Written in honor of the women in this story, and as a tribute to the importance of Mental Health Awareness Month. Share your stories. Form connections. It makes a difference.
June 5th, 2018 was a Tuesday, remarkable for me because it was exactly one week after the worst anxiety attack I’ve had. Ever. On June 5th, I was riding the train from my suburban town into Manhattan, leaving my children at home to enjoy a few hours in the city with people I love. It was a feat of great planning. A friend and I were meeting in SoHo to catch up and then visit my friend Christopher’s art exhibit. After that, I was heading to Pier 60 to join a group of women for a Sanctuary for Families event, emceed by Seth Meyers. I had a dress and a change of shoes in my bag to address the wardrobe demands. But for the purposes of this story, I’m on the train, happily rotating between reading my book and staring out the window at the trees and towns blanketed in a bright blue sky. Seven days earlier, I was in a very different place.
Memorial Day started out low-key following a big dinner party Sunday night. Our good friends were packing up to leave our beach house after breakfast, and we hoped to leave soon, too. It always takes more cleaning and corralling than we expect to get the house in order and the kids in the car, so we started the process early. Until I lost my keys. This was the initial trigger for my panic. I oscillated between knowing it was not an emergency — everyone was safe, after all — and becoming obsessed because the longer I looked, the fewer places they could be. We almost always leave them in a bowl on the kitchen counter, but almost leaves room for error. After hours of looking everywhere, calling AAA, and eventually digging through trash, I was about to give up. I went into the kids’ bathroom for the third time, calmer now with possible solutions to transport everyone home, and I noticed the cuff of my grey sweatshirt peeking out from under a grey towel of nearly the same shade.
“Yes!” I screamed, remembering that this was the sweatshirt I threw on before a last-minute run to the fish market the previous day. I grabbed it, felt the pocket, and sure enough, there was the key that the AAA mechanics and all locksmiths would not be able to duplicate any day, much less on a holiday. I breathed easy and joined my family for lunch, a little embarrassed but mostly relieved.
That evening, I asked my husband Rich to drive home. In the key search, I had lost valuable time to work on an editing project, and had to catch up and meet a Wednesday deadline. We got home at a reasonable hour, with two kids already asleep, and quickly got ready for bed, but I never fell asleep. Tired from the night before, it made no sense, but I tossed and turned like a commercial for Nyquil or snoring treatments. But no one was snoring. Not a creature was stirring, except me. Underneath the anxiety over the lost keys and the deadline was a looming MRI, scheduled for Tuesday morning at 8:45am. We had a wonderful weekend, laughing and playing with close friends, but a little sliver of me believed I might be dying. Alone in the dark, that piece grew. No matter what I did, I couldn’t fight the fear. Eyes closed, I could feel my breath shortening, even as I tried to breathe deep. We had no melatonin in the house. I come from a long line of sleepers and have napped at both a Yankees/Red Sox game and during the Bruce Springstein’s encore. My brother famously took a powernap at a Judas Priest concert. Insomnia was not my norm.
The MRI was a repeat scan of my brain to take a closer look at something, probably a cyst. The original scan was done to investigate recent headaches, which disappeared once I got a vision test and glasses. My doctor assured me the mass of tissue was probably nothing, but mass and tissue are the kind of words we humans don’t like hearing in one sentence. I had kept my apprehension at bay but in the dark, magical thinking took over and replaced logic and reasoning. How could I sleep? I might be in real danger. What if something is wrong? Did I cause this? Fears and regrets swirled in my head, creating a tornado that spit out any positive thoughts I sent its way. My skin crawling and breath so short I was nearly panting, I moved to our guest room, went back to the editing project, and just when I was on the brink of successfully dozing off, I startled awake to begin the process again. Before I knew it, birds were chirping, closing the window on my sleepless night. Rich, who had tried a few times to help me in the night, woke up as I shuffled around, muscles tired, body limping into morning.
“Did you get any sleep?” he asked. I shook my head, still short of breath.
