I find it most humorous to post this after the last message on pills - it may be the result of a growing mania inside me.
In the late summer of 1998, I suffered my first panic attack at a performance of Rent at the Keller Auditorium. I was with many friends, along with my two visiting sisters (who were 13 and 11 at the time). We had enjoyed a nice dinner and had gone to see the touring show which by then was already a cliché - but that's another subject.
About five minutes before the curtain went up, I began to feel strange. And then BOOM - and man, what an experience. Heart rate exploded. Gag reflexes became sensitive. Bowels liquefied. Sweat poured. Left arm went numb. Skin felt like it was burned. And it lasted for about an hour. The shear terror of what was happening to me kept me paralyzed in my seat - and at intermission, I ran to the bathroom to gather myself.
A nightmare had begun.
Prior to this attack, I was fearless. My past included being drum major of a Texas marching band, singing in front of thousands, speaking at huge events, performing Shakespeare solo in front of James Earl Jones at Lincoln Center, conducting orchestras for musicals, interviewing for the Drama League, and the list goes on. I had nerves of steel that I knew would carry me to great success. In terms of the personality test, this would all have been a fearlessness put forth by the green part of my essence. So long as I was prepared for these high-pressure events - I would be fine. That's logic. Do the homework - be ready - and all is well.
Two weeks after that initial episode, I awoke in the early morning with what seemed to be a heart attack. Left arm curled again. Chest pain beyond belief. Pounding head. The symptoms took about 15 minutes to subside. I went to a clinic. Tons of heart tests. Blood work. The results: "Your heart is very strong." "Your thyroid is normal." "There are no other abnormalities." Diagnosis: "You have an anxiety problem." And this is my favorite: "You're gay and this is probably a result of underlying fears - that you will die from AIDS, be the victim of violent attacks, and die alone." The woman who told me this was a lesbian nurse practitioner - very caring, but man, did she adopt "victim mentality" for the GLBT community. Plan for treatment: "Anti-depressants and anxiety meds." I refused, but said I'd accept a mild sedative. The result: "a .5mg prescription for Ativan." And it helped.
The green in me did not like it. Rearing its head and logically stubborn as ever, it said, "You cannot rely on this drug. It's absurd." And in the fall of 1999, I got off Ativan for good and have never taken it since. But the result: I have had nearly a decade of ongoing anxiety attacks.
The blue in me wants attention - it has taken over in many ways. Empathy is a powerful thing. And I believe that I am extremely empathic - to the point of sensing and adopting emotional stress when I'm in the presence of others who may be distraught. It has allowed me to grow as an artist for sure, but it has also crippled my ambition. I believe the anxiety comes from that struggle between the empathic and the logical. The tug of war threatens to tear me apart. But the truth is, I have also become a classic textbook case: the fear of having an anxiety attack is now the primary reason I have them. For I have come to expect them. And they come - relentlessly.
I now have no less than three full attacks per week, often while in the presence of others. I can barely attend theatre anymore, because I cannot bear to be in an embarrassing situation where I need to leave and disrupt the show - I always grab an aisle seat, or I won't attend. I have become more and more reclusive - agoraphobia has infected my life. What sort of irony is that?
Please understand...this is not a pity party. I have great faith that I hold the power to change this - that in some way, I have the power to re-balance my internal colors. In exposing myself on this blog and more and more to my friends, I hope to remove the shame from my struggles. And in doing so, I can only hope better days are ahead.
Because they have to be.
--image by Regina Lafay