Late August, 1999. Two days after my 40th birthday. After taking my first week off from work in 3 years, by 8:30 am Monday I'm back at my desk, trying to pull-together the next issue of the small weekly newspaper I've been editing since May.
It's an absolutely normal Monday. There's a lot of work to do, a big pile of paperwork in front of me, & nobody did much to prepare for the next issue while I was gone. But I've been working 50+ hours a week since May, so I'm getting used to it. Everything is going exactly as I expected.
But I'm having trouble with it.
By 9:30 am I start to hyperventilate. I can't relax. My hands and arms are getting all tingly. I can't stop panting for breath. I call a therapist I've been talking to about work-related stress and marriage problems. He recommends getting out of the building and getting something to eat.
But I can't leave -- there's too much work to do. I can't push it off on my co-workers, either -- they're wrapped-up in their own work. I try eating. It doesn't help. I try organizing a long schedule of events for a quickly-approaching town festival, the one thing that MUST be on the next front page. But I can't focus. I can't MAKE it make sense. I can't even get the list of happenings typed.
I drink some water. I try to walk around a little, but my legs are all wobbly. My arms are going numb. My heart is racing. And I can't slow down my breathing.
I call my therapist back. He ORDERS me to get out of the building. But it's too late.
At noon, I ask our receptionist if she could do me a favor and call my wife. And an ambulance. I can't seem to do it myself. I can't breathe. I can't get enough air. For some reason it seems like there will be more air on the floor, so I go there.
By 12:15 I'm stretched out on my back on the office floor, still hyperventilating. My arms are numb, my hands locked into fists. My legs are cramping and folding up. I moan for someone to help me, but nobody will even come talk to me.
At the edge of my vision, I can see the head of the reporter I just hired, standing nearby, watching, but she won't get closer. I'm scaring her. I'm scaring myself. I can hear phones ringing and people talking and Monday going on, but I'm stuck on the floor alone and I can't move. I'm left to gasp and flop like a fish. I'm helpless.
Finally an EMT appears & I try to tell her what's wrong. Another EMT appears, they put me on a gurney & I'm wheeled outside into an ambulance. I notice vaguely that a crowd has gathered. My co-workers are calling my name and telling me to hang in there. My wife has appeared and says she'll follow me to the hospital.
In the ambulance, the EMTs give me SOMETHING & try to determine if I'm having a heart attack. I'm SURE that's what's happening. I'm convinced that I'm gonna die, 2 days after my 40th birthday.
In the emergency room, they run tests & try to bring my breathing under control. They have to teach me how to breathe again. It takes awhile.
When I'm stable, they admit me to the hospital & put me in the cardiac critical care unit til they determine if I've had a heart attack. It looks like I'm gonna be there for awhile.
My wife appears, and we cry all over each other. We both note the timing of this "attack," & without trying 2 make Too Big A Deal out of it, we both wonder if I've been pushing things too hard & if somebody's trying to send me A Message.
She stays for awhile, then has to leave to go check on the kids. She sez she'll bring me back something to read in case I'm stuck here overnight.
And as soon as she leaves, I'm overcome by the most intense feelings of RELIEF that I've possibly ever felt -- as if this bed, in this place, is EXACTLY where I wanted to be, exactly where I was headed from the moment I woke up this morning. It's safe & quiet here. And someone else is gonna havta run the newspaper for me.
And then I cry like a baby.
Eventually, 1 of the ER docs comes in & tells me I DIDN'T have a heart attack -- I had an anxiety attack. A nurse tells me they can prescribe some anti-anxiety meds, but they won't solve my problem -- that my problem is whatever's kicking around in my head.
Then they release me.
I take a day off to think it over, then go to work on Weds & resign as the editor. But I offer to work as a full-time reporter to make up for it. This is a mistake, but I was always happier writing full-time anyway.
I try the anti-anxiety meds, & once I get used to the "zombie effect," they're not bad -- I feel like me with all the stress removed. It's sorta enjoyable.
But the stress continues -- there's just as much, if not more, with reporting full-time. & I knew that. But this is my 1st step in moving away from my 20-year career in journalism. & it takes me 2 more years to give up & get out of it entirely.
Don't let this happen to you. If you're in a high-stress job that overworks you to the point of breakdown, get away from it. Figure out some other way to pay your bills. Don't give your life to a career where nobody keeps score. Because the things you'll lose are things you might never get back -- spouse, children, possibly your health, maybe your life. It ain't worth it.
I was stupid. Looking back, I wish I hadn't sold myself so cheap. & I wish I'd known I was living The Good Life while I was IN it....