I can’t tell you how many times I sat down to write this story and found myself unable to put it into words. Its magnitude in my life is truly unparalleled and I regard it as the biggest battle I have ever fought and will continue to fight until the day I leave this earth. This story is about my personal battle with anxiety and the disorders that affect my life on a daily basis. Let me first start with being extremely clinical and tell you my professional diagnoses. I have severe General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia and occasional Major Depressive Disorder. One problem I have with the conversation of anxiety is that a lot of people talk about it as some nebulous thing without getting into the specifics of it. There are so many different disorders and phobias that often go along with this type of mental illness, which require cognitive behavioral therapy or medication. Yes, I said medication, the dirty word of the anxiety world, because you’re an inspiration if you can cure your anxiety with acupuncture and positive thinking and a crazy person if you have to be medicated to function. I’m here to say that I am medicated (with a heavy dose of Zoloft that I take daily) and I thank the universe that I am because I know what its like to be without it. No amount of positive thinking or good vibes could save me.
Like a lot of people with anxiety, I can clearly remember the first time I had a panic attack. I was eighteen, never had a health problem to recall, had just graduated from high school, and was looking forward to moving away to Virginia to attend a university I was excited about. You see I had always been the shy, quiet girl in school, which I didn’t feel was my true self but the one my peers had ascribed to me. I was going to be the girl who thrived in college, reinvented herself, and finally got that boyfriend she always wanted. Things were good, I should have felt good, but I didn’t. I couldn’t shake this feeling of foreboding, like something bad was waiting for me around the corner.
It was a hot day, typical for Southern California, and my best friends had invited me to go see a movie with them. It was actually the first Purge movie, which is kind of hilarious because it ruined those movies for me forever and they KEEP making sequels. I showed up, sat down in my seat and immediately felt nervous. It felt like really bad butterflies in my stomach, I couldn’t get comfortable, my breathing felt labored like I had to think about each breath. It was really weird for me because I was with friends I’ve known for years, at a movie theater in my hometown I’d been to a hundred times before. I had no reason to be this nervous. I wasn’t on a first date, I wasn’t at a job interview or performing on stage. I remember finally relenting enough to go to the bathroom and splash water on my face. I thought I was having some weird reaction or out of body experience. I literally faced myself in the mirror of the empty movie theater bathroom and said, “Why am I so nervous?” I went back to my seat in the theater and tried to get into the movie, but as the minutes ticked by, I felt worse and worse. The breathing got more labored, the claustrophobia set in and I got the urge to get the fuck out of there like the room was consumed in flames. I quickly left and texted my friends from the car that I wasn’t feeling well and had to go home.
That night I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened. What was that? What happened to me? Something else popped into my brain that was more troubling, what if it happened again? I started avoiding all situations similar to being in a movie theater, waiting rooms, classrooms, and airplanes. This proved to be a big issue because my flight to Virginia was fast approaching. I remember telling a friend that I felt nervous thinking about the plane, which I had never before. I used to love flying and traveling more than anything. I was the type of annoying person who thought turbulence was exciting and airplane food was good. My friend assured me I was just having pre-moving jitters and that if I really wanted something her friend could give me a sleeping pill.
The night I left, my two best friends and my mother had dinner close to the airport I was flying out of. I felt like I had so many knots in my stomach, I could barely enjoy my last meal in my home state. In the car ride over to the airport, I joked that I needed to scream out my feelings and I actually did, like one of those anger exercises where you scream out your frustrations. My friends and mother laughed, and we arrived at the airport. Upon getting there, and turning to them to say our goodbyes, I started crying inconsolably. “I can’t do this. I can’t do this,” I said over and over getting myself to the point of hyperventilating. I never got on the plane that night.
My dad was pissed; he was expecting to pick me up from the airport in DC that night and paid for the ticket. Eventually, he rescheduled the flight for the next day and made me promise I would make the flight. This time, my best friend drove me and walked me up to the point of security to make me feel better. A friend had given me one of her sleeping pills and told me to take it so I would just sleep through the flight and wake up in Virginia. When I got to the gate, the same thing happened as before. In a panic, I took the sleeping pill and soon I was having a full-blown panic attack whilst feeling like I was going to pass out. It felt like I was having a heart attack but at the same time, I was fighting the urge to fall asleep. Let’s just say I didn’t get on the plane that day.
I think this was the point where my dad was so confused still but knew something was wrong. He thought I was having a nervous breakdown over the move from high school to college and perhaps from a teenager to young adult. He was sure that once I got to Virginia and started school this little phase would be over. There was still the problem of getting me to Virginia since I refused to fly. So, my dad flew to California, rented a car, and drove my ass cross-country from California to Virginia. I still owe him a lot for doing that for me, but my dad was very wrong. Everything that happened was not a little phase it was just the beginning.
That summer before I started college, I felt the same dread and anxiousness. At dinner one night with my father, brother and his new girlfriend I was meeting for the first time, I couldn’t focus because all I thought about was fleeing from the restaurant. Everything in me was telling me to run away because I was in danger of having a panic attack and embarrassing myself. Naturally, I started thinking about how I would do in a classroom environment. I would imagine being in a lecture hall on the first day and would imagine start going into a panic attack. I expressed these feelings to my father again and again and finally, he offered to take me to see someone, even though he believed I was just having jitters about starting college.
I went and saw a cognitive behavioral therapist, the best therapist I’ve ever had to date, Holly. She was one of those therapists who actually give you negative or positive opinions on things instead of just continuously nodding their head while you ramble on. She taught me about the panic cycle, belly breathing, how what I was experiencing was something lots of people had and that we all had the same illogical thoughts of going crazy or losing control of ourselves during a panic attack. Before her, I had only one therapist I saw when I was sixteen years old. My father took me because I was struggling with trichotillomania and had pulled all the eyelashes off of one eye. The therapist was a creepy old guy who asked me what my fears were and then asked me if I had a fear of being raped and added that to the list. I think everyone would be afraid of being raped, just saying.
After seeing Holly for a while, I felt like I might be able to handle my anxiety now that I knew what it was, that it was something other people had and wasn’t something that would kill me or make me go crazy. Months had passed and it was now time for orientation week at college. The night before move-in day, I had a big panic attack that caused me to break out in a red rash all over my legs, the next morning I had another panic attack. My body felt exhausted from the back-to-back panic attacks. I had to come earlier than most of the students to attend makeup registration since not getting on my original flight caused me to miss it at the beginning of the summer. I was alone in my new dorm room, lying in bed staring at the ceiling convinced I was having a heart attack. I called my parents in a cold sweat. My dad told me that this was something everyone experiences on the first night. “It’ll pass.”
I struggled throughout orientation week but it all came to a head on the final day. It was a tradition for all the incoming freshmen to gather to take the school pledge, sign their name and become an eagle. They herded us into the school gymnasium and sardine canned us into rows of fold-up chairs facing the stage, loud music was playing. I could feel it already it was the perfect recipe for a panic attack. I tried to fight it for as long as I could but suddenly my entire body started going off like a fire alarm, my body throbbed to the beat of my racing heart. I had to get out of there. Mid-ceremony I leaped from my chair, climbed over the row of people and ran out of the gymnasium through one of the emergency exits. I sat outside and cried until the ceremony was over. A friend I had made during orientation asked me what happened. “Oh, I just felt sick and thought I was going to throw up,” I lied. The worst part is that there was a candlelight ceremony afterward that was a big tradition at my school. My roommates and friends were all going and I told them I couldn’t because I was afraid of crowds. I sat in my dorm alone while my entire class celebrated and bonded.
I felt so embarrassed about the incident in the gymnasium. I wondered who saw it if they recognized me if they thought something was wrong with me. The fact that I was the weird girl again. So much for reinventing myself, I guess. Things didn’t get any better, every time I avoided the anxiety got a stronger grip on me. It was time for classes. I remember every time I walked to my class I would get so anxious that when I got to the doorway of the classroom I chickened out and left. I couldn’t even get myself into the classroom. My roommates and friends would ask how my classes were and I would lie. Anxiety forces you to become you a great liar.
Eventually, they knew something was up with me. I would leave for long periods of time because I wanted them to think I was going to class so I would take the public bus (we weren’t allowed to have a car as a first year) thirty minutes away to my dad’s apartment. He was always out of the country due to work so I could get away with it. I just wanted to be alone. I was terrified people in my dorm would find out about me. It got a little better as I bonded with my dorm mates. I started partying and drinking to forget about what was happening with school. I still hadn’t attended a single class. In fact, I wouldn’t for an entire year.
The school found out first. One of my professors had sounded the alarm after I kept emailing her telling her I was missing class because of my anxiety. I got called into the dean’s office as basically an at-risk student. I sat down with the dean, a school counselor, and a psychiatrist. It was a full-on intervention. They asked me what had been happening and I told them everything. I’ll never forget the dean of students telling me that “college wasn’t for everyone”, everyone meaning me. He told me I had to call my mom in front of them and tell her that I was dropping out of school. I cried hysterically. I was so mortified by this experience. If I had shame before, I definitely was ashamed now.
I actually wrote to the school after I was academically suspended and won an appeal, which I’ve heard is rare. I told them everything. At that point, anxiety had done so much damage to my life it was basically impossible to hide anymore. I think the saddest part is that I’ve never told my college friends exactly what happened to me. I still want them to think of me as a fun, easy going girl and not a neurotic, crazy person.
After getting back to school, I started getting better. I had been on and off medication over the last year and was finding that schoolwork was like chicken soup for my anxiety. I could finally focus on another type of stress now, a more accepted, logical kind of stress. I did pretty well academically, retook all the classes I failed and graduated in three years on time with my class. For that, I’m proud of myself. I went from not being able to step foot in a classroom to graduating cum laude with honors.
But the anxiety never went away, the panic attacks never ceased. I wish I could give you a comeback story where I conquered the dragon and rode away into the sunset. It is still very much here, some five years later. My anxiety comes in waves, some months I’m completely disabled by it. Some months, I’m on top of it, super functional and doing things that scared me before with little to no anxiety. But then it gets worse all over again. I had a panic attack while driving so I became fearful of driving; I had a panic attack in my sleep so I became fearful of sleeping. On and on and on. It’s a constant rollercoaster.
I hate the way “anxiety” is thrown around so casually, it lessens the severity of the word and its legitimacy as a serious mental illness. The anxiety I experienced was monstrous. It made my world smaller and smaller until I was unable to leave my house, see my friends or even enjoy the things I loved. I’m not talking about a universal thing that everyone struggles with and is easily managed with breathing exercises and meditation. Don’t get me wrong, anxiety to a degree is normal, just like stress, but there are many like me who live with this crippling amount of it.
I’m not telling this story for sympathy or attention. I’m telling this story to anyone who thinks I have it together or I’m thriving in life. I’m mostly struggling and there are a lot of people who are struggling exactly like me, living along the perimeters of normal life. We hide it from our family, our friends, our coworkers. The shame keeps us in an endless loop of keeping up appearances, keeping up this myth of normalcy and utterly beating ourselves up when we fail. We need to stop treating mental illness as some scary unknown.
If anyone can relate to my story and feel even a little bit less alone then sharing my story is worth it. I know what it feels like to feel alone and strange. To feel scared of your own body and mind. To feel completely out of control in the body that you’ve called home all your life. Just know that we’re all fighting and we’ll keep fighting. I’ll never give up and neither will you.