The Cure for Anxiety

By ellamarcantonio 02/20/20
Scrabble letters spelling out anxiety

I never knew how anxious I was until I took Klonopin. Well, that’s not exactly true. I had finally talked my then-psychiatrist into a prescription for benzos by complaining tearfully for months about my continuous panic attacks and the constant, ruminating fear that had wormed its way into my life like an insidious and calculating parasite. It wasn’t a lie, just an exaggeration.

It was an exaggeration because my panic attacks weren’t constant, yet. They were even more distressing because of their cruel unpredictability. At least constant panic would have simplified the decision-making process.

Actually, by the time the anxious dread was eating me alive, by the time I started having seizures when I ran out of Klonopin, the anxiety had become relentless. And this, in truth, was simpler to handle: I simply didn’t leave my apartment and, if, at all possible, I avoided leaving my bed.

At the time when the burgeoning anxiety was starting to get my attention, I had just graduated from university and was experiencing the impossible anguish of my first heartbreak. I dropped 20 pounds overnight, living off of alcohol, cigarettes, and soft-serve ice cream.

I cried bitterly and in between (or sometimes during) these upheavals, tried to seduce pretty much everyone. I had no idea what to do with myself or my days, so I spent them laying in my parents’ bed watching House and drinking red wine. It seemed as thoughtful and appropriate a plan as any to insulate myself from the pain of living for the remainder of my now-meaningless days.

A few months into this new lifestyle, I took a road trip to Colorado with an old friend. As a parting gift, a new friend gave me something he called a “xanny bar.” As any shrewd and circumspect human would, I stowed this precious commodity for future use. This pill gave me something real to look forward to in the bleak and senseless future that stretched out endlessly before me.

I waited to take it until I was alone in my bedroom. As a generous estimate, I’d say I stayed conscious for 20 minutes before passing into a state of dreamless oblivion. But those few moments of consciousness were delicious, sublime.

My body, heavy with grief and sorrow, felt light and free. My racing thoughts slowed, then stopped. For the first time, reality seemed naturally tolerable and I thought, “this must be how normal people feel.” I lay down, put The Simpsons on my old tv, and surrendered my consciousness to the sirens of calm. I awoke the next day to tv static and a face wet with drool. I was in love.

Finally, a Real Solution!

A new solution for life was available and I wanted more than just a single night of oblivion. Eagerly, I set out to get a prescription of my own.

The problem with anti-anxiety meds is one you may already know. It’s what my psychiatrist related to me when I asked for a prescription. He tried to help me understand the perils ahead. But with all his knowledge he still failed to apprehend one crucial element of my case: nothing mattered to me anymore.

Besides, his warnings were no match for the armor of grief I wore at all times. My own scientific creation, this armor consisted of equal parts snot bubbles, soluble mascara pigment, applied liberally to most parts of the face, and a consuming, tar-like self-pity that freely invalidated any seeds of hope foolish enough to attempt its penetration. Nice try, doc.

The pills, he explained pleadingly, would only punt my anxiety into the future. When they inevitably wore off, the anxiety would return with grotesque and exponential force. Sign me up, I thought enthusiastically. Failing to arouse my own sense of self-preservation, my psychiatrist made the harm-mitigating decision to use a benzo with a longer half-life. Enter Klonopin.

We had a good run, Klonopin and I. The honeymoon phase lasted about a year. I had a feeling, so I took a pill. More than one feeling? I’d take more than one pill. And no, I never topped that first experience of halcyon oblivion, but life was a little more survivable.

I wasn’t happy or free or anything like that, but I had the comfort of a warm, chemical buffer that allowed me to eat, go to work, and generally participate in the world of humans, a world that had felt foreign and inaccessible to me for a long as I can remember.

Fun with Problems

But the doctor’s unkind premonitions caught up with me. I needed more and more of the pills to get any sense of ease and I chased the diminishing returns to their vanishing point. I was now taking the pills in small handfuls.

When I ran out, there were seizures and agoraphobia. I was gripped by a dread so punishing that I wasn’t physically able to answer my phone or open emails. I found myself alone in wintry Montreal, where it had become impossible to leave my house for the grad degree I was supposedly pursuing.

