I was in a sleepy country lane, in the bucolic village of Bir in Himachal Pradesh where I had come for a weekend of Buddhist teachings, screaming at a Pomeranian. It was the morning of the second day, and I was walking the mile from my guest house to the meditation centre. Five feet below, a fluffy white lap dog was grinning like the cat who got the cream, except the ‘cream’ was my ankle which was rapidly turning blue. I was particularly peeved as I had said “Good morning,” to it with my best British manners.
It had cunningly waited until I passed, then jumped me from behind and ploughed its yappy ankle-loving teeth into my sinews. I stood staring at it with absolute hatred feeling totally ridiculous. I called a vet friend who suggested I get a rabies shot. But it was very expensive and I was far from anywhere that could administer it. Anyway, it was a pet not a street dog, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t rabid. Just a little bastard. (You can tell the Buddhism thing was really working).
I limped into the village and found my way to a clinic. By this time I was bleeding profusely from what looked like a vampire bite. The place appeared to be deserted so I was relieved to find a pretty young Tibetan girl dabbing an antiseptic on a man’s head wound. She looked annoyed to see me.
“I was bitten by a dog,” I said. “Can you help me? I need to clean it up.”
Her lips tightened as she consulted her watch.
“We’re closing,” she said.
“Um. Well, I can do it myself if you can give me some Betadine and some soap.”
She hesitated. I thought of throwing in a few hundred rupees. Maybe she doesn’t actually work here, I thought.
“Do you work here?” I asked.
“Yes, I do,” she said. “But I’m leaving.”
It was then that I noticed she was wearing a fancy chupa, a traditional Tibetan dress. Clearly, she had plans. And then I remembered that it was December 10th, International Human Rights Day, and the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s Nobel Peace Prize back in 1989. Tibetans always celebrated this day with traditional food and music. I’d attended quite a number of these gatherings in the past.
I managed to persuade her to give me the soap and Betadine and I went into the toilet and washed the wound. My vet friend had told me I should clean it for 20 mins to get all the gunk out, which seemed a very long time. Ten minutes later, the girl appeared.
“Aren’t you finished yet?” she asked.
“Can you give me five more minutes?”
“We’re closing,” she said flatly.
She was a Pomeranian in a chupa.
“You know, you’re in the wrong profession,” I found myself saying. “You’re a really bad nurse.”
“That’s a really mean thing to say.”
The expression on her face showed that my remark had hit the target.
It was supposed to be. It was actually the first time in my life I can remember wanting to hurt someone, and doing so deliberately.
I had been walking the edge for a few days. I was only at the teachings because a friend had insisted, thinking that listening to a Tibetan lama talk for a couple of days about the mind would lift my spirits. I felt out of place, out of touch. The people around me looked happy, normal, comfortable with themselves. I felt like an ingrown toenail. Someone introduced me to a guy, thinking we might hook up. I had nothing to say to him. He left the table as quickly as possible, mumbling something about having to charge his phone. Standing in line to get into the gompa after lunch, an old friend came up to me, someone I had known in LA.
“I heard what happened,” she said in a confidential tone, speaking about the break up of my marriage, which I had been the one to instigate. “You must be having the time of your life. I envy you.”
“It’s not like that,” I replied, but couldn’t say much more, words taking archeological time to form.
She looked disappointed and moved away from me awkwardly.
I shuffled inside, studiously avoiding eye contact, and sat all the way in the back so I would be ready to leave. I don’t remember much of what the lama said. I was more taken by the number of middle-aged women who seemed have crushes on him. There was quite a bit of twittering about a beautiful Asian-Canadian ‘consort’.
At some point I knew I had to get out of there. There was a giant black boulder heading my way, no matter where I went. As it bore down on me, it gradually blacked out everything else around it. Looking back, I don’t know how I managed to get back to my guest house, pack my things, and arrange the taxi to come and pick me up and take me back to Dharamsala. I had found the last guest house in town. It was actually somebody’s bedroom. Obviously a young man, judging from all the posters of Bollywood starlets on the walls. The night before I had been thinking of different ways to kill myself while scanning the dusty plastic flowers and faded birthday cards stuffed into shelves on the Formica entertainment center. It was not a particularly emotional thought. It was more about the logistics. Judging angles, mass and velocities, the sharpness of a blade, the height of a building against the speed of falling objects, and wishing I’d paid more attention in physics class.
