On June 18th, 2012, I had the panic attack that changed my life. It was easily the worst I’d ever had; I wasn’t really sure I had ever had a true attack before that, but on that particular day, driving across Staten Island and attempting to avoid the standstill on the ironically-named Staten Island Expressway, I had no doubt. I was suddenly disoriented, something that had never happened to me before, behind the wheel or out of the car. My heart was racing. I was sweating, and I was incredibly conscious of the fact that I was sweating. And when it came time to turn and get on the highway past the worst of the traffic, I choked. I couldn’t convince myself to make the turn, that it was the right entrance, that it was the right direction, and so I pulled past the exit, stopped at the side of the road, and gave my wife the wheel. I realized at that moment, years later than I should have, that I had a real, medical problem, and that I had to get help.
Two years of help, including therapy, meditation, exercise, and most importantly a daily SSRI medication, have given me the ability to look back on an anxiety problem that almost certainly was with me from birth. For all that my brain has done well for me, from helping me through school to allowing me to make multiple career shifts as an adult, it betrayed me on this one fundamental life skill: The ability to cope. Everything was a source of anxiety, from social situations to standardized tests to my wedding (just a huge social situation, really) to all kinds of interactions in the working world, many of which left me far worse off than before because I couldn’t handle any of my many triggers. Friends would say I was moody. Colleagues thought I was abrasive and unpredictable – and I think they only put up with me because I was productive. (I’m not sure I would have put up with me.)
Like many people who have untreated anxiety disorders, I tried to “cope” not by adjusting myself to the situations that bothered me, but by trying to adjust the situations to my needs. I became less social, even with my wife, and eschewed any gathering where I didn’t already know most of the people or otherwise felt even the slightest trepidation about going. Entering a room where I might be watched, or stared at, even if only in my head (and let’s face it, no one was really looking at me), wasn’t terrifying – it was anxiety-producing. I wasn’t scared; I was racing through endless unpleasant scenarios and making what seemed like a rational decision to avoid them. When I could, I made the plans for our group of friends, because in that way I could assert control, taking us to a familiar restaurant, avoiding any situation that might make me uncomfortable, because when I was uncomfortable mentally, I’d feel uncomfortable physically and would lash out. At work, where my control over almost everything, from my work environment to my managers to the nature of my job itself, was limited, I’d be worse, always feeling unbalanced inside because there was no end of things to trigger me. When my first job out of college, one where my manager would change every few weeks or months, put me with a boss who verbally abused me in private and in front of the client, I shut down completely and was eventually let go.
Understanding what was happening inside my brain and my body allowed me to treat it and to develop coping mechanisms with the help of a therapist. After years of disliking the idea of altering my brain chemistry even temporarily with the help of an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication, I opened up to it because I had no choice – I was unwilling to continue in my anxious state. After just a few weeks on escitalopram, I noticed that the background noise of my mind had waned. I could coast more easily over minor inconveniences or irritations that wouldn’t give a non-anxious person a second thought, but that would drive me over the edge.
One recent example: I accidentally put a necktie I really liked through the washing machine because it fell into my bag of clothes waiting to be washed. Before therapy and medication, this would have driven me to distraction in an almost literal sense – I would have been unable to think of anything else until I’d dropped everything, gone to the department store, and bought another tie, preferably one very similar to the one I’d just ruined. It’s beyond trivial; a material object, thoroughly replaceable, not expensive or of sentimental value, but I would be plagued by a combination of irritation at the mistake and the need to acquire a new tie as well as the embarrassment (from whom, you might ask) of doing something so apparently stupid. Now, two years later … well, I’m still a little annoyed with myself, but I was able to get on with my day and be a normal father and husband without becoming a grouch over something so small.
In late May, I had to go scout a pitcher from the University of Hartford at a game at Stony Brook, on Long Island, near where I grew up. The trip home required crossing Staten Island again, the first time I’d attempt such a trip since the debilitating panic attack nearly two years prior. Once again the Staten Island Expressway was a disaster – seriously, all this federal highway money and no one built a bridge over that godforsaken piece of land? – and I had to get off the road and navigate the unfriendly side streets, in the rain no less. And I was fine. I exited the highway, reentered it, and nothing happened other than that I got stuck in more traffic. I’m not cured, and I know I’ll never be, but taking that one step of telling my doctor, “I need help,” gave me the control over my life I’d always sought but never could attain.
Bio: Keith Law is a baseball analyst for ESPN, appearing on Baseball Tonight and writing for ESPN.com Insider. He previously spent four years in the front office for the Toronto Blue Jays, and holds degrees from Harvard University and the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. He lives in Delaware with his wife and daughter, and blogs about non-baseball topics at The dish. You can find him on Twitter at @keithlaw.