Breathing is Overrated

Today is MLK day, so the office is closed.

"Homework-wise" it was a light weekend. I only had three scripts to read. It is a cold, damp day in Los Angeles, so I did that today while sitting in front of the fireplace.

I SHOULD be feeling relaxed. It's a three-day weekend. I finished my homework. I am sitting by the fire, but "the squirrels in my head are furiously running around." (An expression I stole from my husband.)

So I had my lunch with my friend from Human Resources last week. When I told her that I didn't want to renew my contract, but I was fully committed to finishing my last year in Los Angeles, she asked,"What if you could move back to Hawaii and finish out your contract from there?"

Ok. Let me back up for a second. Yes, I was born and raised in Los Angeles. Yes, I have only lived within a ten square mile radius for my entire life. But about 10 years ago I developed a pesky condition: anxiety. Don't be alarmed. A lot of people have it. Probably more than you think. In fact, I joke that anxiety has become so popular, it's the new depression. I was probably born with it, but they called it something else then. I have been labeled lots of things in my life: intense, neurotic, a worrier, obsessive-compulsive and stressed. I have also been labeled a work horse, an overachiever, type "A", etc.

But after I got divorced, remarried, and had a third child, my stressful job and busy life started to turn against me. I was having trouble catching my breath and swallowing. At work, I was always "Swimming with Sharks" and some of my "Devils DID wear Prada," so life was pretty stressful.

I raced around from doctor to doctor looking for an explanation for my symptoms. The first doctor I saw asked me how I was and I said, "A little stressed I think." I immediately felt guilty saying that, because here is a guy who actually saves lives in the operating room everyday and then goes home to four children at night. How do I spend my days? Mostly taking meetings from writers who make their living telling stories. My job is to tell these writers whether or not their stories and characters have any commercial viability. Which I think makes me a fortuneteller? What's worse is that I decide if their ideas are good enough to "develop," then I give them notes on their scripts. Ostensibly, telling these writers how to write better. (Nice job for someone who has not actually ever written for a living.) But, I digress. So, the doctor asks me what is stressing me out... and I tell him my job. He tells me that I'm perfectly healthy and if I'm really feeling stressed, I should take a Xanax and not worry about it.

The following week I had a full physical. The truth is that I probably wouldn't have even had a physical if I wasn't so stressed out and afraid of having a heart attack or something severely wrong with my lungs. Anyway, they take my blood, my urine, my blood pressure, my height, my weight, my bone density, a chest x-ray and even a "take home" stool sample kit. By the way, what happened to just leaving with a lollipop?

The doctor calls me into his office and says, "You are perfectly healthy. Do you have any questions or particular things you'd like to discuss?" So I say, "I've been feeling a lot of stress lately. I'm having trouble breathing and swallowing mostly." He asked what I was doing to manage that and I said, "Trying to eat right, get plenty of sleep, take vitamins, play tennis, go to therapy, and occasionally taking a Xanax." He was mostly nodding until I got to the Xanax portion of the conversation. "Do NOT take Xanax!" he barks at me. Then he gives me this lecture on how hard it is to get people off of that drug and, with my biochemistry, I am a prime candidate to become addicted to this drug. So I asked, "Then why aren't I yet?" He tells me something about my over-inflated superego has prevented me so far from becoming an addict? But if I keep taking it, my superego will lose out to my stress, and I will need to keep taking more and more to feel better. At which point, he recommends Lexapro (an anti-depression/anti-anxiety medicine) akin to Zoloft, but with fewer side effects. I took Zoloft once. It pretty destroyed my sex drive and I didn't sleep for about two months. Like with all drugs, there is no side effect that I don't have the pleasure of meeting. Within 24 hours of taking this new drug and its "fewer" side effects, I was nauseous, had no appetite, and no sex drive. 

So I went back to therapy. Doesn't that sound like the universal cliché? If only I was a movie star or famous screenwriter to justify that kind of cliché. But sadly I was not one of those more glamorous things... rather I was simply a middle-management (or upper-middle) television executive. My therapist says, "Do NOT take anti-depression medicine! Your anxiety is mild at best and you don't have depression. You don't need a steady dose of drugs. I've been your therapist on and off for years and this internist met you for 15 minutes. If the stress gets too overwhelming take a Xanax, you will not become addicted to anything." I felt moderately relieved.  

Within a few days, I started feeling much better. Maybe I was relieved that all my tests came back normal. Maybe I was relieved to be told by my therapist that I'm not as much of a head case as I originally thought. Maybe my stress was all in my mind and I just needed to have some confirmation. But at least, I had ruled some things out. I didn't have allergies. I didn't have asthma. I didn't damage my lungs from smoking cigarettes as a teenager. I didn't have high blood pressure or high cholesterol. I didn't have cancer. Now I just needed to figure out why I couldn't breathe. I had narrowed it down to a short list. I was really really stressed. I had a newborn baby, two little girls, a new husband, a new house, an ex-husband, a really stressful job and had not slept through the night in about a year.

Meanwhile, I couldn't breathe and no one seemed to think that was a big deal (medically speaking). So I came to the conclusion that breathing must be overrated.

It was that little breathing problem and the relentless stress of my job and my busy life that made my husband start crafting what he referred to as an “exit strategy.”  His goal was to go somewhere less crowded, less polluted, less “rat-race-y” and just less stressful.  We were newlyweds and I was having full blown panic attacks, restless nights, spending a small fortune on chiropractors, acupuncturists and therapists.  I was desperately trying to figure out how to manage the volume of work, juggle three small children, an ex-husband, a joint custody arrangement and a new life with my new husband.  

He had always wanted to live somewhere other than Los Angeles.  Whenever we would go on vacation, he would always ask, “Could you live here?”  It was after we took a short trip to Hawaii, that I finally said, “I think I could live here.”  We ended up buying a vacation home and five years later we moved to Hawaii full-time.