While I waited for the driver outside a shepherdess walked past the house with the dog that had bitten me. It was on the roof barking hysterically. She picked up some stones as she went by and threw a couple its way, missing by yards and sending it almost apoplectic. I tried not to will her to land one. I made the journey curled up in the back seat, watching my world becoming shrink-wrapped once again while the taxi driver prattled merrily on about his cousin’s wedding and the rising cost of gasoline. It was the third serious implosion since the depression had first hit back in August. There had been stretches of functionality in between. Painful functionality, but functionality at least. I wondered how long this one would last.
Back in my apartment, I turned on the heater and lay on my couch staring into its neutral halogen eyes. And then the anxiety kicked in. My heart was racing, perspiration began to pour off me. I began trembling as a mindless panic caught hold of me. The terror was real, but there was nothing threatening me. I wasn’t in a war zone, or facing off a charging rhino. I was lying on a couch in my apartment. But the panic was unstoppable. I felt like I was being repeatedly thrown out of a plane without a parachute at 15,000 feet. It lasted for about eight hours. I fell to sleep around six in the morning and woke up at eight, my stomach in a fist. My first thought was. “I’m going to get that stuff.”
‘That stuff’ was Celexa. I’d heard some good things about it. At least two people I knew were on it and doing well. And you could get it over the counter in India. I Googled it, feeling proud of myself for being sensible and cautious. It had a good rep. Few side effects and lots of positive feedback. It was a serotonin-re-uptake inhibitor, and that sounded good. Seratonin was good, right? I took a taxi down to Baba Medical in lower Dharamsala and bought a couple of strips. I took one right away.
TWO DAYS LATER
A friend was in town and we had arranged to meet for coffee. He was an ex-nurse (the kind born for the job), a gay Buddhist six foot Australian generous-hearted beauty of a man. I adored him. He listened to me patiently while I babbled on about how I could feel this drug working on me. How everything seemed different already. What a beautiful day it was, how tasty the cappuccino was, how I was going to write about my depression now that I had a handle on it, how I wanted to help the world. How good I felt.
“Rebecca,” he said. And I could tell from his tone that he was about to say something I didn’t want to hear. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I think you may be having a reaction to this drug.”
“No, no, no. No. No,” I said a few too many times. “I’ve looked it up! It’s really safe. I’m just maybe adjusting to it is all.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But there’s an edge about you that’s worrying me.”
I felt misunderstood. Like he didn’t want me to be happy or something.
“Look,” he said, seeing my crestfallen face. “I’m going into retreat tonight, but I’ll keep my phone on. Call me any time, ok?”
I agreed, humouring him and knowing I wouldn’t need to.
TEN HOURS LATER: TWENTY MINUTES PAST MIDNIGHT
“You said I could call any time.”
“I’m not doing so good.”
“I’m having a panic attack. It’s been going on for two hours.”
“It will pass. Don’t take any more Celexin.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Don’t worry. It will pass.”
“Okay. I’m sorry to disturb your retreat.”
“It’s fine. You can call any time.”
Five hours later my heart was no longer beating like a chased criminal. The depression sunk back into my bones as if it had missed me. An arch enemy pouring tea across a fathom of enmity. But the anxiety had been so horrible, that I almost didn’t mind its return in those first few hours. I Googled Celexa again and looked up ‘rare side effects’. ‘Panic disorder’ was one of them. So was ‘extreme sense of well being’. Why didn’t I get that one? Two things had helped me through that night. Daniel and the memory of having taken amphetamines in my misspent youth, and understanding how a chemical needs to run its course in your system. I texted him. You’re golden. Thank you. He texted back. Any time. I poured some cornflakes into a bowl, but I couldn’t seem to add the milk. I sank exhausted and sobbing onto the kitchen floor, my arms wrapped around my chest, trying to hold myself.