I promised I would do a weekly post and here I am doing a weekly post, goddamnit! I wrote this in the fog of a panic attack back in December, so TW mental illness and suicidal ideation. I feel like a different person today. I hardly recognize this person. That’s the thing about mental illness—it disfigures your self-conception. I hope that anyone reading this who suffers from mental illness feels a little less alone today.
The Time I Had a Full Panic Attack Because I Couldn’t Finish the New York Times Crossword
As I write this, dear reader, that “time” is today. It is a Sunday in December 2018. This morning, around 9:00 am, I did what I routinely do on a Sunday morning. I awoke, checked Twitter from bed, got up, made myself a cold brew with oat milk, and sat down to do the New York Times crossword under a cozy blanket on my living room couch. Our living room couch is a faux-leather sectional that I acquired just prior to my wedding. It’s covered in tiny tears from my cat’s claws and worn spots where my husband often falls asleep instead of going to his studio to work. When I ordered the couch from Bob’s Discount Furniture, I chose the model with the L-shape on the right side, so that it would be on my side, and I could treat it like a Victorian fainting couch. Every day I get to sit with my legs up, stretched out in extreme comfort while my husband sits upright, which I justify by reminding myself that white, heterosexual men have enough in this world.
On this particular Sunday, I took my medication on time instead of forgetting about it until the late afternoon, as I am wont to do. I threw in a probiotic for good measure. Things were looking up. That is, until I opened my MacBook and the Google Chrome browser to the New York Times crossword section, which is my homepage. I am, you see, what absolutely no one calls a cruciverbalist. Crossword puzzles are my lodestar in a chaotic and dark world. When I worked in an office during my graduate school internship, I often spent my entire shift trying to solve every Monday and Tuesday puzzle in the entire archive, including the one from the day I was born (a Monday, at 3:11 pm, with the sun in Leo and the moon in Sagittarius). I wowed my young coworkers with my talent, for you see, the children of today do not read, and thus do not possess the vast store of utterly useless knowledge of a person who grew up before computers were an affordable household necessity. At the time of this writing, I have completed 411 puzzles.
But on this day, I was challenged. Will Shortz, longtime editor of the crossword, and Luke Vaughn, its creator, mocked me from my screen. Such clues as “2003 Economics Nobelist Robert” and “Traveling from coast to coast, maybe” seemed opaque, unsolvable. As I look at the long list of clues now, they seem fairly obvious, and some were. “Aladdin villain?” Jafar. Any millennial would know that. “Barbara and Jenna, to Jeb?” Anyone alive during the Bush administration remembers the First Daughters, the nieces of the then-governor of Florida, who may or may not be responsible for Al Gore, winner of the popular vote, not moving himself and Tipper into the White House in January 2001. Fun fact about Jeb Bush—he was the 43rd governor of Florida while his brother was the 43rd President of the United States. His wife’s name is Columba. Remember what I said about useless knowledge?
The answer to “Zoroastrianism’s sacred text” was a vital answer. It would unlock the bottom middle section, but how was I to know this? Norwood Public Schools taught ancient history for one year, sixth grade, and I don’t recall the Zoroastrians coming up. “Waterloo’s home?” A fool would know that Waterloo is in Belgium. Who hadn’t studied Napoleon’s infamous battle? But only four letters was I given. About a third of the way into the puzzle, I began to feel a shortness of breath. My chest began to heave. I stared blankly at the screen, a sea of white squares, waiting to be filled. I started questioning my very existence. The Sunday puzzle is typically the most difficult of the week, though I find that the Times pulls some nasty tricks on Thursdays, and occasionally Saturdays. I cursed myself. How could I not remember that Amy Tan wrote The Joy Luck Club? Sure, I hadn’t read The Joy Luck Club, but I recall it being around during my childhood. I may have even had a copy at one point, purchased at one of my local library’s many semi-annual book sales.
Tears welled up in my eyes. I felt useless, incompetent. Why had I gone to graduate school? What good was a Master’s Degree if I couldn’t solve a crossword puzzle? I’d grown up playing the 1981 version Genus Edition of Trivial Pursuit, created years before the Berlin Wall fell. I did the Boston Globe crossword, in pen, on the T with my father. All of those years of driving truly trivial knowledge into my formative brain were for naught. I decided to cut my losses and look up about five of the 242 answers so that I could fill in the puzzle. Its completion status would soothe me. I screwed up the last clue, misspelling Bissau, the “West African capital” in question, but it didn’t matter. I corrected myself, closed out of the puzzle, and tried to soothe my worry that I was experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.
I decided to open the Saturday puzzle, which I’d skipped the day before. Perhaps a slightly easier puzzle would ease my suffering. It now stands incomplete with only 13 clues solved. With tears in my eyes, the panic rising, I turned to the Friday. I made even less progress. The only answer I knew with absolute certainty was that Noth was the Chris from The Good Wife. Further devastated, I opened the Thursday, which I hadn’t completed. The clues all looked like gibberish. I closed the browser entirely and set the computer aside, afraid that in my rage I might snap it in two. I opened my phone, fired off a few angry tweets about the Sunday puzzle, as my friend Katie, sole champion of my Twitter account, was a crossword enthusiast herself, and might understand my distress. Moments later, I decided to write this very essay, in the hopes it might be cathartic.
