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December 17, 2004

In Case You Missed It: How Jay Mohr Pretty Much Saved My Life

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I had to run an errand that could improve my life a little. It did. Some of you wanted to know the big secret; I was torn between spilling and keeping it to myself. Since I teased it, I'll tell it. Maybe it will help someone else out there.

This isn't political, and if you don't have anything similar to anxiety or panic attacks, it's probably not worth your time to read.

(Piece pushed ahead in queue.)


For a long time now I've suffered from what I had been calling "anxiety attacks." I'd get them for no real reason. It's not as if I had a particular reason to have anxiety. Sure, at a job interview or the like, I'd get them, and sometimes badly. But often I'd get them for no reason at all-- like just going to the movies.

Or just getting in a car for a road trip.

Or just going out to dinner.

Or just going to the Gap.

The Gap, of all places. Is there anywhere on earth more calming to a surburban blue-collar white kid?

The symptoms were always the same, but varied in intensity. My heart would race; my hands would shake; I would drip cold sweat; my brain would be frazzled to the point where I sometimes thought I would pass out. And, going to some movie a while ago, I actually did have to drop down to the street -- just lay on the street, like an invalid -- for fear that I was about fall unconscious and crack my head wide open.

And then once in a while I'd feel numbness in my feet and legs that stomping around just wouldn't fix. I became convinced I had a brain tumor, and that basically my entire brain and nervous system were being eaten by cancer.

Not fun. Not fun at all.

A couple of doctors tried to diagnose me. Futilely. Blood tests were done. I had my urine examined a bunch of times, including one 24-hour-collection where I had to drink nothing but water and eat no food and collect all my urnine in a big jug. Boy, was it fun taking that package over the hospital.

Everything was ruled out. I wasn't diabetic, I wasn't having heart attacks. You'd think that would be reassuring, but it wasn't. If I wasn't diabetic, if I didn't have a heart condition-- then what the hell was wrong with me?

Why was I unable to ride the subway without feeling shaking and trembling and feeling as if were I not to get out of the train right now -- moving or not -- that I would either pass out or die right there?

I began feeling a lot of resentment towards normal people. Why was it they could just ride the subway without losing it? They just sat there, reading newspapers or bad thrillers. Why couldn't I? Why did I have to strain to "meditate" to try to calm myself down -- which only seemed to make it worse?

The "anxiety" -- let's call it that for now -- had no real cause. Friends and doctors would ask, "Well what is it that's making you anxious?" And it was frustrating, because the answer was Nothing. There was no specific reason I was panicking. Going to see the Lord of the Rings should not be a panic-inducing event, even if you're really rooting for Smeagol. Going to a friend's house to play poker should not be a cause for dread, and it shouldn't cause a person to feel shaky and and queasy.

Friends eventually stop calling. You can only tell them you don't want to hang out so many times before they give up. They think you just don't like them, or are a homebody, or are just slothful. The real reason you're not going to see them is that the idea of moving more than six blocks from home or work fills you with dread and fear. And that even when you get to their place, you're going to feel incredibly uncomfortable for at least two hours until you drink enough (and too much) so that you finally start to settle down a little. Until that point, you're going to barely be able to follow a conversation, almost as if people are speaking a foreign language, because even as you nod and pretend to understand what's being said all that's going through your mind is Maintain. Just maintain. Don't pass out. And don't give it away that you're about to jump out of your skin from irrational anxiety.

People start to think you're either grumpy or aloof or just some sort of spaced-out loner. Or a coke-head-- because you have to excuse yourself to go to the bathroom a little too frequently. And you do that so you can just be alone for five minutes, without the stress of having to maintain a pleasant conversation with people you've known for years, and so you can splash water on your face, dry your sweating forehead and neck, and look at yourself in the mirror and say "You can handle this," even though you really don't think you can at all.

And then when it comes to a genuinely stressful situation-- forget about it. On several job interviews I became so anxious I could not even speak. I would say nothing but "uh" and "um" as I desperately tried to recall what the hell we had just been talking about. What was the last word she said to me? What was this question about? I just couldn't remember, because my brain was redlining beyond the capacity for coherent thought.

