My wife had the first panic attack in her life the day before yesterday. She couldn’t breathe. She was crying, feeling inferior and afraid. She felt like she was having a heart attack.
I could feel that panic attack as I was watching it. I have them fairly frequently. I guided her through the experience, talked her down, as it were. Take a deep breath and hold it. Pace a little—the back and forth tends to help some. Wring your hands so that they have something to do besides grasp the sides of your head and rub your eyes. It’s all right, I said. It’s normal.
Even while she felt the distress, I wondered about the state of our family. What if, I thought, there are two of us who have to deal with mental illness? Where does that put us? Two people barely to make livings?
Virginia works too hard. She’s at the hospital for three overnight shifts a week. Often, when she comes home, something inside her turns on and she doesn’t go to bed. Instead, a frenetic energy takes over. She starts a thousand projects, running from one to the next as a squirrel runs from tree to tree. I find it hard to be around her. She talks to herself. Mumbles. She falls asleep standing up at the counter or in front of the mirror in her bathroom. I used to think falling asleep standing up was a myth. Then Virginia started working nights.
It’s frightening. Sometimes, I wish she was drinking. There would be a logic to the incessant demands, the slurred speech, and the disjointed conversation. As it is, sleep deprivation has no logic. It’s a wealth of symptoms, none of which a sane person can deal with.
I’ve asked her more than once to move back to a day schedule. Eleven years of working nights is enough. But she loves the night shift. She works in oncology and there are no clocks for someone with cancer. Her patients need treatments and medicines the night through. Pain keeps many of them awake. She’s as busy during the night as most nurses are during the day.
There’s one difference between night and day that’s important to Virginia. During the day, nurses have a number of administrative duties that take away the time they can spend at their patients’ bedsides. Virginia loves, more than anything, patient care. The fewer administrative duties she has to perform, the happier she is.
There’s also the matter of money. That night shift is worth about $5,000 a year more than the day shift. Money motivates Virginia more than me. For me, money is just a way to keep people off my back. Virginia, however, came from a different background than me. Money means security to her. She used to be very poor. She’s not anymore and she doesn’t ever want to go back there. That five grand I can do without means comfort and safety to her.
So when I ask, even sometimes beg her to move to a day shift, she counters that she doesn’t feel comfortable with that. I have to respect her reasoning, even if I disagree, even if I think that the money isn’t worth it.
I’ve often thought that his schedule can’t be good on Virginia’s health, physical or mental. A person can’t walk around half a week sleep deprived. I’ve seen her grow older under this regime. She’s more frail than she used to be. She doesn’t exercise or walk the dogs like she once did.
When she was going through the panic attack, I began to think that perhaps this night shift is getting to her mentally. This made me feel a moment of despair. I already deal with panic attacks. They say I have bipolar disorder. I know I have the symptoms. When I don’t take medication, I have moments when I feel like I can do anything, and I can. I start and finish a hundred projects at a time. I can take on any challenge. I have confidence and an abundance of energy. I’m not afraid of anything.
Inevitably, these episodes end in bone-crushing depressions. Where one minute I’m on top of the world, the next I’m lower than low. I feel despair. I can’t move. The world darkens and nothing feels right. It used to be that I thought of suicide and once even came close to hanging myself in the basement.
It’s worse when I’m working a regular job. The daily routines close in on me, no matter how much I like the job. I feel trapped. I cycle through periods of intense accomplishment and absolute despair. Life doesn’t seem to have a point. In part, the feeling that life has come to a dead end has kept me out of regular work since 2003.
It’s not that I don’t make a living, I do. I cobble one together through adjunct teaching, speaking engagements, and writing projects. But it wouldn’t be enough if Virginia didn’t work. Because of her, we live a middle-class life—a life of opulence compared to where we each came from.
Selfishly, while Virginia was in such distress, I thought, Jesus, what if this means I need to get a real job? I’m a strong starter and would do well for six months. After that, life closes in on me. More than anything, I hate the feeling of sameness, of routine. I don’t look forward to it.
But if Virginia’s panic attack is the first crack in a stalwart façade, then it’s back to regular work for me. I don’t want to wait and see. For the last few days, I’ve thought real hard about what kind of work I want to do, of what kind of work I can tolerate. I think it would be good to build up something of a retirement, have something for when we both reach old age, which is approaching faster than either of us want to admit.
I’ve also thought that maybe it’s not time to wait and see if this one panic attack was an anomaly—the product of a normal person dealing with normal stresses. I want Virginia to work less. I have a choice. I can write that book that will deliver us financially or I can get a job. I don’t think I’ll be more than a minor literary figure anytime soon. It may just be time I found myself what my mother always said I should get: A real job.
As someone who finds himself in a somewhat similar position, I thought this was a great essay, Patrick. Is it possible that your wife is simply a driven person who will work intensely no matter how much income you might bring in? In any case, I hope you find a solution that brings down the stress level for both of you.