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November 9, 2017 by

When Your World Collapses from Acute-Onset Anxiety

anxiety bridgeMy world fell apart a week before Rosh Hashanah. One September morning I was drinking my usual four cups of tea, moving too quickly through the house, and dreaming up a thousand different ways my life could change. The next, I was awake before dawn, my breath shallow and hard to find, certain that death was imminent and the universe existed only to swallow us whole. I carried on like this for a few days—monitoring each thought and feeling as they emerged, hypervigilant and aware of myself to the point of feeling unreal. I was a moving puddle of tears and rolling fears, shuttling from bed to couch to bed again, never really sleeping in either place.

On the fifth day, I found myself between the stucco walls of the public clinic, tugging at my jeans and gently tearing apart the paper draped beneath my legs. This was the place that could see me on such short notice. I stared at the posters reminding me to make good choices, healthy choices, and I found myself muttering sadly, “I always do, I always do.”

The doctor who saw me diagnosed me with acute onset anxiety. No kidding. She inquired about my personal life, my job, my hobbies. Out of habit, I held back when I described my occupation—you never know how a stranger will react to self-identification. I told her I worked for a Jewish organization, and she must’ve sensed my hesitation. “You can tell me,” she said, without looking up from my chart, “I’m Jewish, it’s fine.” At the end of the visit, as she watched me roll my sleeve down over the spot where she’d drawn blood, she offhandedly grinned. “Anxiety passes, I promise.” I nodded mutely. “For people like us”, she continued, “It’s in our nature to be worried.” People like us. The floor opened up and devoured me, and I showed all my teeth as she trundled me off to the psychiatric nurse.

The New Year came through the blinds, dragging me out of my twisted sheets. The panic came, as it always did, before I was fully awake. It had become a strange comfort—a consistent bedfellow in the absence of my long-term partner, who was away working on his doctorate while I fell apart at the seams. At night he reminded me, whispering through the phone, that he loved me, and nothing lasted forever—not good feelings, and certainly not bad ones. I found myself telling him I was going to bake an apple and honey cake, though I hadn’t eaten properly for a week. He reminded me of the way my hands had smoothed over dough in the apartment we had shared together post-undergrad, the breads and cakes rising in the oven on lazy Friday evenings as we sat, side by side, hands clasped, our Shabbos a ritual of companionship. I left the house a few hours before sunset, and I picked out the apples I thought would be sweet. My hands shook on the steering wheel.

Ultimately, my mother baked our Rosh Hashanah cake. I had meant to—I looked down at my hands and willed them to work, to do anything besides twist themselves into knots. She understood. I stayed in the room, my teeth chattering and heat dripping down my spine. I watched the flour rise, slowly, and I felt brief, gasping moments of relief. The sun slipped below the horizon and I lit a candle in my mind. The morning after, I found myself cutting a slice for breakfast, mechanically putting the manna from heaven between my lips and tasting nothing. I forgot to drizzle the honey, and the day passed into night.

On Yom Kippur, I fasted without meaning to, and asked myself to find the words to atone. My new medication made my stomach turn, and the Rosh Hashanah cake had hardened. We had to throw it out. After the three stars had appeared in the sky, my family and I silently sat at the kitchen table, and I ate because bodies surrounding me made me feel less nervous.

When the Days of Awe ended, I was told to up my dose by the psychiatric nurse. She asked if I had enjoyed my holidays. I nodded. The holidays were mine, because they were not hers. The Jewish doctor was unavailable to see me, and besides, I had no change in status to report. Until the blue pills gave me some semblance of relief from my persistent belief that the sky was falling in, I was housebound, still dragging myself from bed to couch. I sent emails to my coworkers and wished them joy, and forgiveness. They told me they hoped I was to be inscribed in the Book of Life. I wanted to write that I felt barely alive, held hostage by anxiety that had robbed me of my personhood. Still, I hoped.

Leaves cascaded off the trees now, and I turned twenty-two with little fanfare. I spent the afternoon with my therapist, and on the way out, I bumped into my Jewish doctor who had seen me first. “How are you?” she asked. “It’s my birthday” I answered, unsure of why the fact had suddenly come tumbling forth. Her eyes widened. “You scheduled a therapy appointment for your birthday?” “It was the only time available this week.” She threw her head back and laughed. The corners of my mouth turned up without me realizing. “That’s terribly Jewish of you, spending your birthday in therapy.” I paused at the door, and showed all my teeth again, this time in jest. “Your mouth to God’s ear,” I said, hearing my own voice clearly for the first time in weeks. Her shoulders shook with laughter as she made her way down the hallway, her heels clacking against the cheap floor.

Sometime after the season firmly changed, after weeks more had slipped out of my grasp, I woke up and realized I’d slept through the night. A few weeks after that, I prepared a meal and savored each bite, and didn’t question the joy I felt. You don’t come back to life all at once. The days were still long, my thoughts still clouded and hazed. Still, I lit candles in my mind with each Friday that passed. The week began again, and everything was possible. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.