And still no doctor knew what the hell was wrong with me. Because the anxiety had caused me to desperately hate going more than six blocks past a familiar "safe place," one suggested I was agoraphobic, and maybe needed a few months session on a psychiatrist's couch. Perhaps a year of "desensitization exercises."

I wanted to scream: This is not psychological, damnit! I have no deep-seeded fear of the outdoors! There is something physically, medically wrong with me, and I just need it fixed for God's sake!

Eventually I convinced a doctor to prescribe Xanax to me, having read on line it was used to treat anxiety. I picked up the pills, hopeful for the future. This would cure me. My disease had a name -- anxiety -- and it also had a cure, Xanax.

Popped one before I even left the pharmacist's office. On the bus home-- the same panic. It did absolutely nothing for me at all.

I took Xanax for a while. It never relieved my symptoms once, except perhaps in the most trivial way-- instead of having major anxiety attacks, I had just-less-than-major ones. I figured that I was incurable and doomed and that was just the way it was. I would just have to adjust to living my life as a recluse.

And I'd have to adjust to having a different personality too. I had always been kinda confident -- well, both shy and confident, but I think that's pretty common, actually -- but more and more I found myself mumbling. Talking into my hand. Turning away from people as I spoke. Touching my face nervously, for no good reason, except, I guess, to determine that it was still in fact connected to my skull in the fashion I'd come to expect and rely upon. Too scared out of my wits to contribute anything except the occasional "That's interesting" to a normal, friendly conversation. And hoping that no one asked me what I found interesting, because, in all likelihood, I hadn't caught it the first time and I was just pretending I knew what the hell was going on.

And always, always walking with my head down. It just became a habit-- I just naturally let my head hang as I walked.

Until.

Before going away for Thanksgiving I went to the bookstore to pick up a book that a friend had mentioned in passing. It was Jay Mohr's book about his two years on Saturday Night Live. It's called Gasping for Airtime, and it seemed sorta funny in the bookstore. He started out by dissing Al Franken, which is always a good sign.

He also started out by talking how freaked out and tense he was to be working at SNL. I thought he was just overdoing it a bit, trying to convey what a great thing it was, how shocked he'd been chosen as a Featured Performer at the age of 20.

But as I kept reading -- in between some funny dishing about SNL -- I noticed that he kept talking about being freaked out. Overly tense. Thinking he was going to have heart attack, just sitting around watching high school basketball with head writer Jim Downey. Having to run all the way home just to get the hell away from work. Home, where he felt safe.

It began to dawn on me that he had the same symptoms I did.

I became convinced when he said he had begun to resent "normal" people, because they could just ride the subway and go to work and go to parties without feeling as if they had to escape at any given moment.

He'd kept his problems to himself, mostly, figuring there was no cure and that he was just fucked up for life, which is pretty much what I did. He kept it secret, thinking, I'm guessing, that it would make him even more anxious if people knew he was a half-psychotic freak.

But then he spoke to Sarah Silverman about it-- and she told him that she had the same thing, and that, get this, there was cure.

And then he wrote a sentence that made me more hopeful than I'd been in a long time:

And then I met the doctor who saved my life.

I was thrilled to know that this was, apparently, not some rare and exotic syndrome, but that it had a name, it was diagnosable, and, best of all, it was treatable.

Mohr explained how he began talking to the doctor about his childhood and stuff like that. She seemed dismissive of his psychological profile, and just declared that he had Basic Panic Disorder, and to treat it, he wouldn't have to explain how he felt about his mother and father. I wouldn't ask an asthmatic to talk about his family and feelings, she said. I'd just prescribe and inhaler, which is pretty much what I'm doing for you. You have a medical condition; there is a cure. And here's the prescription.

Mohr popped a Klonopin tab before he left the pharmacist, just I had so long ago done with Xanax. Except, in his case, the pill actually worked.

