In hindsight, I can now see the signs of generalized anxiety very clearly before my first full blown panic attack. I was 21 and seizing every opportunity that came my way: college, new friends, traveling. I loved it all.
In 2010, I spent my Spring Break in Cancun with friends when halfway through our trip, I was pushed off a rocky pier by a wave. Now I’ve always been a worrier, but seeing my life flash before my eyes as I tried to swim to shore must have triggered something. I was in a foreign country. My foot swelled up. I didn’t know how to get help. I thought I’d wait until I got home to go to an American doctor but our flight got cancelled and we got stuck in a remote part of Mexico where few people spoke English. Eventually we got back to school safely but after that I became extremely anxious around traveling.
The next year during Spring Break I traveled to a little island in the Caribbean with my family. I was shaking on the little boat that took us from island to island, convinced it was going to sink and we were going to drown. With this sense of impending doom, I shook and didn’t sleep well and ate little on that trip. I was so relieved when it was finally time to fly home. About an hour into my drive back to school, as my radio died and clouds began to roll in across the horizon, my heart started beating very quickly and my throat went dry, I started gasping for air, afraid my throat was closing and sped to the nearest exit.
Over the next several months I dealt with extremely uncomfortable and terrifying sensations when traveling by car. I had no clue what was going on and I had no idea what to tell people. Even the thought of getting into the car began to cause me excessive worry and physical sensations. As they got worse, I began to think I had a serious illness—maybe throat cancer—and started visiting my doctor, who told me it was just stress. I was given some medication—which I was terrified to use—and that was about it. I thought I was going crazy, I thought I was dying and had no one I could talk to that understood. It got so bad that at one point I started a new job and had difficulty driving to work. I couldn’t get there without having a panic attack. I stopped eating and sleeping. I began to feel hopeless and depressed.
I went to doctor after doctor who began to use the words “anxiety” and “panic disorder.” We discussed anti-anxiety medications and I sought help from many psychologists as well as psychiatrists. I went through many doctors and medications before I found what works for me. I also began educating myself on these disorders, on what goes on in the brain during these times of misinterpreted fear. I determined my triggers. I began to meet other people like me. I found an amazing program that gave me a support group as well as techniques to work with my disorder, rather than against it. I still experience anxiety and panic attacks but now they are less frequent and less debilitating. I’ve gotten married, moved out, bought my first home, adopted two dogs, started a new job and traveled across the country- all with this anxiety disorder by my side. And of course, my husband, who has been supportive of me from the very start of all this. I literally met him while this disorder was manifesting and while, like me, he didn’t initially understand it, he never wavered in his support.
I found NAMI through my company who is strongly focused on the mental health of their employees and I am so thankful to have come across it! Mental illness is a serious epidemic in our country and our policy leaders need to address it as such. I had difficulty finding treatment because it was not something my parents were willing to discuss with me. Even if they were, they still have no clue what it means to have a panic disorder. My primary doctor shrugged me off and I felt ashamed and embarrassed, as if I’d done something wrong. Once I was able to accept my illness and move forward with treatment, it became very difficult to afford. I pay $65 for each one hour session with my psychologist and $65 with the psychiatrist just to check in. If I had no insurance, that cost would jump to $150 per each session. That’s a lot of money for a broke college student!
Now that I finally feel like I’m getting a handle on my own disorder, I see how far our society has to go in addressing this issue. We need funding to conduct more extensive research on neurological disorders, more affordable care, less discrimination and more awareness
I’m persevering because I recognize that I am just as entitled to receiving help as anyone with a physical illness. I have a right to live a happy and healthy life and I’ve taken it into my own hands to see that I get there. There are so many people struggling to live with mental illness that are not as self-aware or educated as me and I want to work to change that. Improving your mental health is a unique journey for each of us and treatment should be treated as such.
If we come together we can make this happen. I truly believe that.