“I HAD ANXIETY, AND I MADE IT WORSE”
One woman wanted to tackle her anxiety the natural way…until she realized crystals and coconut oil aren’t the cure for serious mental illness.
How effective are natural methods?
When I was 17, I didn’t feel like a normal teenage girl. I felt like there was a beast locked inside my normal teenage girl’s body, scratching to get out. I regularly suffered panic attacks: hyperventilating, trembling under cold sweat, and fighting the desire to run away, even though I was just taking notes in class or hanging out at a friend’s basement.
I’d been diagnosed with generalized anxiety and panic disorder the year before, but I scoffed at the idea that my problems were hardwired in my brain or DNA. Although my psychiatrist and parents pushed me to take medication to control my symptoms, I refused. I had studied Eastern philosophy and devoured spiritual tomes like You Can Heal
Your Life, which had me convinced that my mentalhealth issues were signs of a festering wound—a repressed memory or pastlife trauma. I wasn’t sure what exactly, but I was desperate to find out.
I deferred entry to Wesleyan University and instead took a four-day
train (add aviophobia to my list of anxieties) from my hometown of Boston to Sedona, Arizona, the epicenter of New Ageism. A reputed home to five energy vortexes—places believed to be especially powerful—it is the land of the health-food store, crystal shop, Reiki master, and aural photographer (they take pictures of your aura; mine was purple). For a naive 18-year-old looking for answers, it was Disneyland.
I twisted in yoga classes until my shoulders ached. I submitted to a massage therapist who pressed so hard that I couldn’t breathe or see. There was a chiropractor who added an inch to my height by tugging on my skull and a shaman who beat a drum near my head while I “remembered” horrific acts from past lives. There were astrological readings, vision quests, macrobiotic diets, vegan diets, Ayurvedic diets. There were flower essences brewed in full moonlight that I squirted on my tongue and a tea of herbal tinctures I drank before bed.
I paid for it all with money I’d made babysitting and saved from my bat mitzvah. When that ran out, I taught Hebrew school at a local synagogue. I left briefly to enroll at Wesleyan but, after one semester, transferred to Prescott College, about 90 minutes from Sedona, where I majored in writing and holistic health.
on my way to recovery, despite almost no science to back my beliefs. Americans spend roughly $30 billion out-of-pocket annually on complementary and alternative therapies, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, even though many of them haven’t been reviewed for efficacy and safety. (Unlike conventional medicine, alternative treatments are only loosely regulated.) The remainder? They might be safe but are not beneficial.
Although I tried dozens of treatments over five years, panic hit me every few weeks. I rarely slept, didn’t want to eat, wasn’t getting my period, and had constant stomachaches. Usually, I saw my intensifying symptoms as indications that I was closing in on their source. But when I talked with loved ones back home, I grew curious about prescription drugs.
“Could a pill really help?” I wondered aloud to the healers I worked with. “No,” they argued. “Quieting symptoms with medicine will only prolong discovering and healing the primordial wound.” Some claimed that my anxieties were a gift and I should appreciate my ability to tap into both the joy and pain of the world. A shaman told me that in many cultures, the mad ones were the healers, the wisdom holders.
When I moved to New York City for grad school at 27, panic attacks landed me in the hospital three times in one year. I collapsed at the gym, at my apartment, on the sidewalk, quaking legs unable to hold me. The EMTS stood poised with Epipens and oxygen masks—my symptoms resembled those of anaphylactic shock and seizure.
At the ER, time and again, I was sent home with a (reconfirmed) diagnosis of panic disorder. Doctors made me take Valium or Ativan or Xanax. Unlike the chiropractic adjustments and yoga and herbal tinctures, the pills stopped my shaking and slowed my heart within 20 minutes, every time.
To stay out of the hospital, I agreed to take Ativan when I felt panic arising. It kept the attacks at bay and the anxiety manageable enough that I could finish my master’s degree in writing. But bad days made me realize I needed regular medicine.
I found a psychiatrist willing to prescribe tiny, 2.5-milligram doses of Lexapro. For months, I took it haphazardly, convinced my heart was stopping, my blood was clotting, that I had an ulcer—all side effects of some antidepressants I had read about online. I worked my way up to 5 mg, then 10. My panic diminished slowly. Eventually, I was able to accept a fulltime teaching position and get an apartment in Boston with my friends.
I have been in therapy for years and have benefited tremendously from that hard work. And who’s to say that beating drums while covered in mud didn’t also help? I still believe that diet and meditation are tools for managing stress. Research says so too. Certain nutrients (including magnesium, B vitamins, and L-theanine) can have a calming effect, and studies show that med- itation changes areas of the brain key to processing emotions. But when I see headlines like “Drinking Coconut Oil Every Day for a Month Cured My Panic Forever,” it makes my blood boil. Schizophrenics won’t be cured with crystals. No one’s clinical depression disappears because she walked barefoot on fresh grass. These diseases are the result of real, at times genetic, chemical imbalances. Each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, millions of sufferers die for lack of treatment.
I resisted medicine because, in addition to fearing it, I felt that my personality was to brood, to obsess, to cry. “The world is sad. I am sad,” I told my high school psychologist. What might I have accomplished if I hadn’t spent a huge percentage of my time, energy, and money chasing healing—if I’d simply, much earlier, taken a pill? I could not have become the well-balanced, successful person I am without medicine. Whether I feel confident or fearful, happy or sad, whether I’m chanting a mantra or swallowing a drug…that’s who I am.
When I see headlines like “Drinking Coconut Oil Every Day for a Month Cured My Panic Forever,” it makes my blood boil.