Mohr had panic disorder-- not anxiety. The difference is that anxiety is about something -- usually something real, and something inherently stressful, whereas panic is an unreasoning fear about nothing at all. Except, perhaps, for the fear of a coming potential panic attack. It's the fear of fear itself.

All those frustrating questions about "What's causing this?" -- now answered. Nothing's causing this, except a condition called panic disorder. There doesn't have to be any external stressor at all, except for the stressor that you fear -- or know -- you're about to have a horrible panic attack.

Through Thanksgiving weekend, I continued to be stressed out and agitated. But I was hopeful now-- come Monday, I would diagnose myself for my doctor, using Jay Mohr's book as a medical treatise. I made the call; I convinced her to just prescribe the stupid pill without having to arrange to see me in three weeks. I could not go another three weeks wondering if I could be cured; I had to know now. She relented, and prescribed a half-mil of Klonopin a day. A little less generous than Jay Mohr's doctor, who prescribed a full mil, but I'd take it.

Again I went to the pharmacy, and again I popped a tab before I was through the check-out.

Only this time, it was different. Riding back on the bus (I'd had to cross the river to NJ, since my doctor could only prescribe Klonopin in NJ) I felt no stress whatsoever. No panic. No need to get off the bus at the next stop just to get some fresh air.

I closed my eyes. Not to mediate this time; not to try to calm myself down. But just to close my eyes and try to nap a little, because I was bored and tired.

I got off the bus and walked to the subway. I was walking through throngs of New York pedestrians without becoming nervous.

And I noticed something odd-- I was holding my head up high without even concentrating on it.

I jumped on a subway-- actually hoping it would be packed and claustrophobic, just to really test this bad boy out. It wasn't very packed at all, but still, I took my seat and nearly dozed on the ride.

And I looked around and I saw a lot of other normal people doing the same.

And I, it seemed, was one of them now. Normal.

The drug isn't a panacea. It has the side-effect, they say, of reducing muscular coordination, and once in a while I feel that I have to provide my legs and feet with more managerial supervision than I had been previously accustomed. But then, I figure the odds of my making the cut at cornerback for the New York Giants are pretty low, and I've come to terms with that.

And the stress and tension haven't completely gone away, either. Even as I was writing this post, I became jittery and anxious for no good reason. Maybe it's just kismet. But then I popped an extra pill, and I'm feeling calmer as it gets into my blood.

So now I'm actually looking for challenges lately. Now, these aren't the sort of things other people would call "challenges." I'm just riding the subways, going to bookstores for long periods of time (Yeahp, I used to get panicky just browsing the shelves at Barnes and Noble) and making an effort to go to meet-ups and the like. If someone calls to ask to go out, my first reaction is to say "Yes," even if I actually don't feel like it, just to see if I can just go out and be normal. And not mumble. And not talk into my hand. And not touch my face like a mental patient. And to follow conversations rather easily, even working in the occasional witty remark.

And maybe to make up for a little lost time.

The confidence isn't quite back yet, but right now I'll just settle for normal.. I don't have to be the center of attention; I just don't want to be the guy standing in the corner fidgeting with his fingers in order to dissipate nervous energy.

So, there's the big secret. Not really the biggest secret, but then I think part of the problem with getting help for this condition is that it's shameful. You feel cowardly about it; what the hell is wrong with you, after all, that you go all to pieces just meeting some friends out for a drink?

If you've got symptoms like this, and Xanax or other anxiety treatments aren't working, suggest to your doctor you've got panic disorder. It turns out that it's one of the worst conditions someone can face, but also, thank God, one of the most easily curable. 90% of all cases can be cured with pills. If Klonopin doesn't work for your particular brain-chemistry, maybe Wellbutin or something else will.

Last point about Jay Mohr. I found his website and emailed him to ask his doctor's name. In the interim, I badgered my own doctor to prescribe Klonopin, but he did get back to me, told me his doctor's name, and wished me good luck. Good news, he told me. "You don't have a brain tumor and you're not going to die." I thanked him and told him the Klonopin seemed to be working for me. "Welcome back into the fold," he said, and I liked him very much for that.

The Christopher Walken impression was enough, really. But giving me back some semblance of a normal life was just terrific.