It was around this time my dad called. My mom, who’d been fighting colon cancer, was in the ICU with chemotoxicity. “Come home, Ella. Your mom is dying,” he said. My life back then was a daze, but I remember weeping loudly on the plane after taking close to a month’s worth of pills in just a few hours.

I was having a lot of feelings and, since I needed a pill for every feeling, it only seemed logical to take the whole bottle. This was after a round of double shots at the airport Chili’s and a couple tenuous bites of rapidly-congealing cheese soup I had ordered to convince my fellow travelers that I was after more than just tequila. I wept audibly for the flight’s duration but the other passengers had the good sense not to interrupt my emoting to ask me of its cause.

The next six weeks were surreal. Each day, mom was dying of something new. “Today, she’s dying of dehydration brought on by diarrhea,” they told us. And the next day they explained how she was dying because of an infection that had started in her salivary glands. I was terrified of the frail, helpless woman masquerading as my mother. I could hardly recognize her.

Selfishly, I took her rapid and unscrupulous decline as something acutely personal and did my best to insulate myself from the pain using pills. Because this chemical buffer was the only tool I had available, I dispatched it regularly and with the utmost vigor.

I'm Sober...Now What?

In the end, mom recovered quite miraculously and somehow I caught a ride on her leftover grace. A few months later, I was titrated off of the meds by doctors and found myself unexpectedly sober for the first time in many years.

I was a mess. It’s like they say, if you get a horse thief sober, what you’re left with is a sober horse thief. Yes, I was physically sober but had no idea how to stop stealing those stupid, metaphorical horses. I was suicidal, sick with constant anxious dread, and I believed myself utterly beyond help.

My dad came into my room one day. It was probably the sweaty and meaningless afternoon on a day that blended with the days before and after, as I spent most of them alone and mostly in bed. He knocked gingerly at the door before entering. He sat on the foot of the bed and said words that at once wounded and infuriated me, words that cut to the heart of the alienation and separateness I felt so profoundly. “You should try meditation,” he said.

I felt the rage swelling in my chest. Or, more accurately, I believe the rage probably swelled in my chest. It’s what happens now when I am angered by a misunderstanding so grievous.

The truth is I had not visited my body for quite a long time and was largely unaware of the sensations and processes taking place within me. Perhaps I made a meek argument about why his suggestion didn’t apply to me. Maybe there was a justification or two in support of my unflinching and categorical certainty.

And quick on the heels of anger came self-pity. Even my own dad didn’t see the darkly sinister and dangerously antisocial creature he was dealing with. But I knew the truth. I knew that for me, there was no relief or belonging.

Sure, meditation might be a reasonable suggestion for a human, but I wasn’t one of those. Meditation couldn’t be for me because I was different. And here’s the part I still can’t understand: I tried it anyway.

Maybe Buddhism Can Fix Me!

I’ve never been one for half measures, so I developed this on-the-spot suicide-prevention protocol: I’d sequester myself solicitously in a wilderness monastery. Following my three-month Buddhist sojourn, I’d return healed and fully functional, free to live the rest of my days in spiritual tranquillity. This was my last-dash chance at anything resembling a human life and for some brazen and foolish reason, I actually followed through.

Two months later, I arrived at Tassajara. It was hot and dusty. I lived in fear of anyone who wore robes. I felt awkward all the time, but there was no moment I felt more acutely self-conscious than I did when entering the zendo, or meditation hall. I stuck out sorely as a beginner. And worse still, in this backward world, the beginner’s position was considered one of privilege.

I learned that Zen is full of “forms.” There were forms for entering and exiting the zendo, for sitting down at your seat and for getting up again. Far too many forms to list for the service of bowing and chanting that followed morning meditation. I stumbled through them clumsily, hating myself all the while.

Perhaps taking pity on me, one of the less intimidating monks explained that the forms were ritualized ways of interacting with the world, meant to bring our attention back to the present moment. They included gestures as simple as bowing and as complicated as the delicately ordered unpacking of bowls and utensils for ceremonial meals.

