My grandmother used to say, “You were the most nervous baby I’ve ever seen.” My grandmother (who was a ferocious and elegant 90-pound lady, like Lillian Hellman and Lauren Bacall had a baby and dressed it in tasteful separates and a hair helmet, and oh God, I miss her so much) looked concerned when she said this, which never failed to aggravate my mother.
“You were a little undercooked,” she’d say. “You had a startle reflex. It had nothing to do with being ‘nervous.’ It was your actual nerves, trying to figure out what the hell was going on out here in the cold.”
I have a lot of faith in Ma Smash’s opinion on everything, but her medical advice is always spookily sound. (“It’s appendicitis,” she told the doctors, long before she had her nursing license and just before my appendix ruptured. “It’s thyroid disease,” she pronounced firmly, thirty years later, when my hair was thinning and I couldn’t lose weight.) Here, though, I wonder if it matters all that much. As a baby, I was either nervous or undercooked. The same could be said for me now. I’m still trying to figure out what the hell is going on, out here in the cold.
Anxious people and depressives are kindred spirits. Everyone secretly believes that if we’d just grow some stones, we could get over it. The truth, of course, is more complex: we can and we can’t, we want to and we don’t, we’re definitely biologically, physically ill, but on the other hand, it’s all in our heads. The doctors and therapists I like best don’t make a distinction: if I feel ill, then I’m ill.
For the most part, I prefer to endure my Victorian lady-nerves without the help of tonics. I feel very brave about this, even though I don’t think there’s anything wrong with better living through chemistry. I am, however, terrified of benzodiazepines. People who say they couldn’t get hooked on these are fooling themselves. Any time I’ve taken them for anything, about twenty minutes after swallowing the pill, I think, “Oh, that’s right: this is AWESOME.” And then I renew my pledge to a) not start taking benzos on a regular basis, and b) be kind to drug addicts, who obviously are the only people on earth with their priorities straight.
I’m so scared of getting hooked on something like this that the few times I’ve been prescribed anti-anxiety medication, I make my doctors promise they won’t give a million refills.
“Just give me a few,” I say. “Whatever you think. And if I call up and ask for more, tell me NO. Pretend we’re in a ’90s era movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and you’re the firm but kindly doctor who saves her from a fate worse than death.”
And then, I presume, they start feeling around on the floor for the silent alarm. But they’re always both kind and firm, which I appreciate.
All of this background information is important, because it’ll help you to visualize how odd I felt, when I found myself fighting over a prescription for one single Valium with my doctor. I have to go for an MRI next week, to make sure that my ever-present back situation isn’t secretly my spinal cord trying to break free and scale the alps on its own, presumably while singing and brandishing a walking staff.
You see, I cannot get into an MRI without chemical assistance. It’s not that I don’t want to. The MRI machine and I are like ends of a magnet, or, if you like, a Looney Tunes character being stuffed into a shoe. It’s not going to work without me losing a lot of feathers and the hospital staff winding up with a lot of cross-hatched wear marks on their suddenly tattered lab coats.
“The thing is,” my doctor said. “If I give you a Valium, someone will have to come with you.”
“That’s no problem,” I assured her. “Adam has to come with me. It’s in the fine print of our marriage contract. ‘Will attend all medical procedures with wife, for wife’s safety and that of the populace.'”
“Also,” she said reluctantly. “You can’t drive.”
“I never drive. I don’t even operate a cotton gin.”
She sighed. “And you’re sure the insurance company won’t cover an open MRI? Or you just didn’t want to ask?”
“I don’t dare ask, honestly. Getting them to authorize the procedure was hard enough. I had to talk to maybe twenty people on the phone. At one point, they transferred me back to the first person I talked to. I’m pretty sure the clocks in my house ran backward for a minute and a rift opened in the space-time continuum. Also, I don’t want to make things complicated, because I don’t have however much money they’d want to charge for an MRI, if my insurance company decides they didn’t authorize that variation on that particular procedure. I’m guessing a lot.”
“They’re expensive,” she agreed. She tried a different tack: “I really think that if you can have someone come with you, you won’t need the Valium.”
“Trust me, it won’t matter who comes with me. Adam could come, my mom could come, Billie Holiday could come back from the dead and sing ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.’ None of that would stop me from going crazy.”
“Because of the claustrophobia.”
“As I’ve said” — through gritted teeth — “I don’t have claustrophobia. What I have is PTSD. Remember how I told you about my second appendix surgery, the one where they didn’t give me anesthesia and they just strapped me down and unzipped my stomach like a tauntaun?”
“Oh, yes, I remember now.”
She didn’t, but whatever. “Well, now whenever I have to be immobilized for a test, my mind knows that no one is going to slice me open, but my brain and body are pretty sure we should run for it, just in case. So really, the Valium isn’t for me. It’s for the staff.”
“I’ll give you two,” she said.
“I don’t need two.”
“In case you lose one. Or, you know … need more.”
Goddammit, I’m taking both. If you need me next Tuesday evening, good luck to you all. I’m sure I’ll be very happy to talk to you, but I won’t remember a word we say to each other. It is, however, a rare opportunity for anyone who wants to see me calm for a change. The reason these drugs are dangerous is because them shits is good.