I get a headache while boarding the bus that promises to take me away from New York to visit one of my best friends in Pennsylvania. I guess you could say that I booked the bus ticket because I needed a break, and I hoped that a quick trip to Swarthmore, Pa., would provide an adequate respite.
I board the bus exactly a week after returning to New York from spring break, having spent the intervening seven days planning my escape. I know that everyone probably has difficulty returning to Columbia from spring break, but I like to think that my experience was unique. You see, this year’s return coincided perfectly with my first-ever trip to the psychiatrist. The following Monday, a fear I’d been carrying around for months was realized: I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder with panic attacks and subsequently prescribed 50 milligrams of Zoloft.
The bus leaves at 10 a.m., and my headache grows with the passing blocks. Headaches are a side effect of Zoloft (along with dry mouth, exhaustion, and the inability to achieve orgasm), and I usually get a pretty debilitating one around an hour and a half after taking about 25 milligrams, or half a pill. I’m especially sensitive to the side effects today, my first day back on 25 milligrams after upping my dosage to 50 milligrams at my doctor’s recommendation. The idea is to ease me into the full dosage, but my attempts at doing so resulted in shallow breathing, chest pain, and two and a half panic attacks—all of which inspired my seemingly spontaneous journey to Philadelphia. The switch from 25 milligrams to 50 milligrams and back again provided an unwelcome realization that these pills are in fact affecting me on some basic, chemical level, and the headaches are my daily reminder of that reality. The arrival of the headache is the time of day when my breath becomes most difficult to catch, the time when I begin to question my sanity—an anxious tendency my psychiatrist calls “self-monitoring.”
Thinking about panic precipitates panic and, like most people who suffer from panic attacks, I’m constantly thinking about whether or not I’m having one. My day-to-day experience is a series of questions. Am I panicking? Am I about to panic? Is my breathing the same as it was five minutes ago? Is my vision? The anticipation of an attack, the uncertainty, sends me into a veritable maze of unanswerable questions: Will I have children? Will I have plans on the Fourth of July? Will I die tomorrow? Questions function like fluid, filling my lungs until my head spins and my heart works overtime. Next thing I know, I’m 100 pages deep in apartment listings, beating myself up about hypothetically not being able to afford a room in the East Village because I don’t know yet if I will have a job after I graduate. I have no answers. There is no knowing.
Ironically, starting antianxiety medication usually worsens the situation, because medication—bear with me here—makes you astoundingly aware of your own consciousness. It distances you from your immediate surroundings. Imagine that you’re stoned, and now imagine not knowing if you’ll ever experience sobriety again, wondering if you’ll ever feel “the same” as before, feeling unsure that “before” even existed. Throw in difficulty breathing and a serious case of apathy and you’ll have some idea of what the first week of medication is like.
These are my thoughts for the first hour of my bus trip (I sleep for the second). Swarthmore College is $6 and a regional rail ride away. It’s on the train that I notice that I’m having difficulty swallowing. My throat feels like it’s closing up, and the familiar questions announce themselves as I roll into the suburbs: What happens if I get sick? Where do I go? What if I miss my train home tomorrow? Arriving at the Swarthmore train station, though, seeing my best friend and his roommate waiting for me across the tracks, it hits me that I’ve escaped. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go. It might be the simple fact that Swarthmore smells better than New York does, or maybe it’s just that there’s room for me on the sidewalk, but here, my throat expands. I am breathing again. I’m looking forward to the 24 hours ahead. Outside of the city, there is room for change.
I’m writing this from the top of a hill in suburban Pennsylvania, soaking up the idyllic campus with its Quidditch game and steeples and unabashed weed smell. I alternate between lying on my back with my knees in the air and sitting cross-legged, just kind of taking it in. While I battle with an unfamiliar desire to skip class tomorrow in order to spend one more night here, I recall what my psychiatrist said during my first session: “What we’re doing here is changing your brain chemistry.” Something intrinsic about me is changing, and as terrifying as I should find that information, the fact is that I haven’t cried in two weeks. I’m spending time alone in the suburbs without fearing the thoughts that might materialize in the silence. For the first time in a while, I recognize the value of leaving Manhattan, of fresh air and solitude and old friendships and just slowing down.
It’s beautiful on this hill with its pick-up soccer games and giant white lawn chairs. Maybe I do think too much, and maybe I am scared of death and of tomorrow. But here I am, sitting on a hill in a town without a McDonald’s, not thinking about either of those things. I’m not concerned about my schedule for next semester or whether or not I’ll get married. And the mere fact that I just thought about the future and didn’t stop writing in order to Google apartment listings in Brooklyn or job openings in Chicago? It really is a miracle. Yes, I know—it’s just science, but at least I’m not thinking about my breathing. I’m not planning my breakfast. No, I’m just sort of sitting here, and for the first time in a while, that’s good enough for me.