Living the Monk Life

I felt singled out by the forms and personally oppressed by the full and highly-structured schedule. I wasn’t sure what the bald and berobed folk were doing at Tassajara. But I did know one thing: we couldn’t possibly be there for the same reason.

I reasoned that these fine people were doing the monk thing because life was going exactly as planned and quite well, so they figured it would just be a really nice idea to spend their days meditating. Unlike me, these people weren’t at the monastery because they were sick with fear and rage, verging on suicide. They were just good, happy people with nothing better to do.

But as the long days passed, I began to feel slightly less uncomfortable. When a fresh batch of students showed up, more awkward than I, it was finally possible to blend into the background.

I did my best to follow the schedule but it was a daily battle. I was still in the thick of intense depression, but I persisted in my clumsy attempts as monkhood. I began to see that the stifling schedule and embarrassingly exposed community life were potent medicine for the alienation and severed belonging that had perhaps been the depression’s original cause.

Over time, I learned to work with depression. I focused on the task before me and gave myself fully over to my work: cleaning cabins for summer guests. So, I was a hotel maid for the Buddha and things were actually feeling okay.

Turns Out I'm Terrified of Meditation

But there was one notable hiccup in my monastic life: the zendo. I was scared to death of meditation. The idea of sitting still with the person from whom I’d been running for years sounded like a psychotic break waiting to happen. I had panic attacks frequently and, when I did, would unravel carelessly from my seated posture and exit the zendo with some commotion.

Zazen, the form of meditation we practiced, meant sitting completely still in a particular position for long periods of time. It meant not moving my burning legs or cracking my aching back for what felt like an eternity. In fact, I was so worried that I’d get trapped in that dark, wooden chamber for a literal eternity that I wore my heavy, silver watch all summer.

I simply couldn’t trust the spiritually ascended monks to ring the bell that signaled the end of meditation. I mean, come on, these lunatics actually liked meditation. Who knew what other perverse and sadistic stuff they were capable of.

Hello Panic, My Old Friend

Having been weaned off the anti-anxiety meds, the panic was once again unpredictable. I could always feel it, lurking in a dark corner of my mind, waiting to ambush my elaborate spiritual charade. And it did, frequently. For those first months, the anxiety was particularly uncooperative.

The panic attacks started with a sensory trigger, most often a change in pressure first felt in my ears. As the pressure fluctuated, my ears would start to ring. Then with sicking predictability, my gut would give way. My heart rate rose precipitously until its erratic beating reverberated in my throat.

This is it, my brain would say, the big one. And so began the expertly tailored assault by my own mind. A perfectly bespoke experience, it would start with racing thoughts and feelings of persecution. These were followed by a smothering blanket of dread that settled around me like fallen snow.

I’m finally losing it. The hair follicles on my arms prickled with the sting of fresh sweat. I’m trapped. It was suddenly impossible to breathe.

At the heart of this panic was the source of its continued arising, something that would destroy me if I encountered it directly, if I was foolish enough to get too close to it.

It was the dark and terrifying contents of my own mind. I had buried secrets there long ago, never to be acknowledged or encountered.

Though I took care to hide it, the darkness had seeped out like nuclear waste, poisoning my whole being. As a result, I had become something inhuman, dangerous and corrupt, too hideously destructive to be contained by the fragrant, wooden structure in which we sat. I sensed myself on the verge of what could only be a psychotic break, a complete and perilous rupture from whatever shards of a shared reality I’d managed to hold onto until then.

Spirituality By Osmosis

But I held fast to those shards as a drowning woman clings to a life preserver. By some strange power, perhaps osmosis, my heart and mind actually started to absorb the Buddhist teachings.

To my rational mind, these suggestions seemed not just stupid and counterintuitive, but definitively dangerous for a person like me. Take refuge in your body, they urged. Be kind to your inner life, they said with expertly feigned tenderness. Loving-kindness is the path to freedom from suffering. They were clearly insane.

