Anatomy of a Near Nervous Breakdown
Most every morning I get up before sunrise, pour myself a cup of steaming Earl Grey, and sit down at my computer to write—it’s how I make a living. I’ve been following this routine for years, and I love it.
A few months ago, I tried to begin my work workday one morning, but I flat-out couldn’t do it. As I stared at the blank “page” on the computer monitor, hot tea, breakfast bar, and research materials by my side, I felt anxious, unable to concentrate. I couldn’t sit still, and my brain was buzzing with nervous energy. I had to get up and do something—anything. Anything other than write, that is.
To calm myself and get a clear, fresh focus on my work, I took a walk around the neighborhood. Maybe after a brisk walk and a hot shower, I reasoned, my mind would be calm enough for me to side down and string some coherent sentences together.
The walk was indeed refreshing, as was the shower, but my attempt at writing was futile. I simply sat before my now useless computer, sipping reheated tea and trying to focus on the subject matter at hand. The article in question was a proposed 6,000-word feature on the comic book hero, The Flash. This is longer than most articles I write, so I was a little anxious about it to begin with, but I like the character, so I was looking forward to it as well.
As I sat there, piles of comic books all around me, I couldn’t decide how to start the article. I tried rereading a few of the comics for inspiration, but I couldn’t focus long enough to follow even a simple comic book story. The longer I sat there, the more anxious I got, the more nervous I got. For the first time in my life, I felt a panic attack coming on.
I got up from my desk, my heart pounding as though I had just run a 50-yard-dash. I went to the game room to watch a goofy sitcom, hoping it would somehow calm me. I sat there on the couch, anxious, unable to enjoy the program. As I quickly got up to turn off the television set, I felt lightheaded. I had gotten up too fast. I paused and put my arms out to steady myself, but the dizziness increased, and suddenly everything went white.
I had fainted dead away.
The next thing I knew I was lying on the floor, my limbs scattered about randomly like jackstraws. As I opened my eyes, I could blurrily see that my glasses were lying on the carpet a few feet away. I felt sore, as though I had been punched in the face by Mike Tyson. A pile of DVDs that had been stacked on the entertainment center was spread across the floor.
After doing a little rudimentary investigative work, I reasoned out that I had banged my face against the entertainment center as I fell. I had only been out for a few seconds, but waking up on the floor, disheveled and disoriented, was truly a surreal—and highly disturbing—sensation.
Over the next couple of weeks, every time I sat down to write it was virtually impossible to get anything done. I managed to bang out a couple of reviews, but that was about it. I was too nervous, too antsy, too anxious, too flustered, too wormy, too scattered-brained, and too jittery. I was simply feeling too crazy to concentrate. I got plenty of housework done (what with the nervous energy and all), but very little writing.
I’ve always prided myself on having an evenly keeled disposition, a rational mind, and a strong work ethic, so my status as a panic attack victim made me feel like a failure and even a flake. Not only was I having trouble working, it was getting difficult to do such commonplace things as drive and read, both of which require sitting still and concentrating.
A couple of weeks or so later, I truly hit rock bottom (as though fainting wasn’t rock bottom). After another in a series of largely unsuccessful work mornings, I went downstairs for lunch, fixed myself a sandwich, sat down to eat, and simply stared at my plate. I suddenly wasn’t hungry. My heart started pounding against my shirt, panic began to set in, and I found myself gasping to breathe. I walked outside for some fresh air, but I literally felt like a fish out of water.
My wife took me to the local “doc in the box” (I didn’t have a primary care physician at the time), and they subjected me to a series of tests, including an EKG. Everything was fine, at least according to their instruments, so the doctor recommended further testing via a heart specialist and a neurologist. I hated the thought of more doctor appointments, but I was eager to find out what was wrong and get it fixed. I simply had to get back to work (I couldn’t afford not to).
After a series of appointments, treatments, and tests, including an uncomfortable 48-hour stint wearing a heart monitor, no cause was found for my condition. As I was about to leave what would turn out to be the last of my appointments, the doctor casually asked if I had been sleeping well. I told him that I had insomnia on a fairly regular basis. He suggested I cut down on caffeine.
Instead of simply cutting down on caffeine, I immediately eliminated it from my diet altogether. I gave up soda, chocolate, and even my beloved Earl Grey tea. Miraculously, all my symptoms—the nervousness, the anxiety, the muddled thinking, the heart palpitations, the shortness of breath, and the insomnia—disappeared almost overnight.
Apparently, after years of imbibing the stuff, my body had suddenly developed a severe intolerance to caffeine. I had always heard that caffeine was a drug, and there are certainly plenty of people addicted to coffee (and, to a lesser extent, tea), but I had never given the hazards of caffeine addiction much thought. I just knew that tea was good for you (certain studies show that it reduces the risk of getting cancer), and that I had grown dependant on its energizing effects for my writing career.
It seems dumb in hindsight, but it never occurred to me that my beloved Earl Grey could be the cause of my problems. During my illness my symptoms had been less severe on the weekends, but I had just assumed it was because there were no work-related pressures. It was actually because I hadn’t been drinking two and three cups of tea on those mornings.
A couple of days after I gave up caffeine cold turkey, I was up bright and early, working away at my computer, the words flowing freely and quickly. I was feeling a little groggy, but I felt calm, cool, and collected. I’ll take groggy over crazy any day.
These days I sip a little tea or diet soda every morning as I work, but I’m careful not to overindulge. If there’s a moral to this story it’s that it is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing.