Starting this past January, I made it my mission to try to figure out how to literally live my best life possible. What do people do to be their happiest, handle stress better, feel their best physically? It’s been months of an on-going process for me, and I’d like to share the things I’ve learned with you sometime soon. But before I do so, I feel called to start at the beginning of my story. Part of WHY I decided I wasn’t already living my best life. After all, you don’t usually see the happily ever after without the once upon a time.
This is the story of my mental illness.
I had my first panic attack when I was 25. I was on my first vacation with my future husband. I had had some adult beverages. Then I drank a cup of coffee, as I had done many many times before, to gain some energy for dinner and a night out. Before I knew it, my heart and mind were racing, I was sweating, shaking, and crying. I begged my husband to stay with me in the hotel room because I though I might be having a heart attack (yes, really). I finally fell asleep and woke up the next morning just fine. I chalked it up to too much caffeine.
But then, I had another “incident” a week later at Target that ended with me crying and holding a friend’s hand while gulping down air in the food court. Another the next week home alone at my husband’s apartment, huddled in his bed crying to him on the phone. Very quickly, my attacks snowballed into multiple occurrences a day, and I felt like I was losing myself. Heck, I DID lose myself.
I lost many things I loved to do before panic disorder hit me. I used to love perusing malls and shops before, and now I had to rush in and out of stores or risk being triggered by the lights and crowd, and couldn’t go to the mall at all. I quit yoga because I felt too scared that I couldn’t make it through an hour class. I could not drive on the freeway and for months struggled to even drive home on side streets, often stretching my drive time from what should have been 30 minutes to over an hour. There were days I cried at the thought of leaving my house and then cried that I was going to become agoraphobic (too afraid to leave your house). I really only felt relief from anxiety when I slept or was occupied with friends.
There was a point where I honestly felt like I would live the rest of my life in perpetual, crippling anxiety… and that was terrifying to me.
Maybe you saw me during this period, and maybe you didn’t, or still don’t, know. That’s because I didn’t want you to. The continued stigmatization of mental health disorders made me hide or downplay my symptoms. But if I ever seemed distracted or standoffish or downright rude to you, it very likely might have been because I was fighting off an attack. Please forgive me. Panic made me do it.
(Please note, I did seek help during this time, received a diagnosis of panic disorder and borderline depression, and I will write more about what’s worked for me in a separate post.)
I’m writing this now for the people who also experience symptoms like mine, or any mental illness, for that matter. You are not alone, you are not weird, you are not making a big deal out of nothing. I see you, I hear you, trying to live your lives normally despite your symptoms. Or not even knowing what they mean. You are not alone. Feeling embarrassed that you seem frazzled all the time. You are not alone. Forgetting birthdays and appointments and important dates because you’re just trying to make it through one day so you can go home and rest from the exhausting emotional overload. You are not alone. Quietly slipping into psychiatrist and therapist offices because it’s still less acceptable than if you went to urgent care for the flu. You are not alone.
I am also writing this post for those friends and family, like mine, who have a friend like me. If you have a friend who is suddenly withdrawn at a party, offer your silent company. Know that that one friend who always forgets your plans might not mean to, he might just be struggling to even make it to work each day. If a friend confides his or her mental health problems to you, offer non-judgemental support for his or her choices and please do not just brush his or her symptoms aside. Please, for the love of God, don’t tell her to “just exercise more” or “just stop thinking about it.”
If you’ve gotten this far, BLESS YOUR HEART. This was a long post, and possibly not an easy read. It wasn’t easy to write, as I think of any judgement I may receive for it. After all, I look normal from the outside so maybe I’m “just exaggerating”. But, as I said in my post about postpartum anxiety, I feel so strongly about sharing our mental health trials as humans in case they might help others.
Thankfully, I’m doing much better these days, though I have peaks and valleys I still walk through. Look for a future blog post about what treatments and lifestyle changes have worked for me!
If you struggle with any mental health issues, please don’t be afraid to ask for help. Call your primary care physician for a place to start. Finally, if you are in the US and having a mental health crisis, you can call the mental health crisis hotline at (888) 724-7240 for immediate help.