“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.

Cosmopolitan (Philippines) - - Contents -

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.

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