It was The Year of Living With Rex, and for me that meant dangerously. I was undiagnosed and unmedicated, except for wine. I had already been through an episode of cutting. I was clueless and stubborn, isolated and emotionally abused. Tired to my soul and trying to claw my way through my last year of college and a relationship that has affected me to this day.
Then the pain started. Without warning, I would feel a railroad spike being driven through my right temple. It was blinding, all-consuming, and lasted for as much as 30 minutes straight, sometimes. If I was lucky, it was only a few seconds, but I was seldom lucky.
I didn’t know anything that would make it better. All I could do was lie down and weep until it went away.
As this continued, the fear grew in me that I had something dire, like a brain tumor. In addition to my major depressive episode, I was living with massive anxiety.
I don’t know how I made it through my senior year. I don’t know how I made it through the train wreck I was living.
But here’s how I made it through the railroad spike.
Actually, it was kind of amusing, if you weren’t me and it wasn’t happening to you. I went to a doctor, a neurologist, who took one look at me and said,”I can give you any test you want, but I’ll tell you what it is right now. Your jaw is crooked.”
It was Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) syndrome. And this was before it got trendy and over-diagnosed, the way way gluten sensitivity is now.
My jaw was indeed as crooked as could be. When the doctor put his fingertips on my jaw and asked me to open my mouth, we could both feel it slipping sideways. I’ve been told it feels like my jaw is going to fall off in the doctor’s hands. It made clicking and cracking noises that I had somehow never noticed, and occasionally seemed to get stuck briefly.
How did this explain the railroad spike? When I was anxious, my jaw muscles would clench – and since my jaw was crooked, they would tighten up unevenly. Causing much pain.
“What can you do for it?” I asked.
“We could break your jaw and put it back together, but there’s no guarantee that would work,” he said. (This was in the ’70s. I believe treatments have improved since then.)
While I contemplated whether I really wanted to have a surgically broken jaw (I did not), he gave me a prescription to calm my anxiety so the muscles wouldn’t tighten up and trigger the pain spasms.
Good ol’ Valium.
Now I was officially medicated with benzos and self-medicated with wine. It did take down the anxiety, but plunged me even further into the depression. And I was still living with academic pressure, isolation, no psychiatric diagnosis. And Rex.
I finished up the year, grabbed my diploma, and lit out for my home state as fast as I possibly could. Rex threatened to send the police after me if I took my things while he wasn’t home to supervise and prevent theft of any of his goods. Fine, I thought. Just let him try. I was across two state lines before he got home from work. No, geographic cures don’t work, but sometimes retreating to a safer place can help.
So, all in all, a truly rotten experience. But did I have a psychiatric problem? After all, a crooked jaw is a decidedly, visibly, diagnosably physical ailment.
Of course I did. The crooked jaw was just one component of my condition. The anxiety was another – a big, huge, whopping one. After all, I’d had a crooked jaw my entire life, and it never sent me railroad spikes until that year. And the depression made it all harder to see and to get away from.
If you ever needed proof the mind and the body are so intertwined that you can hardly tell one from the other, there it is. Physical problem + psychological problem = pain, of both sorts. Good luck trying to sort the two out. And medicating one without making the other worse.