For Steve, who loves me no matter what.
For NH and NB – who understand.
For everyone who suffers – you aren’t alone.
I am one of six million people in the United States who suffers from a panic disorder.
A few weeks ago, Casey Cahill bravely filmed himself having a panic attack and uploaded it to YouTube in hopes of bringing awareness to the disease. It was incredibly courageous, as most of us that suffer believe that the only thing worse than suffering from panic attacks is other people knowing you suffer from panic attacks. Watch Casey’s video here.
A panic attack is an utter loss of control of everything around you – so we fight to hold on to the last bit of control we have, deciding whether or not to let people in to this very uncontrollable part of ourselves.
I didn’t want to write this blog post. Truth be told, I would rather be writing about anything else, and not exposing my deepest vulnerabilities for the world to see. To write it means that it is real, that it exists. However, something told me that I needed to. I needed to write it for myself, for my fellow anxiety sufferers, and for those who love us who want to understand and to help.
Judge me kindly – as it could just as easily happen to you. Given the statistics, it probably IS happening to one of your friends.
So. Here’s my story . . .
I have a very good life. I’ll start with that. Anxiety doesn’t just strike the depressed and the downtrodden. I’m married to the most wonderful guy in the world, and we share a lovely little home together, complete with gardens and cats and laughter. My life in Michigan is surrounded by incredible friends who are always quick with a text and a joke, and family that never fails to make me feel loved. I came here to chase down my dream of being a lawyer, and finished school with my juris doctor in hand.
The road post law school has been a little bumpy, though. I didn’t pass the bar exam the first time around – six points stood between me and a bar card. I know that isn’t a terribly uncommon occurrence, but it wasn’t something I was ready to experience. It’s tough to come so close and have something you want so badly hang just out of reach. I’ll take the exam again, of course, hopefully in February. But this puts me in a difficult middle ground – I can’t practice law yet but my degree makes me overqualified for most jobs. I’ve been shot down by Starbucks, McDonalds, and everywhere in between. All of this left me with just too much time to think. About jobs and bar exams and student loans. And when I think, I worry. And my worry turned into anxiety which turned into panic attacks, which led to a hospital stay two months ago.
It was a Sunday, and I was feeling off. I can’t explain it any other way, I just didn’t feel like myself. I was hot, and I was tired. We had just finished dinner and I started to get flutters in my chest. It got really intense and it was hard for me to breathe – I felt lightheaded and dizzy. I was terrified that it was my heart, so I had my husband take me to the local Urgent Care. They took me back almost immediately, and hooked me up to an EKG. They measured my heart rate at 165 beats per minute, while a normal heart rate is between 60 and 100 per minute. The doctor said nothing seemed to be wrong with the rhythm; it was simply too fast – as if I had been exercising vigorously for hours. So he told us to get back in the car and drive into the local hospital so they could give me something to slow it down. It was a quick trip down the highway, but turned into a long weekend at the hospital. I won’t get into all the medical tests and details – but after an admittance to the hospital, three rounds of different medication, two cardiologists and two emergency medicine specialists, I was informed that I wasn’t having a heart attack, but was suffering from a pretty severe bout of tachycardia – an abnormal, unusually high heartbeat. I was surprised – before the panic attack I hadn’t been feeling worried or particularly concerned – it had come out of nowhere. But the doctors reassured me there was nothing physically wrong, and given my life at the moment, they weren’t surprised I was feeling anxious. Looking back, I should have seen this coming. So they discharged me with a prescription for heart medication, a follow up with a cardiologist, and the recommendation for therapy.
I briefly wished that it had been something physical. That would be easier to fix than my mind. People understand when you have a physical problem. A broken leg just needs a cast, and a cut knee just needs stitches. They’re not quite as kind when they find out its psychological. You must be crazy, what do you have to be anxious about, or, it’s easy to fix – just stop worrying! If only it were that simple.
This is not a totally new diagnosis for me. The tachycardia, yes. The anxiety disorder, no. I suffered from a pretty severe anxiety disorder right before and during college. I had moments of being a near recluse. I didn’t want to go out and face the world that created so much anxiety in me.
I always thought I was lucky to leave Pennsylvania for Michigan because then I could leave the past where it was and nobody ever had to know. I got away and I got to leave it behind. I could be the normal friend, the typical girlfriend, the sweet daughter in law, the ambitious lawyer-to-be. Not the girl who struggled. Not the woman who still is.
A conversation is never just a conversation. I will dissect everything you say to me, and everything you don’t. Did I say something wrong? Do you really want to talk to me? If I invite you over, are you going to judge my house? Lord, don’t get me started on how hard it is to let you into my house, no matter who you are. This is my safe place, the only place where I have total control, and anybody who comes in is a threat to it. Comments and criticism will stay with me day and night. Imagine listening to a running dialogue that just won’t stop, no matter where you go, or how long you try to block it out. You can only learn to quiet it – it is always, always there in the background.
There are some things I want you to take away from this:
Yes, it IS all in my head. My anxiety is a product of my mind. But to paraphrase the great Albus Dumbledore, “ . . . why on earth should that mean it is not real?” It is very, very real, and incredibly visceral – sheer terror, both mentally and physically. It is as if you could die from the intensity. Your heart races, your chest tightens, your throat goes bone-dry. A physical attack that has no cure.
No, it’s not depression. I’m not sad or uncaring or uninterested. It’s that I care so much and so deeply about everything that it impacts everything I think and say and do. You can be happy and anxious at the same time.
No. You can’t fix me. I am not broken. But you can support me. Please understand there are times when I might need space – but more often I need your friendship, your kindness, your company. Please don’t back away.
I want to go places with friends and not have to plan in my head what to do if I panic. Where can I go to ride it out, what will people think if they see me panic? You, who reads this right now – do you see me differently? I know I’m still the same person. But I’m afraid you won’t.
I want my heart to race from love, laughter, roller coasters and horror movies and elliptical machines. Not from the every day.
I go to therapy now. Every week, without fail. I used to think that was a bad thing. But there’s no shame in asking for help. It does not make me weak. I take medication twice a day to manage my heart rate. Someday I hope to be weaned off it. But for now, it is necessary to keep my heart beating slowly and regularly.
It has been over two months since my hospital stay. I’m working on controlling my anxiety. I’ve found comfort in meditation and aromatherapy. I go to the gym regularly now to make my heart and body stronger. I’ve learned some self-hypnosis techniques that help me work through a panic attack. My anxiety isn’t gone, but my attacks are fewer and less intense.
So that’s my story. It’s not an uncommon story. Five million nine hundred and ninety nine thousand other people in this country alone share my story.
Please visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America for more information, or to find help if you or someone you know is suffering from anxiety.
Thank you to BuzzFeed for the following articles. All photographs belong to BuzzFeed and their respective owners. I own nothing but my story.
http://www.buzzfeed.com/maggyvaneijk/person-not-diagnosis?utm_term=.jg4jJ4KAD#.jnQKQjGrl For Anxiety Sufferers
http://www.buzzfeed.com/caseygueren/wtf-is-happening#.jjbmpg5GK 15 Facts About Panic Attacks
http://www.buzzfeed.com/maggyvaneijk/breathe-in-breathe-out?utm_term=.qwN85VR2g#.jiyQ4VvwK 17 Things Anxiety Sufferers Need to Remember