Fear ambushes me.
It is early on the morning of December 5, 1989. At least early for a college student, which is what I am. A sophomore at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a bucolic campus of creaky A-frame houses, earnest politics, fraternity sweatshirts, and dollar pitchers of beer.
I am in the basement of a 1940s academic building staring at a wall covered in long sheets of dot-matrix printer paper detailing which classes have slots for the upcoming semester: Economics 101, Introduction to Buddhism, a Jane Austen seminar. Other sleepy students, jeans-clad and tousle-headed, are scribbling in notebooks nearby.
I feel fine. Groggy from a late night of studying, yes. Touched by a bit of that midwestern late-fall dread, anticipating another long winter of fierce winds and sleeping-bag-shaped coats. But I’m fine.
And then, a second later, I’m not.
A knot of fear erupts at the base of my spine and travels upward. My stomach flips, and I break out in a thin film of sweat. My heart rate shoots up—I feel the erratic thump thump banging against my ears, my stomach, my eyes. My breathing turns shallow and fast. Fuzzy gray blotches appear before my eyes. The letters before me warp, words dip and buckle.
There is no warning, no prodrome. The onset is as sudden as a car crash. Something in my body or brain has gone dramatically and irrevocably wrong. My noisy internal monologue—usually flitting from school to boys to a laundry list of insecurities—coalesces around one certain refrain: I’m dying. I’m dying. I’m dying.
I flee the building and somehow make it home, crawling into my bottom bunk in the room I share with two other girls. I hug my knees into my chest and huddle against the cinder-block wall—my breathing still shallow, my heart still racing, the hot terror still there. Remarkably, it seems, I am alive. Any relief that gives me, however, is short-lived: If I’m not dying, I must be going crazy.
Crazy like my grandmother.
Like the woman who clutched knives and thought Catholics were trying to kill her. Like the woman who spent three years in a mental institution, had electroshock therapy, and tried to burn the house down with my nine-year-old father and his brother and sister in it. Like the woman who died in my grandfather’s arms when I was two years old. She had suffered a heart attack but was too terrified to go with paramedics to the hospital.
Crazy like that.
I lie still. Perhaps if I cease all movement, even the tiniest shudder, become frozen, waxlike, I can quiet the torment. My insides feel noisy, in flux. Everything is revved up—as if the blood in my veins were running faster and the synapses in my brain were firing, or misfiring, at warp speed. I can feel the loud, frantic presence of every organ—liver, intestines, spleen. The cells in my body are vibrating, it seems, knocking awkwardly against one another. If I move at all, I will shatter, scattering bits of blood and bone all across the salmon-hued sorority house. I am sure of that.
Later that afternoon my boyfriend drives me to my parents’ house, all windows and suburban beige, about ninety minutes away. Over the next five weeks, I barely move from the living room sofa. I spend the days with my fingers pressed against my neck, feeling my pulse, counting the beats, reassuring myself at any given second that I’m alive. I keep still, trying to will my frenzied molecules to quiet. At night I have vivid, violent dreams. I develop weird new symptoms: tingling in my face and feet, chest pain, constant vertigo. The world is flat and out of focus, as if I’m wearing someone else’s glasses. My thoughts careen toward heart attacks, stroke, insanity.
I see a doctor. He listens to my story of how I’ve been transformed from a slightly silly sorority girl to a terrorized shut-in in just a few weeks’ time. He examines me, takes blood, does an EKG, and orders an echocardiogram, which details the chambers of my heart. His diagnosis: mitral valve prolapse, an anomaly of the heart that can cause palpitations but is generally benign. He prescribes a beta blocker, which he says will stop my heart from racing.
Except that it doesn’t.
This doctor is only the first of more than a dozen I will see over the next year. During that time, I will have several more EKGs, countless blood tests, another echocardiogram, a CAT scan and an MRI of my brain, and an EEG to check my brain’s electrical activity. I will take multiple trips to the emergency room, each time leaving without a diagnosis. This medical odyssey will cost my parents thousands of dollars. Doctors will suspect multiple sclerosis, a brain tumor, Epstein-Barr virus, and chronic fatigue syndrome. I will be told that I am fine. One doctor will fire me. I will drop most of my classes and barely leave my room. I will peer over the banister of a rooftop parking garage and think of jumping. I will go to a psychiatric emergency room and be sent home. I will have six sessions of psychotherapy, in which I’m asked whether I’m angry with my father. I’ll largely stop eating.
And still no one will know what is wrong with me.
Fast-forward to the beginning of the next school year. I am sitting in a psychiatrist’s office at the campus health center, telling the doctor that I won’t—I can’t—leave until she does something. She says she can prescribe Prozac, an antidepressant, or she can refer me to the anxiety disorders program at the University of Michigan hospital.
Anxiety disorder. It is the first time anyone has spoken the words.