I miss my grandmother. Today I miss her little silver box. Sad but true. My own grandmother occasionally medicated anyone in the family who dared get a little “worked-up.”
She always kept what I now know as Xanax in a small metal container in her purse. No one ever would have guessed that the red-headed preacher’s wife was pedaling highly addictive controlled substances.
I come from a long line of folks with pretty severe anxiety amongst other mental illnesses, but in true Southern fashion, none of this was ever discussed, probably because it was our normal.
My grandmother was known for being “unruly” and having “outbursts” at inopportune times, but I just thought of her as feisty and spirited.
I was eleven years old when I was first offered “a nerve pill” from the small silver tin. I vaguely remember Granny and my mom arguing in the department store after a harrowing back-to-school shopping trip.
“I just can’t do anything with her!!!” My mother lamented after an unmatched scream-fest in the preteen dressing room.
“Here, darling. This will calm you down.”
I just assumed it was a powerful breath mint that all grandmothers stashed in their giant, senior citizen handbags.
I didn’t get the so-called nerve pills very often, and I don’t remember feeling particularly calm after taking them, even though I swallowed cooperatively.
But I certainly was never sent to a doctor, therapist, or even a school counselor to discuss my “fits.”
Looking back I suffered from pretty severe anxiety from a young age. The first time I experienced what I now know as a full-blown panic attack was in the first grade. We were taking a standardized test, and I was the last of my classmates to finish. I became more and more unnerved as I heard each of my friends hand in their exams and exit through the door adjacent to my desk. I remember the sweating, the dry mouth, and the overwhelming sense of doom that I was a failure. I couldn’t focus on the test because it took every ounce of energy I had to stay in my chair, breathe, and will away the tears forming in my eyes.
My panic attacks have subsided as I’ve learned to control them, and it’s rare that I say I need to be medicated. I’m also hyper-aware that addiction is as much a part of my family DNA as anxiety. Big shock, huh!?
Right now, though, I’m struggling. The panic wakes me up at night, and if I’m lucky enough to actually get decent sleep, it’s the first thing I notice when I wake up.
I dread the conversation I’ll have to have once again with my medically westernized doctor. She’ll remind me that this is something I can’t control, and I need to accept that I’ll probably always need some form of medication. I disagree. I’ve done very well off medication. I exercise regularly, meditate, do yoga; my mental health toolbox is overflowing, thanks to strategies from multiple therapists, spiritual gurus, and self-help books.
Really, most of the time, I’m good.
I also know when I really need pharmaceuticals, and now is one of those times.
But honestly, I miss Grandma’s pill box as an option. As twisted as it was, I could count on her never-ending supply of “nerve-pills.” She was even kind enough to give me my own little box when I went off to college — “just for emergencies.”
I didn’t figure out until I actually had my own prescription that what my normally law-abiding grandma was doing was illegal. Still, it was also a whole lot easier than jumping through the hoops required to get the proper mental health services that are sometimes necessary.
My grandmother was from a time where people were committed against their wills to places known as insane asylums. My own grandfather (said grandmother’s husband) suffered from debilitating depression in the 1920s and was sent to one of these so-called hospitals and treated with shock therapy. The term “lunatic” followed him and was forever on his record. Ironically, he was the stable one in our family. Perhaps the shock therapy, or electroconvulsive therapy as it’s now called, was just what he needed. It also severely altered his memory, and from what I’m told, he was never quite the same.
Granny watched helplessly as he suffered, and she was also there to witness the stigma that followed. I suppose this is part of the reason no one in my family got around to sharing this part of my family history. I actually learned about his hospitalization from my uncle’s ex-wife, another regular recipient of Grandma’s hand-outs. She was known as “the one he was married to who would turn red in the face and sweat in public.”
Mental illness is complicated, and there are still so many interpretations and misunderstandings.
Tomorrow when I get my prescription filled, I might just drop a few in a metal tin to keep in my purse.
And when I start sweating profusely and feel that familiar clench in my gut as my breathing shallows, I’ll pull out the tin, smile, and think of Granny.
I’ll also remember to keep my pills to myself and recognize this for what it is — a trying time that I’ll eventually get through. In the meantime, I’m grateful for modern medicine.