I was not aware of being an unhappy back then, but I knew I was anxious. Whatever unhappiness I felt was masked by the constant sense of fight or flight which pervaded my childhood in subtle and less subtle ways, leaving me meeker and milder than I might have been otherwise. This state of being was not always apparent to those around me. But by the age of ten, they became undeniable. It was then that I began to experience migraine headaches that sent me to my room to assume a fetal position in my bed, unable to move until the crushing pain passed. Aspirin couldn’t touch it. It was also a time when I started having panic attacks where I would have a sudden rush of sensation that I was going to throw up and felt compelled to get up from wherever I was and run. I missed about half of my sixth grade year from these and a series of stomach aches and bouts of nausea that seemed to come and go at random. During the summertime of the first year that the troubling symptoms appeared, I began to have difficulty sleeping. At times too, I would begin to cry with no apparent reason. I remember distinctly that I did not feel sad at those times, but the tears flowed nonetheless, and the grownups would take turns at finding ways to make me laugh. I remember feeling my mother’s consternation at my inability to stop weeping, culminating in a moment in which she grabbed me by the throat and squeezed so hard that I was unable to take in any breath. She held me there so long, I began to see stars before she finally let me go. As I fell to the floor, she stormed out of my room.
My father, who (mysteriously, given his family history,) did not believe in mental illness, began to arrange for medical testing in hopes of pinpointing my problem. I had a series of doctors appointments with the subsequent tests which reached an apogee with the administration of EEGs, all of which produced no answers. Finally, out of desperation, he and my mother accompanied me for a visit to a New York psychiatrist- a close friend, who questioned me while my parents waited outside the room. I recall being so aware of my parents proximity, and the likelihood of his immediate report to them, that I simply answered his queries with the answers I knew they wanted to hear.
“Are you happy at home?”
“Is there anything you can tell me about how you feel when you think you need to run away?”
“No. I don’t know why it happens.”
“Are you enjoying your summer?”
“What are you doing with your days?”
“I am going to camp.”
“Do you like it there?”
“How do you feel about your parents? Is there anything they can do to help you feel better?”
“I don’t know.”
The interview was brief, and it was reported to them that there seemed to be no problem that he could detect. My father looked gratified as we left for home, smiling to himself, as there was nothing his friend had said to him that countermanded his own beliefs.
Eventually, I began on a regimen of phenobarbital at bedtime. By the time I was 12, the dose had to be doubled for it to have any effect, as I had become acclimated to the drug. The bottle of phenobarbital was like by best friend. I took it with me wherever I went, and panicked if I left it behind, as I needed it, if I were to sleep at all.
With sixth grade such a disaster, my parents enrolled me in the private school nearby in hopes that the change would do me good. It didn’t.