Trigger warning: Today, all of it

By Rachel Eisen

I was writing a completely different story for this blog post when it happened.

Car trouble.

As anyone with depression and anxiety can tell you, there are always things that trigger you: the things that no matter what, no matter how big or how small, set you off. For me, for the past few years, one of my strongest triggers has been car trouble.

So it’s a Sunday morning when, in the freezing cold weather, my trunk latch jams. The trunk won’t close, I’m 30 miles from home, and I start to feel the triggers going off.

rachel-croppedI think car trouble began to trigger me after my senior year of college when I got into a pretty serious car accident. I didn’t see an oncoming car and turned left, getting T-boned in the process. No one was hurt too badly, but airbags went off, doors were crushed, and I had the distinct pleasure (that’s sarcasm, in case you missed it) of sharing a hospital room with the person who was driving the other car.
Her husband rushed to be with her. I, an out-of-state student, was left all alone. It was my first car accident, and, technically, I was at fault. Failure to yield. An actual sense of failure hovered over me and I fell into a pretty bad depressive period.

It was the first time since I started college that I had acutely experienced the symptoms of clinical depression. I was diagnosed in middle school with depression and anxiety disorder. I had first tried psychotherapy (which I hated), then Paxil (which I hated), followed by Lexapro (which I hated less, but still hated). Finally, after my freshman year of college, with the blessing of my psychiatrist, I weaned off all medications and phased out therapy.

Without medication, I no longer experienced side effects like weight gain, and without the safety net of therapy, I developed coping mechanisms to deal with stress. For two blissful years, depression and anxiety seemed to be part of my past, not part of my future.

Then the car accident…and it all came crashing down. There I was again, food binging alone in my room, feeling antisocial, and just plain tired all the time. I cried in my gynecologist’s office because my mother made me ask her if my birth control pill could be contributing to my “relapse” into serious depression. She recommended therapy, of course. Still scarred by my teenage experiences, I balked and forced myself to climb back out of my hole. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest or smartest decision, but at the time I couldn’t fathom returning to therapy. The idea brought back shudder-inducing memories of ink blot tests, shame, and shrinking self-esteem.

Ever since, car trouble has pushed me over the edge. My anxiety kicks into high gear (no pun intended), probably subconsciously to get ahead of anything that could set off a new depressive episode. I start worrying excessively about whether the problem can be fixed or not, whether trying to get it fixed will keep me from something important, whether I’ll be judged by the mechanic, whether some made-up random other problem will compound the real problem. In these moments a feeling of lonely, shameful sadness overcomes me. I try to hold back tears when I call my fiancé because I don’t want him to hear how much this stupid little thing upsets me, even though I know he knows.

Have you ever panicked while sad? Your heart doesn’t know whether to do sprints or take a nap. It’s no fun, let me tell you. But, anyone with depression and anxiety can also tell you that there are times where you have to push down whatever’s triggering you because of your circumstances, and this recent Sunday morning was one of those times. I was traveling with a sports team and we had a competition to go to. I got through it. We did great.

It’s when I got home that the suppressed trigger popped. No shops were open, which made me feel isolated, and that caused the anxiety to worsen. My usual coping mechanism to avoid panicking is to focus on problem-solving. Since I’m not a mechanic, I can’t problem-solve car troubles. But when I have car trouble and can’t get to an expert right away, I can’t solve the problem and it feels like I don’t have control over anything.

This is the crux of anxiety: what do you do when you lose control over your problems?

At worst, you have a panic attack. At best, you do what I did. I told a friend who wanted to come hang out that they couldn’t. I was grumpy and probably downright rude to my fiancé, the person who had actually come up with a temporary fix to keep the trunk tied down. I went to bed anxious and worried, and woke up the next morning simultaneously dreading the day and ready to get into problem-solver mode.

My car is fixed now. In the end, it was just another day in the life, coping with the things that trigger me, and trying to move on.

Rachel Eisen is a Jewish communal professional, die-hard New York sports fan, figure skater, and proud Vassar College alumna. She holds two master’s degrees from Brandeis University, and lives with her fiancé in Newton, MA.

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