Consider yourself lucky if you don’t know what it feels like to want to die.
To be overcome by such a powerful wave of despair that it does not allow you to come out for air, engulfing you so deeply that you wish it would take you, just so that the pain would come to an end.
Consider yourself even luckier if you don’t experience this every day of your life, as the sun starts to set and the first stars begin to dot the sky.
Twilight used to be my favorite part of the day, a beautiful painting forming in front of my eyes, as the blue gave way to orange, yellow and pink.
So how did it come to this, surviving instead of living, enduring instead of enjoying, struggling instead of being?
My first memory of anxiety is one I discovered only recently. I was sixteen when we started studying the works of Fernando Pessoa. As a student read one of his poems out loud, giving words to the writer’s restlessness, his discomfort at simply “being”, my body started sending me signals. I felt this growing sense of angst, this uncomfortable feeling of desperation that ran through my system, urging me to run out of the classroom.
I didn’t know it then, but the reason I felt so uncomfortable, was because Pessoa was expressing feelings that were way too familiar to me.
A similar experience occurred around the same age, when I watched “Girl, Interrupted”. The trigger was the subject of mental illness. I recognized aspects of myself in some of the tortured characters and that disturbed me more than I could ever have imagined.
As I grew older, so did my anxiety, sinking its claws deeper into me, as if afraid that I would try to take one step without it. My body complained as the familiar foe moved around, causing pain and discomfort, tricking me into believing I was physically ill. But every test came clean and every diagnosis was the same: nerves.
Every time my body started complaining, I prayed for a disease, an actual, physical disease to be the cause of my symptoms, so that I could be medicated and the illness could be cured. But that was never the case. This illness would remain my unwanted companion throughout my teenage years, all the way into adulthood, leaving behind a trail of lost opportunities, unrealized relationships, and a sea of unfulfilled potential, as it distorted my sense of self into that of a person who doubts her every step and is incapable of fully trusting or ever feeling completely safe.
Unwilling to accept this as part of me, considering it an invader, a virus plotting to take over the host, I tried a variety of methods to get rid of it or at least to make it manageable enough. I wanted to take back the wheel instead of remaining a mere passenger in my own life.
Psychology, psychiatry, hypnosis, acupuncture, ayurvedic medicine, crystal therapy, EFT, positive thinking, meditation… If you can name it, I’ve tried it. I have had good periods in my life though, periods in which I didn’t need the help of any kind of medicine. But then anxiety would merge with depression and the pair would drag me down with them. It was cyclical. I was ok. I was not ok. I was ok. I was not ok… and I would see things crumbling in front of me, every time I fell in love, every time I had a dream, everything I wanted the most and had worked the hardest for, simply vanished before my eyes.
One day, out of pure desperation, I made the worst decision of my life.
Someone close to me who I hadn’t seen in years, told me about this ceremony where a shaman from a Brazilian tribe would serve this “tea”, and those who drank it would feel a deep connection to nature and go through an experience in which their bodies and minds would be purged of whatever illness plagued them. She used such beautiful words to describe the experience brought on by this tea that it didn’t even cross my naïve and desperate mind that what she was referring to was actually a very potent hallucinogenic.
Her appearance couldn’t have been timed more perfectly. I was deeply susceptible, tired of having my life ruled by fear, and at a moment where I thought anxiety would lead me to, once again, lose someone that I loved.
On the night in question, we sat in a circle and took turns drinking the ahayuasca from a small chalice, handed to each of us by the shaman. As time went by, I felt happy and uninhibited but I knew that wasn’t the purpose of the ceremony. I knew I had to reach a point where I would purge by vomiting or defecating, as it had been previously explained to me. So when the brew was offered a second time, I took it.
And suddenly it hit me. I felt like I was being smashed against the floor. I struggled to get up and held myself up against a wall so that I could walk out of the room. With an enormous difficulty in processing my thoughts or even choosing the words that were leaving my lips, I begged someone to bring the shaman to me. He brought me into the circle again and made all the others pray for me, while he tried to, unsuccessfully, cast the shadows away.
Many hours went by, and as the light of the morning started to appear, I tried to get some sleep. But every time I closed my eyes, fear shook my entire body. I still felt completely removed from reality, so much so that my movements and words did not seem my own.
That night, I went to bed certain that I would wake up the next day feeling completely normal, after a good night of sleep. But as I awoke the next morning, I realized I felt exactly the same. I walked into the kitchen, fell into my mother’s arms and said, “I have ruined my life”.
Every day I felt like I had to make an effort to think and to form logical sentences, which made me I speak way too slowly.
Sometimes, I would even unlearn how to walk or how to grab a simple object, as my limbs moved in different directions than the ones I was ordering them to.
I was afraid to be left alone, I couldn’t leave the house, and I had constant panic attacks, which made me feel like I was going insane. The panic attacks happened so often, I felt like I wanted to die. They were unbearable, “I can’t take another second of my existence” kind of unbearable.
I first tried to treat myself with natural therapies, as that was what I related to the most at that time in my life. But when they produced no results, I resorted to traditional medicine and was put on a heavy cocktail of psychiatric medication.
Many months went by until I started to feel any better, with both psychiatric and psychological help. Little by little, I started to be able to do normal things, like taking a bus, going to the movies, or even meeting a friend for coffee.
It has been six years since this event took place and I am still suffering the consequences. The truth is that I was conditioned to that traumatic state for so long that, today, my body responds to even the smallest stimulus in a similar way than it did that night.
If I feel nauseous, which I did that night, my body makes me feel this increasing sense of angst and desperation. If I feel dizzy, if I feel sick, if I feel anything that resembles something I experienced that night, my body responds the same way it did then.
Thankfully, after six years, it does not respond with the same magnitude. I seldom have full blown panic attacks. But at the end of the day, it still starts to creep up, raising its ugly head, this monster of mine which causes me to feel this inexplicable despair, and still makes me want to die.
But you wouldn’t know that when talking to me. I seem just like anyone else, a happy, smiling person going about her daily life. When you’re talking to me, you have no idea how often I wonder about dying. While I’m riding the subway, going to the surpermarket, working on my computer… You have no idea I’m thinking of different ways of taking my own life, wondering which one would be quickest and least painful.
It’s not that I actually wish to die or that I have a desire to hurt myself.
I don’t. It’s just that you get exhausted when you have to live with this every day, even when taking medication. Some days, I think I can make it. That I’ll fight through it, that I’ll find things in my life that will make me fulfilled enough so that there is no space left for this crippling anxiety. I do my best, I pretend it’s not happening, I pretend it’s not a problem, and that I can live with it. But it takes a lot of effort to try to feel normal. Not happy, not sad, just normal.
If I were to leave tomorrow, I wouldn’t feel sad. I wouldn’t even feel like I was missing out. I would feel relief, because living like this is exhausting, and a life in which you are simply surviving, is not a not much of a life… is it?
This does not mean that I gave up. I just needed to let these words come out of me today, not only to relieve this pain but also because I want my experience to serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who is thinking of trying ahayuasca or going into any experience with an unknown therapy or any kind of substance without having enough information, without making sure it’s safe and that the treatment is being administered by professionals and in a controlled environment.
Let my mistake guide you into making better choices and not letting desperation take the best of you. And please, if you’re struggling, always ask for help. There is no shame in wanting to lead a normal, happy life.
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