All I remember thinking is that if I had a gun, I would pull the trigger.
Anything to make it stop.
I wasn't suicidal. I was 14 and in the throes of a panic attack. Of course, at the time, I didn't know what was happening. Although a lot of people say they think they're dying when they have a panic attack, that thought never crossed my mind. My panic attacks were always self-induced. The minute I started worrying about having one, I would either be successful at distracting myself, or I wouldn't. When I wasn't, I swirled into the abyss of panic. If anything, I figured I was going crazy. What other explanation was there?
Fourteen may seem young to have a panic attack, but that wasn't even my first. When I was 9 years old, I saw a report on the news about a murderer who had escaped prison. What started as normal worrying ("What if he ends up at our house?") escalated into a black hole I couldn't escape from ("What if he kills me? What happens then?") Before I knew it, I was in the bathroom, ears buzzing, heart racing, skin tingling.
I successfully blocked out the memory of this panic attack for several years, until that fateful night in eighth grade when it resurfaced, accompanied by a fresh wave of doom.
This was my anxiety at its worst, and I suffered quietly for my entire eighth grade year. My life from the outside appeared normal. I had lots of friends and a loving family, got straight A's, competed in volleyball, basketball and track, and even managed to go on the class trip to Washington, D.C., without any issue.
I was generally very happy. I had crushes on boys and looked forward to nothing more than Friday night dances in the middle school gym. But underneath all of this was a constant feeling of dread, helplessness and shame. When would I have another attack? How long could I keep people from knowing? Why did I have to be a crazy person? All I wanted was to be normal, and normal meant not waking up each morning wondering how I was going to get through the day.
In what ended up being a lifesaver for me, I joined the cross country team in high school. The mental benefits of running changed my life, and my anxiety dissipated slowly but surely. High school ended up being an incredible experience. Yes, I was still an anxious person, but I had found ways to deal with it.
One of those ways was subconsciously developing compulsions. I did things in patterns and numbers, and this repetition gave me a sense of control over my mind. Although this is certainly not a sustainable solution, at the time, it provided enough relief to give me hope that I could one day live an anxiety-free life.
College ended up being the magical time I dreamed of. I was able to talk more openly about my anxious past without feeling like a loser. I was confident in who I was, and I wasn't ashamed of my past. In fact, I was proud of it because I had overcome anxiety all by myself. I hadn't needed to talk to anyone and, more than that, I hadn't needed medication. With enough time and determination, I had lifted myself from the depths of anxiety and now lived a normal life. If I could do it, anyone could.
This blissfully ignorant mindset didn't last long.
Within a year of graduating college, anxiety seeped back into my life like an invisible, scentless gas. It didn't take the form of panic attacks this time, but rather a constant feeling of dread and nervous energy. The next year and a half involved counseling, meditation, running (of course), and trying several natural anxiety-reducing remedies. Nothing worked.
During this time, I met my now husband. Although he had a calming effect on me, anxiety managed to hinder even our relationship. My constant paranoia and worst-case-scenario mindset overtook the logical part of my brain, causing me to worry endlessly and needlessly. No matter how many counseling sessions I went to, no matter how much I willed myself to change, no matter how much I talked with my boyfriend, my parents, my friends -- nothing could release me from the underlying feeling of foreboding. It was as much a part of me as my personality.
I may have continued fighting a losing battle were it not for two invaluable conversations.
The first was with my sister who told me with concern that I wasn't my normal self anymore. The other was with my boyfriend who gently told me, "Your anxiety has gotten to the point where it is affecting your everyday life. I think it's time do something about it, and I will support you in whatever way that is."
With a fire under my ass and a feeling bordering on desperation, I made an appointment with a new psychiatrist. He didn't ask me to continuously discuss my feelings. (At this point, the last thing I wanted to do was rehash what I'd never been able to understand.) Instead, he matter-of-factly asked me to describe my anxiety. He didn't treat me like a person who wasn't trying hard enough. He explained that brains are wired differently in each person and that this persistent anxiety was not my fault. To him, my condition wasn't a massive calamity; it was a problem with a solution.
Ultimately, we agreed to try a low dose of medication -- something I had resisted for so long and continued to be wary of. But just one month later, I got my life back. I felt like myself for the first time in years. I always considered myself happy, but I was often too anxious to enjoy being happy. On this medication, the cloud was lifted. The continuous loop of worrying thoughts was finally severed. My mind was able to move forward and soak up the wonderful life I had. Four years later, I am still on the same low dose, and I am grateful every day for this medication.
I am not claiming medication is for everyone.
I have experienced first-hand that some forms of anxiety can be overcome without it, and I even hope to wean myself off of my medication one day soon. But I also know that some anxiety is truly crippling. It makes you a prisoner to your own mind. It exhaustively beats your spirit to a pulp. It doesn't go away no matter what you try and how badly you want to change.
I cannot stress enough how important it is that everyone, especially those who don't suffer from anxiety, refrain from judgement and understand that this is a real disease that is often beyond one's control. So-called experts and the average Joe alike have opinions about the ultimate solution to anxiety (and a host of other conditions), but there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The right remedy varies from person to person.
I share my story because there are many people who are ashamed to talk about their anxiety. I share my story to give a voice to those who feel guilty about thoughtfully and responsibly choosing medication to improve their lives. Most of all, I share my story for the little girl who thinks she's going crazy.
Little girl, I can assure you you're not.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.
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