But this essay is not about crosswords. It is about triggers. It is about the internalization of inadequacy, fear, and self-loathing. It is a fable about living with bipolar disorder—the mood swings loom. At the first sign of an obstacle, I break down. There was a synonym for “obstacle” that I wanted to use in the previous sentence, but in my mental exhaustion, I can’t find it in the recesses of my mind. I am certain that my tenuous emotional state is responsible for my utter inability to solve this week’s earlier puzzles. My whole life, I have been a ticking time bomb of irrational reactions to quotidian life. When I was in middle school, I misplaced my Go-Gos CD (Beauty and the Beat, obvs), and, failing to uncover it in my bedroom, spent an hour on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. Not because I needed to listen to the Go-Gos (though “Lust to Love” was my absolute jam), but because I was a failure. I had failed to keep my room organized. I was worthless. I couldn’t keep track of my own belongings. If I couldn’t locate something as mundane as a CD, how could I graduate high school? How could I ever find love, or employment?
Fifteen years later, as recently as last June, I’d spend nearly an hour on the phone with a dear friend, in hysterics, because I felt that a phone interview had gone poorly. If I couldn’t get hired at Starbucks, how could I ever hope to earn a stable living? How could I ever have a child if I couldn’t lift myself above the poverty line? How could I ever be independent? I threatened to kill myself between sobs and gulps of air. I wanted out of this world because I was incapable of succeeding. It almost torpedoed the friendship. My husband later found me on the bathroom floor, retching into the toilet, and had to physically lift me up. My legs trembled as I slowly walked to the living room, red-faced and tear-stained. The worst part of this whole story is that I got hired (though in a slightly lower position), less than a week later.
A few weeks ago, I called the suicide hotline for the first time. It had been after a particularly tough shift at work, at a job I hated with every fiber of my being, despite loving all of my coworkers. I had been up since 3:30 am to make it to work by 4:30. At the very end of my shift, an incredibly blunt and assertive coworker pulled me aside to criticize something I had done. I don’t even remember what she said. The day had been relentlessly busy. I had been having a low-grade panic attack for hours. Upon hearing her words, I burst into tears. I don’t even remember leaving, or the first 10 minutes of my commute home. I sobbed and sobbed, and the suicidal ideation crept back into my mind. I contemplated admitting myself into the emergency room, feeling I needed a babysitter to ensure that I wouldn’t harm myself. I frantically called my husband at work and asked for his advice. He told me to drive to his parents’ house, but I insisted that I didn’t want them to see me in such a state. Knowing that, regardless, I’d need to drive at least 20 minutes to get to the ER, I looked up the number for the LifeLine, while driving, and called.
I was patched to the Boston Samaritans, which I mistook for the Good Samaritan hospital not far from my house. In between sobs, I asked her what would happen if I admitted myself. Would they keep me overnight? Would they confiscate my phone? I had to open my store the next morning. I couldn’t let my team down. Their success was more important to me than my own life. The sweet girl with the soothing voice on the other end of the phone didn’t have an answer for me, but she listened and offered her support. She implored me to pull over, thinking it unsafe for me to be driving in such a state. I pulled into the Stop N Shop parking lot in Stoughton and talked to her until I regained my normal breathing pace and my tears had subsided into more gentle sniffling and sobs. I promised her that my house was minutes down the road, and that I wouldn’t do anything to harm myself on the way or once I arrived. She arranged a check-up phone call for later that night, which was a brilliant tactic. The call was an obligation, a plan, something I needed to be around for. I made it home, sat on my couch, and watched Schitt’s Creek, a perfect television show, until my husband came home. I think I ate Cheez-Its.
I am pleased to say that, despite my panic attack this morning, I have not considered killing myself even once. Today. Even though I’m crying writing about this, it all feels like progress. L’appel du vide still lives and breathes in the back of my mind, but it floats through my mind in ephemeral wisps, instead of planting, its roots spreading through me, poisoning my thoughts. Perhaps the call of death has subsided because I found a new (low-paying, but stable) job in an office environment. Something I can be proud of. I quit my service job as soon as I got the offer from the new one, and the week off allowed me to finish my last paper of graduate school, a twenty-page opus on Jewish comedy and the series Difficult People, the two most precious things in my world. In a week, I went from fantasizing about driving my car off of a highway overpass to earning a Master’s Degree and splurging on a new business-casual wardrobe from Madewell, J. Crew, and Everlane. My best friend came home for the holidays and we saw The Favourite before drinking way too much rosé, talking about sex toys, and crying about love. For the first time in my life, despite the fact that my car payment is now ten days overdue, I feel like an adult. Or something approximating one. But with my condition, that could change at any moment, and it terrifies me.
I still plan on doing tomorrow’s puzzle. The Monday is always the easiest (my best time is five minutes and seven seconds). When the upbeat piano riff plays, a sense of accomplishment will wash over me, because I will have achieved something small, but meaningful. And honestly, until the medication I’m taking truly takes effect, if indeed it does, small victories like washing and folding my laundry on the same day, or finishing a particularly challenging crossword, will have to be enough to sustain me.
P.S. The word for “obstacle” that I had wanted to use was “adversity.” The fog does clear eventually.