Here's a bit more on the disease, written, presumably, by people who have a little more medical training than Jay Mohr and Ace of Spades. And this is the best one, in my opinion, the one that convinced me that I had the disorder and could be cured.

I don't know if any readers suffer from these symptoms. If you do-- see your doctor and you tell him what you have. It gets misdiagnosed an awful lot-- living with the disease for too long and being perpetually frustrated by clueless doctors is a common problem.

And… one more thing. They say not to take Klonopin with alcohol. I don't know what the hell they say silly shit like that for. Let me just say you take a Klonopin with a vodka-and-diet-coke chaser and you become joyously blissed out. Drink less, get buzzed more-- and a very pleasant, "everything's going to be okay" buzz, too.


498004_JayMo.jpg

Thanks, Jay. I even forgive you for dicking over Jerry Maguire now. It wasn't your fault-- you were just living with an untreated panic condition. And, you know, you were a bit of an asshole.

The Placebo Effect? On the other hand, I just can't shake the suspicion that my clueless doctor prescribed sugar-pills to me, so convinced she was that this was an entirely psychosomatic condition.

Here's my evidence:

1) The notes and cautions that accompanied the drug are lareded up with a lot more quotation marks than I'm comfortable with. For example, it says right here Do not take this "medication" when operating heavy machinery; "Klonopin" and other "psychoactive drugs" can cause drowsiness, or even "drowsiness."

2) As far as cautions about intereactions with other drugs, it simply reads: You can take this "medication" with anything else you fucking well please, Sport. Have a party-- Retard.

3) The "Klonopin" came in a little tin box clearly marked "Honey-Lemon Altoids," and my breath's never been more Alpine-fresh.

Then again, it does seem to work, so who am I to argue?

Update One-- Ignore that Crack About Mixing Klonopin and Alcohol It was just meant as throwaway line (even if it is, you know, true), but another blogger tells me that the drug hits the same part of the brain as alcohol, so mixing is probably not a good idea.

He also tells me -- as do others -- that the drug is addictive, and that the impulse to just pop one when you're feeling less than comfortable must be resisted at all costs.

Update Two-- Densensitization: Although I'd prefer a miracle cure, I should say something about desensitization exercises.

About a year ago, I tried to to force myself out, doing things that could cause panic. No doctor prescribed this; it just seemed like common sense. If you're panicking on the subways, ride the damn subways, even if you think you could die.

And I also started going to, get this, right-wing meet-up type things, just to force myself into uncomfortable situations, alone, with no one really to talk to, surrounded by strangers. I thought it was good step, because we shared a common interest, so how bad could it be?

I was never quite comfortable doing those things -- these desensitization exercises did not cure me, not by a long shot -- but they did greatly reduce the intensity of the panics, over time. Rather than thinking I might have a heart attack and die, I instead merely felt extraodinarily uncomfortable. Instead of having to run out the door to be alone, I could kind of fake it and pretend to be involved in conversation.

Not really a solution-- but also helpful.

And, just to bring this story around full-circle, it was at one of these meet-up type things I met a girl who told me, off-handedly, that I could read about such-and-such on her blog. This struck me as a curious thing, because I had always assumed bloggers were either tech-heads or, I don't know, just "other people" generally, and not the sort of people who you could just meet at a bar.

And about two weeks later -- after being annoyed once again that Oliver Willis was getting some undeserved attention on the internet, and then reading a story in a newspaper about how easy it was to start a blog thanks to services like Blogspot -- I started this stupid moronblog.

Desensitization didn't quite cure me, but it did help, and less than a year later, this idiot blog somehow got voted as one of the top 100 blogs on the Internet, and now here I am writing about this horrible condition, and I just found out that one of my oldest and most prized readers -- I mean, this person has been reading since day three -- might just have had an undiagnosed panic disorder for years and that this post might wind up helping the reader.

Kind of cool.

Maybe it's kismet, or maybe it's just another victory for not only free expression, but a broad franchise of free expression.

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posted by Ace at 10:09 AM

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