The expression “easier said than done” can follow just about any piece of advice or claim. “I’m gonna be on time to work from now on”, “I’m going to the gym five days a week this year”, “he’s an asshole, forget about him”, or, my personal favorite, “don’t panic.”
Easier said than done.
Now, I’m sure there are peeps who can actually turn their new leaf over without so much as breaking a nail. They roll up to work early, are in kick-ass shape, never drunk-dial (or email, or text) their ex, and can breeze right through a scary situation with heartbeat and sweat glands in-tact – I’m just not one of them.
Aside from the whole “you could die” thing, not to mention the other slew of Awesome that can happen when drug addicts use (losing your job, friends, health, money, home), being an addict in recovery is something I’ve learned to manage without having it be all-consuming (like it was, when I first got clean). But there are always exceptions.
Less than 24 hours ago, for the first time in my drug-free life, I had a panic attack. I’m not talking about being hit with that familiar wave of anxiety we feel when sitting across a would-be employer during a job interview. This was a full-blown, assault of my sympathetic nervous system, and it came out of nowhere.
If you’ve been lucky enough in your life to have never experienced an anxiety attack, let me lay some symptoms on you:
- Heart pounding
- Choking feeling
- Short, shallow breath
- Chest pain
- Numbness or tingling
- Chills and hot flashes
- A feeling of unreality
- A feeling of going crazy
- A feeling you are about to die
Fun, right? According to standards set by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), when you have a panic attack, you generally experience at least four of the above mentioned symptoms. Last night, I was hit with eight.
Back when I popped Xanax like Cheerios, if I began to feel anything remotely alluding to a panic attack, I’d just double my recreational dose. Done. Problem solved. Numbing the pain was my specialty, and I thought nothing of those pesky little words on the side of the prescription bottle: use only as directed. Like all addicts, I’d rationalize. My two biggies were, that I have a high tolerance (wonder why) so I need more to “feel it”, and I’ve got this under control (as long as my two doctors never find out about the other).
When I was using, I kept myself floating in a constant bubble of denial, arrogance and audacity. Who the hell takes six grams of Xanax with a bottle of wine every night, and thinks they’re untouchable? This asshole, that’s who.
Even when I was in the emergency room, my sheets soaked through the mattress, and an oxygen mask covering my face, I was still an asshole in the bubble. It wasn’t until (on my third day in rehab fresh from detox) sharing stories of my colorful past as a stripper with an insatiable appetite for ecstasy and blow twenty years ago, that it finally hit me – fuck – I’m a drug addict.
So what’s a recovering pill-popper to do when the thick cloud of panic seeps in, and you feel like you’re gonna croak? My first instinct was denial (old habits). I tried to ignore the beads of sweat dripping down the back of my neck, while sitting on the edge of my bed shaking the numbness out of my hands, and repeating the words in my brain: “this isn’t happening.”
But it was happening. Within minutes of my refute mantra, I succumbed. I was indeed in the unforgiving grip of a full-blown panic episode, and if I didn’t figure something out quickly, I’d be right back on that slab of sweat-soaked foam, grasping for air through a plastic mask. Here’s where being an addict is a hoot: I was more than a little tempted to go. I knew how easy it would’ve been to crawl back in the bubble, with the soothing rescue of Nirvana coursing through my veins, compliments the lucky doctor who had the pleasure of having me on his call.
Somewhere in the space of salivating for a chemical cure and holding my hand in the surge, I resisted the urge to fall into the arms of the *hospital, and created my own life raft of will. I revised my previous chant of denial in my brain and used my recovery miles to upgrade them through to my voice. I spoke out loud: “you can do this.” Over and over again. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this. Breathing slowly through my nose, exhaling out of my mouth. Over and over.
Last night was impossibly rough, but not impossible. I was alone and fucking scared, but in-between wiping tears and talking to myself, I reached out to friends. I even tweeted my agony, knowing I’d get messages of support in reply (don’t knock the Twitterverse, those are my people). I felt their words, and welcomed the virtual hugs. I directed the slide show memories in my mind, and thought about how far I’ve come, and how pissed off I’d be if I were to derail my recovery over what was clearly an addiction survival pop quiz from The Universe. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.
I’ve never been good at tests, especially when they come without caution. But when I woke up this morning, realizing I was in my own bed, no IV in my arm, no portable blood pressure machine in the room, and no hospital gown to wrestle with, I knew this one, I had passed.
Your move, Universe.
*This essay is in no way meant as medical advice. If you or anyone you know suffers panic attacks or disorders, please consult your physician. I’m just a hot mess trying to stay clean.