“I don’t want this to ever happen again,” I answered. “What’s wrong with me? Why does this happen?” I laid down on the bed, half sobbing, furious with myself for not being able to manage the fears, manage the dark, manage everything that needs managing with three kids and a busy week ahead. This was the worst night I’d had and the first time I couldn’t fall asleep, but it was not the only time I’ve struggled with overwhelming thoughts that wake me up in the night. Usually I can work my way out of it and use the solitude to organize, plan, and catch up on whatever it is that woke me. I think of this as anxiety that I can morph into healthy stress, but the line is razor’s edge thin, and sometimes it moves and I end up on the wrong side. Lying in bed, I doubted my ability to navigate life’s blindsiding twists and turns. If this is what happens under the stress of lost keys and a minor medical procedure, I may be ill-equipped to face big problems. How could I take care of my kids if I can’t put on my own oxygen mask?
“I have to talk to someone, Rich. I need help. I’ll reach out to Genevieve,” I muttered as the sky grew pink with morning.
“Sure, if you think it will help,” he responded. “Who’s Genevieve again?” Years ago, he might have said, “You might not want to tell other people, these are new friends, you don’t want people to judge you.” We live in one of those towns where many people seem very close to perfect. But this friend, Genevieve, would understand. She works in the mental health field, and she and I have discussed at length the importance of removing stigmas and encouraging people to get support. I typed her name into the search bar for texts and sent her a message, explaining my panic and asking her to get in touch. I needed to hear a voice other than my own. Breathing my first deep breath in a long time, I looked back at the phone. Strange, her name’s not there,I thought. Wait, oh my god…this was not Genevieve’s number. It was a text thread in which I mentioned Genevieve because we were making plans with another friend. A new friend. A friend who doesn’t know me very well.
“Oh my god, I sent that to Sarah, not Genevieve!”
Rich has no idea who Sarah is. She could be extremely judgmental, but either because I’ve convinced him to not worry about that stuff or he just wanted a little more sleep, he responded, “I’m sure it’s fine.”
Strangely, I felt fine about it, too. I texted back a quick “Sorry! Wrong person.” Unable to find Genevieve’s actual number in my phone, I copied my text into an e-mail and sent it, too tired for formatting or proofreading. It must have read like one of those e-mails from your friend who lost her wallet and passport in Kenya and needs you to wire $500, even though she is sitting in her cubicle next you. Genevieve responded right away.
This is from you, right? Are you okay? I will call you in a few minutes.
A text popped up from Sarah.
I understand. I hope you are okay. When I get too stressed, I sometimes talk to Ann Smith on School Street. Here’s her number — xxx-xxx-xxxx.
I showed Rich. See? People do understand.
In taking a risk and screwing up, I was now armed with two friends and a referral. As a wave of relief settled in, Genevieve called. We talked. I explained the night, and she taught me a new term I’d never heard: Scanxiety. I promised to check in after the MRI. My friend Jeanne offered to drive me to the appointment to avoid operating a motor vehicle, and then I called my mom and cried a little more. An hour later, inside the MRI tube with an IV in my arm, I finally fell asleep to the soothing soundtrack of banging and hammering.
The week between that night and the train ride was a blur. I made the deadline, got the MRI results — a benign cyst — and caught up on sleep. But a couple other things happened, too. I found strength in knowing I could and should get help when I need it, and I felt an intense connection to life. The joyful moments and painful ones were intertwined and beautiful, and sitting on that train, I was full of gratitude. As I put my book away, I checked my phone one last time before the train headed underground to Grand Central.
A Facebook alert from a woman I know popped up: Heartbroken to hear about Kate Spade. I was so proud to own her stylish and classy bags and felt taller, proud and more confident carrying them. Wish she had felt the same. Mental health issues are real.
I clicked through and read the news, tears welling up as I considered this icon of fashion, a trailblazer who splashed our wardrobes with color, humor and style, suddenly gone. Then I thought about the friend I was about to see who also works in fashion. Did they know each other? Would she be okay? A text from her popped up. “See you soon.”
A half hour later, when my friend and I met on Spring Street, we shared a hug and looked at each other with sadness and disbelief. In a quiet Italian restaurant, we sat by an open window, warmed by the evening sun of a lingering June day. We talked about the earlier days in the fashion industry, how they knew each other, and what made Kate Spade part of the fabric of our world. Innovation. Passion. Connection. Gazing across Spring Street to the Ear Inn, its door flanked by lounging twenty-somethings who painted a picture of our younger selves, we exchanged vivid memories from carefree days. Conversation flowed into children, husbands, hopes and dreams, the forces that tug and lift us in adulthood. When our fizzy drinks arrived, we raised them to one another as they joined in that unmistakable celebratory sound of glass on glass. But it was sorrow and compassion that brought forth our words, “To Kate.”