problems with a SUPER POSITIVE ATTITUDE.” No.
“I think there’s a little light inside of all of us, waiting to break free!” No.
“I use mindfulness so we can approach each session with our authentic selves.” Bingo.
So, I went in to see Dr. I walked into his office and immediately noticed Jane Eyre, The Little Prince, and Candide on his shelves. Good, start, I thought.
“So, I have panic attacks. They sound like violent orgasms. It’s pretty entertaining.”
“Sounds like it. Does everyone clap afterward?”
“I’m working on standing ovations.”
“Great goal. Tell me more about it.”
“So, I pass out, but I can still hear people. I promise I’m not faking.”
“Why would you fake that?”
“I . . . don’t know.”
“OK. You know how there’s flight or fight?”
“Well, there’s another option. It’s called ‘Freeze.’ Possums do it to play dead. Their bodies put them in a state where they can’t break out of their instincts until they know they’re safe. That’s what’s happening to you. You’re freezing. Make sense?”
“Great. Let’s work on not escaping, OK?”
It was the first time anyone understood and could explain what was happening to me.
It’s been three years. I still see Dr. every other week. I’ve not had a panic attack, I have an amazing job, and I’m happily married with a child. I still struggle with my anxiety and depression, but I know I will be better. I know that I can break from the darkness, as long as I have help.
Finding a therapist is like finding a good pair of jeans—you just need to find the right one. Therapy saved my life. I just needed to shop a bit longer.