Why have I been absent from OS since last summer? I’ve been busy working, of course, but the real reason I’ve been gone is that I fell down a well. Not with a dramatic splash, but slowly, like a motion capture film of a leaf on a fall day. So slowly that for months I had no real sensation of falling. Only the disquieting knowledge that when I looked up I could no longer see the sun, only a circle of deep blue sky.
What I was acutely aware of was that I was gradually losing my appetite. I was eating less and less. And the little I ate did not sit well.
The medical term for my lack of appetite is anorexia, never to be confused with its more virulent cousin, Anorexia Nervosa.
I began steadily losing weight.
Now I am quite aware of my tendency to “somaticize” – to experience my emotions in my body, mostly my gut. I remembered falling down a similar well several times before. But that was long ago. And every time it had happened I’d been pushed – by some woman as she abandoned me.
That was not the case this time. On the contrary, Mrs. Muse was there by my side, holding my hand, doing her best to haul me back to the surface. So if my falling was a crisis not of digestion, but emotions, what could they be? The ongoing dread of a business struggling against the tide of globablization? The passing of the milestone of 60? I didn’t know.
What I did know from past experience with this falling down the well business was that looking to medicine to pull me out might make the problem worse.
Turned out I was right, at least at first. When the scale at the gym told me I’d lost 20 lbs, I panicked and consulted a G I specialist.
He said to me, “Weight loss. Indigestion. We need to be thinking about CANCER.” My father had died of stomach cancer. And I have strong tendency towards hypochondria. We need to be thinking about cancer. He was wasting his words. From that moment I was thinking of little else.
He mentioned the C word a few more times, as if I night have missed it the first time, then said, “We need to do an endoscopy, right away.” Ah, but “right away” was ten long days in the future. Ten days to think about cancer. Funny thing, after seeing him the last of my meager appetite took a hike. Now I was really choking down every bite of food, force feeding myself. I lost another 5 lbs.
The day after seeing the doc I was getting out of my hot tub, walking through my kitchen when the room suddenly started spinning. I hugged the wall, flopping into a chair before falling down. Not down some well, but onto a hard maple floor. I hadn’t felt like this in decades – not since the last time I was falling down drunk.
The next day I was at the gym, about to work out, when the locker room started spinning. I stumbled to my car and drove home without working out.
It was like my metaphor was catching up with me – though that well down which I descended was purely symbolic, my vertigo was quite real. And frightening.
Frightening enough to finally get me to my GP. He thought low blood pressure might be causing the dizziness, and suggested I go off Atenelol, a medication I’d been taking for ten years for high blood pressure.
A few days later. I was lying in bed, doing a KenKen number puzzle, when I found myself unable to add 8 and 5. My head felt like it was going to explode. I felt like puking up the little dinner I had been able to eat. I was afraid I was going to die.
I checked my BP with a home monitor: 190/110. What is termed a High Blood Pressure Emergency. I took some Atenelol, felt better, then the emergency returned. It was the beginning of my struggle to get off of this drug, which continues to this day.
It was around this time that I hit the bottom of the well – rock bottom, icy pool of water, what have you. I was no longer afraid of dying. It was starting to seem like an attractive prospect. Now when I looked up the sky above was only a pinprick of blue in pitch black.
Finally the endoscopy came. It was clean. The color pictures – what fine pictures they take of guts these days! - showed a pink tube as smooth and unblemished as the walls of that well I had fallen down.
I was of course relieved not to have cancer. But then what was wrong with me?
The reader might conclude from the image of the well that I was suffering from depression. Close.
It was Mrs. Muse who did some research and ferreted out the real culprit.
Anxiety. If ever a series of letters deserved italics, that’s the one. Though it would be more illustrative if I could get them to do a little shivering, shaking dance.
My primary care doc agreed with Mrs. Muse. I was not unfamiliar with a diagnosis of anxiety. A shrink had once diagnosed me with “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” or GAD. I thought – Well, that can’t be too bad. Not like those panic attacks you hear about. Actually GAD is to panic attacks as Novacain is to general anesthesia. It just never quits. It has nothing in common with occasional nervousness. It is characterized by a formless, causeless dread, which makes life feel like it is not worth living. Thinking assumes a “heads you lose, tails you lose” quality where even the solution to a problem is merely the cause of another worry.
My doc prescribed Klonopin. Within a few days my appetite began returning. And I began slowly floating up out of the well.
What is ironic about my dizziness is that it prevented me from pursuing two of the main ways I keep the wolf of anxiety from my door – my hot tub, and regular workouts at the gym. And one of the side benefits of Atenelol is its anxiolitic properties. All of which explains my desperation in that week leading up to the endoscopy.
It was as I began my slow ascent that I stumbled on a an epiphany. In truth ever since hitting 60 a year ago I’ve been stalked by the creeping knowledge that I am not only no longer young, but no longer middle-aged. I am old. As I slid into 61, losing weight, losing altitude, I became prey for thoughts like – it’s all downhill from here. No more pleasures to be had, starting with food. Nothing to look forward to but more bodily disintegration.
As that blue dot above me grew a trifle larger, it came to me. Yes, I am old. Yes, my body will continue to fall apart. Eventually the process will be complete.
BUT. I have a choice. I can become a bitter old man, complaining of aches and pains, cursing the God I don’t believe in for the unfairness of it all.
Or I can look up, to the sun, and be grateful for the life I have. I can squeeze what is left from it.
Well apparently it isn’t all about anxiety.
Dizziness, though a common symptom of anxiety, in my case has some other cause, which remains mysterious.
Two weeks ago I noticed a half moon shaped hole in the vision of my left eye. Several long trips to various hospitals determined that I had suffered a “Retinal Stroke.” Never heard of such a thing. A patch of nerves in my eye is dead, and will not return. The cause? They’ve taken a ton of blood, and I’m going for an MRI, none of which will likely be conclusive.
This is a first test of my new found attitude. I can bemoan this permanent loss of vision, or be grateful for what is left (most of it.) I can literally worry myself sick over the cause of dizziness, and the stroke. Or I can find out what can be found out, do what I can do, and keep living.