When I lived in Portland, OR, I had a pretty terrible struggle with anxiety on and off for about 7 or 8 months. I went to the doctor and she prescribed Ativan, a kind of relaxation drug meant to be taken when one feels anxiety or a panic attack coming on. It works in about 15 minutes, and the effect is a little like having a couple glasses of red wine (but without the fun, goofy feeling). Basically, it chills you out. It instantly changes your mood. For a little while…
What I discovered about Ativan, is that it was simply a way to opt-out. It gave me a chance to jump ship, escape the terrifying feelings I was having, and not have to face my fears. Or learn to sit with them, to meditate close by.
Here’s an example:
The doctor only gave me a handful of Ativan pills the for the first round, so I ran out after a couple weeks, and I went to the pharmacy to get a refill. At Kaiser there is a long line at the pharmacy so you have to take a number and wait, like at a deli counter.
I had come into the pharmacy that morning fairly calm, but as I sat and waited to be called, to receive my drug, I began to feel increasingly anxious. Oddly, rather than feeling relaxed or confident knowing I was getting a refill of my anti-anxiety medicine, I sat there in the pharmacy sweating buckets.
The pharmacist, a guy I distinctly remember because he seemed oddly young, like the Doogie Howser of drugs, with a boyish face and timid manner, finally called my number and I approached the counter. My heart raced and I felt eery and light-headed. I also felt embarrassed for being visibly anxious in front of the baby-faced pharmacist. I mumbled something to him about how much I could take, and he said I should only take the amount the doctor prescribed. I walked away with my drug and popped a pill immediately. A couple hours of calm ensued and I staved off the monsters—for a little while.
So why did this happen? Why did I practically have a panic attack at the pharmacy, awaiting my magical drug? And why did the mere knowledge that I was about to receive the drug make me feel more anxious?
I think it happened because in that moment, knowing that the pills were just within my reach, my mind decided it could stop being mindful, aware, and present with my feelings, and instead begin feeding the beasts of anxiety. It’s like I suddenly got to ignore the sign that says, “Don’t feed the bears.” Knowing that I would soon have the drug in my hand, my little happy cloud that allowed me to escape my scary feelings for a couple hours, meant that I could let my attention down, and believe that my anxious thoughts were real. In a way, I could be lazy about it, indulge it. It was an invitation to stop being actively aware of my thoughts and feelings, and instead let them convince me that I was identical to them. The pills allowed me to stop being mindful—and stop living with courage and compassion for my inner strife.
While I don’t doubt the importance of anti-anxiety medicines and antidepressants for certain people, I personally found that they don’t work for me. Ativan gave me an escape route, like a trapdoor to nowhere. In the end, it was only a way to procrastinate the hard, gentle work of becoming more mindful of my feelings.
Related post: Last night