The Summer My Brain Broke

Hillary Sussman
5 min readMar 29, 2020

--

Me at my peak depressive low. Somewhere between Rue Bennett and Mickey Dobbs.

I relate everything back to television. It’s always been my addiction, my friend, my lover, my foe. It’s there for me when friends bail and relationships fail. Because of television, I’ve been able to romanticize moments of life that seem bland to the naked eye. When my first boyfriend dumped me, I was Rory Gilmore, moving onto bigger, better and more emotionally unavailable things. When I attempt to make an apathetic cashier laugh, I’m Lucy Ricardo. When I reach a milestone in life, it’s my season finale. All the bad things in life never seem so bad because my favorite characters have already lived through it. If they can come out the other side stronger, and usually with a fresh set of bangs by next season, why can’t I? However, the television depiction of mental health lied to me. Turns out feeling like you’ve lost your mind isn’t as glamorous as I thought it’d be. And it isn’t easily treated by relocating to New York City and moving in with Carol Kane and Tituss Burgess. What happened to your PTSD, Kimmy Schmidt?!?

The summer of 2019 was a whirlwind. I’d recently gotten out of my first serious relationship, started a new ‘flavor of the week’ medication for my autoimmune disease and made the fateful decision to move from Chicago to Los Angeles. As the changes bubbled through my subconscious, I was unaware what all the newness was doing to my body, most notably, the chemicals in my brain. My first panic attack happened at work. One minute I was typing a transcript and the next I was in a vacuum of dread. I excused myself and cried in the bathroom, fully convinced this would be a one-time incident. But the problem was, I had nothing to panic about. I couldn’t fathom why my body had brought me into flight or fight mode when I was simply listening to a boring co-worker story about how they “know” the stock market. Unfortunately, the panic didn’t stop. In fact, it grew.

By August, I was getting between 4–5 panic attacks a day. I’d get them while driving, on airplanes, during long car trips, out with friends and eventually alone in my apartment watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That was the last straw! My body had decided I couldn’t even become a chic agoraphobe like Joan Cusack in Shameless. Nowhere was safe from my brainstem going full Kilgrave on me. My world was shrinking, and I’d hit my bottom. I started dreading the dread and panicking because I was panicking. My serotonin levels went AWOL. My appetite had left the building. I was eating to survive, but all pleasure had been taken out of the equation. I couldn’t even enjoy the fact that my body was starting to look like a heroin chic model who was fiscally conservative and socially bulimic. I was Fleabag level miserable with no Emmy to show for it.

A typical day went like this: 1. Wake up in a cold sweat. 2. Wish I could stay unconscious forever (but not quite suicidal). 3. Attempt to meditate since this sudden immersion into paranoia and fear was maybe just a result of not being CHILL enough? 4. Go to work. 5. Oscillate between panic attacks and depressive lows. 6. Hysterically cry to my mom on my lunch break. 7. Make up an excuse to leave work early. 8. Call my mom crying again. 9. Go to bed as soon as the sun went down. 10. Repeat. Basically, it was Euphoria for the working mom.

I became scared of everything. I couldn’t be with other people and I couldn’t be alone. My mind was a prison I couldn’t escape. A Greek chorus of hysteria. Even when the panic and depression were forgiving, I still felt massive anxiety. Like I was waiting in the wings of a theatre to make a stage entrance. But I never felt the relief of actually saying my lines. I wasn’t playing a character, I was stuck as me. This was my life. I knew something had to give but it wasn’t until I went to dinner with an old roommate, Liv, that I realized other people were noticing my drastic change in disposition. She immediately picked up on the robotic tone of my vocality. I thought my smoke and mirrors attempt at playing the role of “functioning human girl” was working, but apparently not. She saw through to the inside. And inside there was nothing. Not even hope. I had given up the notion that things could change. I just wanted it to be time to go to sleep and disappear into my unconsciousness. Are we having fun yet?!

By Labor Day, I decided to see a psychiatrist (because Seek Treatment isn’t just the name of an incredible podcast). My reluctance to do so wasn’t because of the stigma, rather because it was my last dreg of hope. Once medication was exhausted, I’d be stuck like this forever. The next day, I was diagnosed with panic disorder and given a prescription for Lexapro. Just knowing my affliction had a clinical diagnosis came as a relief to me. I was not alone. The minutiae of the meds happened so gradually, I didn’t believe they were working. Luckily, they were. I ended up quitting my job and staying with my parents until my serotonin levels reached that of a Bravo Real Housewife (post-divorce). I found a new daily routine that included yoga, journaling and long walks with my parents’ schnauzers. I sought a psychologist who specialized in exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, where I learned I was genetically predisposed to panic. Eventually, I watched my days turn from existing to actually living.

Mental illness is not glamorous. Shockingly, depression isn’t synonymous with smeared eyeliner and ripped fishnets, as the Skins’ sex kitten, Effy, had previously taught me. But maybe, just maybe, after having gone through it, it makes you appreciate life more. It forces me to live in the moment, because looking toward the future is too overwhelming. It’s taught me that SSRI’s work, and even if it takes some experimenting and titrating, there is a solution. A broken brain is no different than a broken arm. Lady Dynamite’s bipolar disorder was not treated in a single episode. BoJack Horseman’s depression is still running rampant. Sometimes it takes a full series to garner the proper tools one needs to live. This wasn’t my season finale, because I take these experiences with me every day. If anything, I’m starting a spin-off.

--

--

Hillary Sussman

Buffy Summers= ID. Brett Easton Ellis = Ego. Lisa Vanderpump = Super Ego.