For months I’d been showing up to meditate, knowing full-well I wasn’t really there to sit, to “awaken.” I found it hilarious and improbable that it had been so easy to trick these supposedly discerning monks into thinking we had all gathered in the zendo together for the same reason, to do the same thing.

But after months of playing along, going through the motions without believing I could ever truly belong to them, I saw that the joke was on me. Despite my doubt, practice had awoken a deep knowing inside me. A nun once said, “there are 84,000 different teachings. It only takes one to pierce your heart.”

My Last Panic Attack

I realized that my heart had been pierced one morning in 2012. After months of panic attacks, something unusual happened. I sat in the zendo and felt the familiar panic cascade around me. I felt the ringing in my ears, my heart caught in my throat. And just as my mind prepared to launch its full-scale attack, I heard something from inside myself.

From deep within came this message: if you need to, you can totally have a panic attack. If that’s what’s necessary, you have my complete permission. And, after a short but pregnant pause, do you need to have one? I felt my burning limbs relax instinctively. My body took a deep breath. I guess not?

Here’s the part I don’t feel like it’s fair to say because it seems fanciful and unlikely, because others suffer daily with panic from which they find no relief. But here it is anyway: that was the last panic attack I had. The depression has been back to visit and, in small bursts, the anxiety, too. It seems likely that the panic will find me again someday, but it hasn’t yet.

The priests told me that wisdom and compassion could pacify my suffering and guide toward freedom. Sure, wisdom might be a worthwhile pursuit, especially if it would finally win me the kind of recognition I secretly thought I had always deserved for, well, just being alive. But I drew an unwavering line at self-compassion. That part simply couldn’t be for me. It just felt so… gross.

What I didn’t know then is that the numinous realm is no great respecter of human preferences, that spiritual matter is subtle, insidious. It rests heavily in the incensed air and, given the chance, settles deeply into our broken places. It seems especially fond of the fissures left in our lives when the self we’ve spent all our days trying to get right collides forcibly with that which is absolutely beyond its control.

The realm of spirit doesn’t fall for the grand delusions of control that constantly seduce our busy minds. As far as spirit is concerned, we’re the same as we’ve always been, warm bodies seeking the kind of sacred warmth that brings swift and untroubled sleep on a cold night. This was the quiet comfort I had been seeking. It was so basic and vulnerable, impossible to synthesize into a pill.

The Realm of the Spirit

Of course, I didn’t know or believe any of this yet. But because spirit obeys a different set of laws, it didn’t matter what I thought I was doing in the zendo. Without my knowledge or permission, my habits and defenses had been permeated by the strange magic of the spirit. It was that day in the zendo that the spiritual realm finally got my attention.

The important thing wasn’t that moment, but what it represented. In the life I had been living, there was no such thing as a pause. I thought about taking a handful of pills and suddenly they were dissolving on my tongue.

There was never any space between my thoughts and my actions. And so it never felt like I had a choice about who I was or how I acted. I was simply propelled from one moment to the next in a subconscious cycle of fearful reactivity.

But by enacting this simple practice, I had invited spirit within and it, in turn, had carved out space inside of me. It was within that space that I discovered the power of choice. It turns out I actually did get to make choices. First, I got to choose how to act, what to say. And later, I saw that I even got to choose whether or not to believe the stories my own mind had been telling me for years.

Bypassing my conscious intentions and plans, spiritual practice disclosed itself to me as a kind of belonging I’d never even known I could hope for. It was belonging to life itself. It was the safety that exists within pure vulnerability, a true and inexhaustible refuge.

The teachings I’d heard and the suggestions I’d received finally exposed themselves. All the while, they had been abiding patiently in the last place I’d ever think to look for relief: inside myself.

When I reflected on this experience in the zendo, I realized something. It was possible that not believing the story of familiar panic is what the berobed folk had meant when they spoke of wisdom. And arising to match that wise discernment was a heartful reassurance that I had permission to do whatever I needed to take care of myself. Maybe this is what they meant when they spoke of compassion.

And the relief I thought would always elude me, relief from the fear of my own mind, from the darkness I thought my defining characteristic, perhaps this is what they meant when they talked about freedom from suffering.

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