Saturday, December 18, 2004

Hot Chik on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown


What is a nervous breakdown?

In the Middle Ages, it was called melancholia. In the early 1900s, it was known as neurasthenia. From the 1930s to about 1970, it was known as a nervous breakdown. "Nervous breakdown" is a term that the public uses to characterize a range of mental illnesses, but generally it describes the experience of "snapping" under immense pressure, mental collapse or mental and physical exhaustion.
"Nervous breakdown" is not a clinical term. There is no psychiatric definition of a nervous breakdown, and it has nothing to do with nerves. "Nervous breakdown" is an inexact and unscientific term that is no longer used in psychiatry.
Surveys show that about one-third of Americans feel on the verge of a nervous breakdown at some point.
But what’s in a name? All I know is that I was pretty damn close to falling off the deep end a couple of times in the last month.

The first incident happened at the Chicago O’Hare Airport. God, how I hate that place. For one thing, it’s fucking huge. When your plane pulls in at Gate 2 in Terminal 1, you will undoubtedly have 10 minutes to get to your connecting flight at Gate 34 in Terminal 3. Nobody tells you it’s physically impossible without automotive assistance until you get there 5 minutes after the plane has pulled away. It’s funny in a sick way when you notice all the other people running toward their respective gates. Should you break it to them or let them find out for themselves? Judging from the lines at Chili’s Bar and Grille, it doesn’t really matter.

O’Hare can also get very crowded. Thousands of people in various stages of nervous anticipation or exhausted resignation; running, pacing, yelling, sweating, standing in line, sprawled on the floor, perched on barstools. If you don’t believe that emotional energy can be passed from person to person as I do, just think of all the germs! Oprah even recommended a pill you can take prior to travel that boosts your energy and immune system. Too bad I didn’t learn about it until yesterday.

The Monday following Thanksgiving my sister and I pulled into Gate 4, Terminal 3 of the evil airport to meet our connecting flights back home (we had just spent 5 hours on the plane from Tucson). Her flight was to depart in 15 minutes from Gate 11, and mine in 20 minutes from Gate 7, both thankfully in the same terminal we arrived in.

While waiting for our boarding calls, Paula noticed something alarming on the flight monitors. “Hey, Lu, why does your flight say it departs from Gate 22, Terminal 1? Did it change or something?”

I looked, and sure enough, what she said was true. I suddenly felt dizzy and faint, and the ground began to crumble from beneath me. It took all my strength just to remain on my feet. Paula took one look at me and said, “Stay right here. I’m going to check this out.”

It seemed like she was gone much longer than the three minutes it took her to verify the bad news. In those few minutes, I had crossed the line of sanity vs. insanity, where you decide you can no longer fight the whirling black panic rising all around you. I started to sob, not just weeping or crying, but great big boo-hoos. My knees began to buckle as I blindly fumbled for something, anything, to hold on to. My beloved sister just grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “Hang on, sweetheart, we’re gonna get you on your plane!”

The next 10 minutes are a blur—I vaguely remember Paula calling an airport employee a nasty name when he refused to give us a ride on his little “Courtesy Cart”—and then we were there. She gave me a quick hug, delivered me into the competent hands of the flight attendant, and ran off to catch her plane. I managed to get seated and swallow my second Xanax of the day, and by the time I got to Cedar Rapids an hour later was red-eyed but no longer crying.

Thank the gods for my sister. I simply could not have gotten through that airport without her. I was beyond even caring what anyone thought, seeing me blubbering like a crazy woman. My inner voice no longer kept me plugging away like it usually does. I really had given up. It was like I’d finally just let go of my connection to the real world and jumped into that black abyss so many of us think of as the other side of sanity. I’d always thought that if I did that, I’d never return. But here I am.

The first incident made it just that much easier the next time it happened. This time, at least, I was in the relative safety of a hospital. I realized one evening that my roommate had been talking to me for almost three solid hours. I was so sick, in so much pain, so exhausted, and so depressed. Almost unconsciously, I got up and wandered into the hallway. Once the sobs started, they came forth like a dam had broken inside me. When they asked what was wrong, I told the kind nurses that “my roommate needs to shut up” and before I knew it all my things had been moved into a different room. A glass of cold apple juice, a Xanax, and a warm blanket later, I began to calm down and breathe almost normally.

So did I have a “Nervous Breakdown” or what? I guess the moral of the story is that holding onto sanity can sometimes be more exhausting than it’s worth--that it’s ok to let go, no matter what you call it.


At 7:43 AM, Blogger Dannyness said...

I don't think you had a "nervous breakdown". I think those are a little harder to recover from. On TV when people have nervous breakdowns they tend to go away for a while and not come back at least until next season. Tee hee.

Glorious and I think you had a panic attack which is bad enough.

At 6:04 PM, Blogger Lu said...

Glo & Dan:

Aw, man! You blew my whole post! What if I'm still sick? Can we call it a Nervous Breakdown if I'm still mentally ill? How 'bout I go around drooling and reciting the names of constellations in alphabetical order or something? Would that count?


P.S. You're probably at least partly right. I think "Panic Attack" is the term the media started using when "Nervous Breakdown" became cliche. However, a panic attack is usually purely physical and comes out of nowhere, while what happened to me was more psychological in nature and was very much situational. But who knows? Maybe my shrink will read this and comment...


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