Recently, it occurred to me that I don’t know anyone who is calm. I’m certainly not. When something feels odd inside — and I mean medically, I rarely have interesting epiphanies anymore — I mentally scroll through a list of diseases I found on WebMD. The grimmest conditions always rise to the forefront of my mind (sorry, indigestion). They’re like frenemies I’ve excommunicated but still find me when I’m at my most desperate for connection. They’ll slide into my DMs like, “What up? It’s heart attack. Man, it’s been sooooo long. Remember those nights we spent in the ER just chillin? I can’t believe how scared you were. Man, that was HILARIOUS.”
I am vaguely aware that I’m a hypochondriac. But mostly, I like to think of myself as extravagantly aware of my own mortality — a trait that seems inextricable from my own Jewishness, but is also probably just a normal reaction to the Times We’re Living In, or whatever.
The thing about anxiety, though, is it often seems like a reasonable response to modern life. Even the fact that friends of mine can commute every day and not reflexively check their pulses every time one of those vulgar, boxy Mercedes invades their lane makes me concerned for their own grasp on reality. We are all mere inches and one distracted nose pick away from a barrel roll into opposing traffic.
Still, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to envision the fist-sized organ pumping in your chest and wonder whether its electrical charge will randomly, accidentally, get switched off by your brain. And, yes, I understand the Autonomic Nervous System, which regulates your most vital bodily functions without your knowledge. I know that this system has been orchestrating my breathing and is probably still absorbing the sad, frozen burrito I tried to eat at 1am last night with too much Sriracha. I just don’t trust mine to not fuck it all up on a whim. You know, for shits and giggles.
This is how I ended up in the hospital in Germany, being treated by a flaming gay nurse by the name of Florian. Poor Florian. All he wanted to do was watch the Eurovision finale in his lederhosen while downing Becks, but he was stuck as de-facto therapist and life coach for a gay American Jew whose brain was stuck in imminent death mode. I don’t even remember how the panic attack started — only that I was taking a leisurely stroll down a beautiful, cobblestone street in the arts district when my heart skipped a beat and I felt so dizzy that I had to sit on a curb.
Florian took one listen to my heart and rolled his eyes. “Sure, let’s do the EKG,” he sighed. As is protocol, the hospital was forced to take my chest X-Ray, too. (All for 50 euros, though — quite the deal!) I was then informed by a severe-looking blond woman that my heart was fine, but I could wear a Holter monitor for a few days to see if it picked up any abnormal activity. (Like, I dunno, the murmurings of a goblin). I was in and out in a mere four hours.
I’m lucky I had all my major panic attacks in Germany. All told, I probably spent close to $300 on ER visits in Berlin, which is what a toothpick costs at Kaiser. Sure, the doctors weren’t always great: one berated me for taking brain meds, which he claimed were over-prescribed in the U.S. (This is the level of social commentary I’d expect from the NYT Opinion section, but wasn’t prepared for in a hospital setting.) But, overall, I’m fortunate that when my twenties hit — which is when 90% of people first experience mental illnesses — I was in a socialist country with cheap, universal health coverage.
In Los Angeles, on the other hand, my panic attacks happened in the car, usually after I’d merged into a far left lane and become imprisoned by four or five walls of traffic. Once, I made a frantic, near-death beeline for an exit, only to end up on some romantic hill with a sweeping view of downtown. It was a perfect backdrop for thinking about my mortality. As I called my therapist to leave a panicked voicemail, a hummingbird flew past my face and I couldn’t help but think to myself: if this is how you are in paradise, you’re really not going to survive anywhere else.
But there’s no hypochondriac social hour in L.A., nor is there a twelve-step meeting to wean yourself off Purell (unless you’re downing it like a shot — in which case, there are twelve-step meetings in West Hollywood tonight that will be more fruitful than Grindr.)
I wish I could tell you that I stopped having panic attacks because I did sun salutations forty-five times a day, went earthing every afternoon, adhered to a strict, anti-inflammatory diet and practiced gratitude. I wish I could say I’d read a bunch of books and had the epiphany, “life is just easy” or something else you could fit on a hemp t-shirt designed by Amanda Chantal Bacon. But the truth is that I saw a psychiatrist, and was prescribed the most common antidepressant on earth. Three days into taking it, the doom lifted.
It was like someone had burned sage in my cranium. Instead of unceasing dread, certain thoughts would fly into my mind like “Maybe you won’t drop dead right here on the sidewalk next to this gay club.”
Now I have normal person problems, normal person sadness. I no longer feel like I’ve fought with death every day and emerged bruised but fundamentally okay. This is an odd sensation — the dread retreating to some unanalyzed corner of my brain where it makes sly remarks as I cruise through my daily routine.
I’m not the only one mystified by my panic. As Scott Stossel explored a few years ago in his book, “My Age of Anxiety,” there’s a lot about panic disorder that researchers and clinicians don’t understand. It’s possible that there’s a link between a mother’s behavior and her baby’s lifelong anxiety level, but it could also be a matter of DNA. (Sorry, Mom, on both counts.) And it seems to have evolutionary benefits: some sports stars thrive while being nervous wrecks, just as I happen to love performing and extreme roller coasters, even though both scare the shit out of me. Anxiety even seems to make people better at their jobs.
Post medication, I’ve struggled with the idea that my treatment killed off a part of myself that was more alive and in tune with reality. Could I have simply found an environment for this self to thrive rather than changing my brain chemistry? In many ways, it’s a privilege just to be able to ponder this idea: for some, no meds can calm the tempest, or the combination of pills required is so elaborate, and the side effects so severe, that the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. I’ve found something that works for me, and yet I’m still unsatisfied, still wondering when I’ll be able to go off of them and get back to some idealized self.
Maybe, I sometimes think, I just need to find a place where my condition reads as “normal.” In Germany, my jumpiness made people call me a “Little Woody Allen,” but in L.A. my anxiety reads as comical. The fact that people have had such a broad range of reactions to my jumpiness makes me wonder whether I could find a better home for my mind elsewhere — a better “cultural fit,” as HR people like to say.
Anxiety must have served my relatives well in sniffing out anti-semitism in Poland and Germany, but there’s no real scientific consensus about a link between Jewish DNA and a panic-y disposition. If I could send a FOIA request to anyone in the world, I would send one to my own brain. It wouldn’t consist of much, just a “What’s your deal?” I know some great-great Jewish uncle was kicked by a Cossack or whatever, but why you gotta pretend it’s 1880s Kiev when we’re shopping at H&M?
Who knows why my genetics have proven so resistant to common-sense calming techniques. Today, brain meds make me feel fundamentally fine, and that’s why I have no time for naysayers. My people — both the gays and the Jews — have suffered enough.