Anxiety, a Psychiatrist, and a Lost Weekend

I am not sure how many psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and mental health experts I have seen over the years. I’ve lost count of those visits and of the medications I’ve tried. Since we have moved several times in the past six years, I’ve had to seek new help and new prescriptions every time, and that process is so tiring. I’ve seen good shrinks and bad ones, been taken off medicine too quickly and given new meds without warrant. But one of my psychiatrists made the largest impact on my life.

I’d met Dr. Donaldson shortly after I transferred from from one college to another in a different city. Because of my multiple suicide attempts, my dad had been seeking a referral for me for months so that I could see a doctor who had a good reputation and the potential to help his struggling daughter. I did not want to go see Dr. D., insisting to my mom that I was fine and I didn’t need a psychiatrist. She didn’t buy my pleas. “Your dad had to pull a lot of strings to get you this appointment. You’re going.”

And so I did. I arrived at Dr. D’s office and sat in a waiting room that smelled like old magazines and the 1980s. Our first appointment was thorough, but talking to Dr. D. wasn’t like my previous encounters with psychiatrists. He sat behind a giant lawyer’s desk and listened to me. He asked questions in a quiet, grandfather-like voice, and after I answered a few of his queries, I noticed he seemed to be interested in what I was saying, even when I was just talking about my summer, not my mental health symptoms. This doctor wanted to get to know me as a person before he handed over a prescription. What a concept!

He did prescribe me medicine, of course. We played with a few dosages and different meds for a while, but eventually I started taking EffexorXR for my mood, Trazodone to help me fall asleep, and Seroquel to help me stay asleep. It was a good cocktail of my mental health, until it wasn’t.

I saw Dr. D. throughout my final years of undergrad, and then when I started graduate school in a different state, he agreed to help me stay on my meds if I came back to see him whenever I returned home for a break.

I fell into a chest-numbing state of anxiety in October of my first semester. I had tripped trying to walk over to the phone in The English Center, where I worked 10 hours a week as part of my assistantship, and injured my back to the point I could barely walk to classes. Visits to a chiropractor were helping, but I was embarrassed by my klutziness in front of strangers. And, as we’d been in school for just over two months, my professors were amping up the assignments and readings. Plowing through 150 pages of critical theory a night plus writing response papers and helping grade first-year composition papers was a lot. I’d sit at my IKEA desk (thank you, Justyna) in my apartment and chain-smoke while I worked. I never slept in my bed; I fell asleep on the couch watching my DVDs of Friends on a round-the-clock loop. Not good for my back or my REM cycle. Finally, as the anxiety started to pull at my body even more and as I caught myself repeating tapping patterns, turning off light switches in quick succession of fours, and washing my hands until I was certain I wasn’t going to fail my Composition Pedagogy class, I called my psychiatrist. Something was off, and I needed Dr. D.’s help.

Anyway, I called Dr. D. in October of 2003 in a panic because my anxiety was over the top and I was terrified of failing out of graduate school (having yet to earn any grade lower than an A on an assignment; anxiety lies). He was still my doctor because we’d landed on six-month appointments that I could make work during school breaks. As it was a Thursday when I finally gave in to asking for help, he asked, “Can you take a break for a couple days?” I said I thought so. I didn’t have to be on campus that Friday, at least. “Good. Take two Seroquel tonight and try to knock yourself out for the full weekend. You’re exhausted and sleep is the best option for you right now. You’re exhibiting OCD symptoms because of your anxiety. Sleep and reset.”

So, I did. And nearly 72 hours later, I emerged from sleep and mindless TV binging to find that I did feel better. Not perfect by any means, but I could take deep breaths again and wash my hands in a normal fashion once more. Sleep would become one of my go-to ways to combat the anxiety and depression that took hold of me over many times from then on.

I’m not sure if doctors would prescribe three days of sleep with pills now. Several doctors have urged me to rest, but Dr. D. remains the first one to recognize that I need to take a break and to calm myself. For that, I’ll always be grateful.

Finding a proper medical team is not easy. It’s painful. First you have to navigate insurance approvals, waitlists, and paperwork. Then you have to regurgitate your past mental health issues and talk about experiences that can push you back into that deep hole. And trying new meds? It’s a strain of adding new pills at different doses to the already complex cocktail of antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and sleeping pills, maintaining a homeostasis to ensure that everything is working together, that a new med is helping, and that side effects are minimal. It’s exhausting. But worth it if you can find a doctor like Dr. D.

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