Stress Will Have Its Out
A few weeks ago, I was invited to copyedit This Bright Future, by Bobby Hall, better known to hip-hop fans as Logic. I like memoirs, and I love music, so I said yes right away. Oh, and it was a crash (the book will publish in September), which bills at a higher rate, always a selling point.
The manuscript required a light touch, an art that took me a long time to learn. Copyediting (grammar, spelling, style, consistency) is a technical skill, but good copyediting is like musical accompaniment. You have to hear the author's cadences and winnow your way into the rhythm of the language. It's a supporting role, and the bigger the star, the more subtle you need to be.
I'm not offering any spoilers by saying that Bobby Hall had a truly shitty childhood. The book very effectively breaks your heart at several points. It's also not a spoiler to mention that, in the wake of that trauma and the resulting drivenness that made him a success but also felt like being chased--and then a punishing promotional schedule and the performances themselves--he has suffered from anxiety that led to panic attacks. He's spoken publicly about his struggles. For this alone I love him, as well as all the other people who talk openly about their mental health: It's brave, because there's still a stigma attached to mental health. Why? we always say. Isn't it as vital as physical health, and wouldn't we take a sick day if we had the flu? (The covid is probably still in its own special category.) And then we kind of mumble about our shrink, or our meds, or our need to lie on the sofa in the fetal position until the entire apparatus settles down.
One of my favorite quotes is from my friend Julia's friend Janet: "I come from worried people." I do too, and I am a worrier. But when I was eighteen and receiving a diagnosis of "generalized anxiety disorder" from a clinical social worker at Penn State, all it meant to me was a ticket to more therapy, which I felt I needed because I was really, really confused about all the boys I was interested in, and I didn't like my mom very much.
I jest, sort of. In truth, I have always felt that therapy is simply a natural tool for wellness and growth that everyone could benefit from, especially if you have any tricky relationships that originated in your early years (which is, what, all of us?). My relationship with my mom, and her relationship with mental health, is a tale that I'll save for another time, though ironically, it was my mother who told me when Reed was six months old that I needed to get some help, and she offered to pay if the help wasn't insured, a not unimportant detail since I was working only twelve hours a week and spending about half of the earnings on a sitter and at least that many hours crying and not too many more hours than that sleeping. In short, I was a pretty flammable Beth.
I began by calling the social worker I'd seen in the hospital after giving birth. She gave me the number of somebody who passed me on to someone else and at last I arrived at a very friendly assistant to a psychiatrist who said that a new patient normally had to wait several months for an appointment, but she could tell I was in dire straits, and she scored me time in the following week. I cried my way through that first appointment, argued against medication, and went home with three prescriptions anyway: Cymbalta, for depression; Klonopin, for the moments when my thoughts swarmed together and attacked like a hive of angry bees; and Lunesta, to reset my sleep. The doctor also referred me to a therapist for weekly sessions. Thankfully, it was an immediate fit, and we rolled up our sleeves and dug up the old burial grounds and got busy constructing the foundation for the framework on the home I needed to build inside myself. Eleven or so years later, I'm still on a reduced dose of Cymbalta, now paired with Wellbutrin; I still take Lunesta when I've gone too many nights with too many wakeful hours; I still keep Klonopin on hand for internal emergencies (intermergencies?); and I still see my psychiatrist, who has become a staunch and trusted ally on my personal security detail.
Coincidentally, around the same time I was working on the Logic copyedit, Sean's experience of the school year shifted from "barely staying above water" to "glub glub glub." Thankfully, he wasn't sinking silently--he'd experienced panic attacks back when his first marriage and his brother were unraveling simultaneously, so this time he knew to fling up random body parts and take big gulps of air in the moments when he surfaced. During this year-plus, as I wrote in my March 24 Journal entry (https://www.ebethphotography.com/post/teachers-are-tired-yo), Sean has been going off every day to teach hybrid school while being exposed on a regular basis to covid (as a sixty-year-old prone to pulmonary embolisms), and even after the small relief of vaccination, he's been trying to come up with ways to reach kids (in day school, PM school, and home tutoring) who are in their own world of hurt and expressing it as teenagers often do, with apathy, entitlement, and insolence.
My mother used to say, "Stress will have its out," and you don't always have a say in its release. If you don't have the energy or the wherewithal or the access to positive outlets, your body will take over for you and try to either discharge the renegade adrenaline and/or hobble you, make you stop doing whatever it is that's causing the stress; it's a perverse sort of protective device. Sean started having trouble sleeping. His stomach knotted up and he felt nausea to the point where he couldn't eat. Sometimes he'd have chills and then sweat as if breaking a fever. In extreme moments, his heart raced and his chest tightened until he had trouble getting a full breath. Whenever he got home from work, there was a brief window of relief--"I'm safe now"--and then the necessity of planning for the next day and trying to sleep through the night would intrude and he'd be back in it.
In his memoir, Bobby Hall writes about a sense of unreality akin to being outside of his own body. Sean also described feeling like he was floating, totally alone--even though he wasn't. It was from the memoir that I learned about derealization, defined by Webster's as "a feeling of altered reality . . . in which one's surroundings appear unreal or unfamiliar." It's a common symptom of extreme stress or anxiety, such as a panic attack. And what is a panic attack, exactly? Let's go to Webster's again: "specifically: a brief episode of intense fear or dread that is of sudden onset and typically subsides within 30 minutes, usually occurs for no apparent reason but may sometimes be associated with an identifiable triggering stimulus (such as an existing phobia), and is accompanied by a sense of unreality and impending loss of control and by various debilitating physical symptoms (such as increased heart rate, chest pain, dizziness, and shortness of breath)." Bobby Hall went to the hospital after one terrifying panic attack. Anxiety? he said. This isn't just anxiety. But it was. If you're a performer, all you can do is throw up and go onstage, which he did. Or cancel shows, which he did. And then take time to begin healing yourself, which he did.
Sean got to school one morning and felt like he was going to pass out. He checked in with the main office and came home. And he slept. And he ate. Mind and body are not separate organisms; they are symbiotic, intertwined, inextricable. Lexapro, prescribed by his GP, is beginning to help. Getting referrals for therapists. Acupuncture. Massage. Saying no when necessary. Saying yes when necessary. Talking to others and hearing their stories. Being told as many times as he needs to hear it that he's not alone. Some of those words have come from people we've never properly met: the kindness of strangers.
And then there's the kindness of friends. Special thanks to Susan for the loan of her exquisite garden and a sympathetic ear.
We are a work in progress.