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When I Had My First Panic Attack, Nobody Knew What It Was

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It’s not easy having it at a young age, especially when you don’t realize what it is until you’re almost an adult.

Growing up, I never realized the issues I had (anxiety disorder and depression) were mental illnesses or something uncommon. My family only knew the symptoms of schizophrenia and a bit about depression, seeing that we had family members who had those.

The first time I ever had an anxiety attack was at the age of 8. Life at home wasn’t really great and I was always worried about my mother (who dealt with a lot of harsh things). I don’t exactly remember why or what I was over thinking about. All I can remember is going to the doctor’s afterwards.

I was crying at home telling my mom I couldn’t breathe and panicking. So of course, my worried mother took me to the hospital assuming I was having an asthma attack (my brother and father has asthma, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if I had it, too). I went to the doctor’s and he tested me for asthma and did other tests. He concluded I didn’t have asthma, and that I was possibly lying about my symptoms. He told an 8-year-old who was crying and unable to breathe that she was lying and making it all up.

After that, I stopped telling the doctors about the breathing issues I had, thinking nothing was wrong. So for another eight years I coped with it, along with depression that came soon after, whether it was in the middle of the day, after I woke up, or even in the middle of the night when it would wake me up. Even in the middle of dinner I would have a full-blown episode. I was so anxious all the time and couldn’t even focus on my school work or daily routines. I began to fear every waking and sleeping moment, worried I would lose my breath. It started to control my life.

Finally, sophomore year of high school, I told my friends about my situation and issues. Most suggested it could be anxiety and that I was having anxiety attacks. So I researched for days to see if my symptoms matched up. Which they did — down to the T. It was weird for me. I denied it instantly. I didn’t want anything to be wrong with me and become a burden to my mother. Still, I endured it, and it brought on a lot of issues — unable to wake up and face the day, living in fear, skipping school to where I almost failed and couldn’t do much anymore.

However, with more issues at home, I never brought it up. It wasn’t until I turned 18 and had another horrid episode at home while a friend was sleeping over that my mother realized how bad it was. (Actually, she realized it was bad when I collapsed to the floor crying and on the verge of passing out). She left work early when I called her the next day and took me to the hospital. I couldn’t take it anymore, and after dealing with it for 10 years I finally caved in.

I was scared to tell the doctor the symptoms I was having in fear of being rejected (this doctor also had no clue what was wrong), but I caved in and told her everything. And after listing all the symptoms, I told her it might be anxiety. After that, she nodded and gave me a prescription for some medication to try, telling me to come back a month or two later to check in.

I’ve been on the medications for about three months now, and I haven’t had a major panic/anxiety attack since. And when I do have one, it’s minor and doesn’t disturb my sleep.

If you believe you have something and show all the symptoms, consult your doctor and ask them. It took mine 10 years to finally realize what was wrong and give me the proper medications. It is worth it, especially when things start to get better, you begin to function properly and suddenly, you’re able to face the day.

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The One Word That Still Haunts Me After Getting Prescribed With Anti-Anxiety Medication

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How did I get here, crying in my bathroom at three in the morning?

The answer is, one little word from my doctor during a med check: “Good.”

It was a simple enough question during the visit that led to the prescription my first ever anti-anxiety medication. “You’re not planning on having kids any time soon?”

“No,” I answered, still sniffling from breaking down and confessing how awful my quality of life currently was.

“Good. We’ll try Lexapro, 10 milligrams once a day.”

At the time, that “good” didn’t set off any alarm bells. And I genuinely meant what I said about not planning to have kids any time soon. I was such a mess at that point in my life, the idea of taking on the responsibility of growing and raising a tiny human was enough to set off yet another anxiety attack. I was so exhausted from trying to pretend everything was OK I was on the verge of a true breakdown. Kids were the last thing on my mind. I started taking medication, tolerated it shockingly well, had no side effects, quickly found a few coping skills that worked and never looked back.

It’s now six months later. I feel like a brand new person. On most days, I engage in zero compulsive behaviors and am able to turn off most obsessive thoughts. On worse days, I can turn the thoughts down and manage not to perseverate on them using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. I am not picking my skin more than once a week, and have gotten at least six hours of sleep every night. My thoughts and emotions are mostly under control, and I feel like my life is back on track.

Until last night, when all of a sudden, I heard my doctor’s voice in my head say, “Good.”

And I couldn’t turn it off or push it back down. And I couldn’t fall asleep.

So I did the thing I tell all of my clients and their families not to do under any circumstances, which I am not at all proud of.

I rolled over, picked up my phone, went into the bathroom and shut the door… and Googled, “What anti-anxiety medications can you take while pregnant and breast feeding?”

At three in the morning, after four and a half hours of clicking on link after link after related link, I started to cry. Because the consensus of Internet-land is you really shouldn’t take any. Unless it’s a matter of life or death, and your obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or anxiety is so severe it cannot be managed without medication. And if you do take it, you will most likely be labeled a high-risk pregnancy. And in the third trimester especially, you can do unknown damage to your unborn child.

And then the obsessive thoughts began: Is my OCD and anxiety that severe? Do I want to be labeled high-risk? Will that limit my choice of doctors? Will this mean for sure I won’t be able to have a midwife and deliver in a birthing center and be stuck in a germ-infested hospital?

Because here’s the thing; having a child is something I do want. And I’m very much in favor of a natural pregnancy and delivery, vaginal birth and no epidural. Preferably in a nice clean birthing center with a midwife. And breastfeeding. And cloth diapers. And homemade baby food. You get the picture. Before I started taking Lexapro, I didn’t like to take medication at all. It had to be the worst migraine ever for me to even take Ibuprofin. My husband and I had said 30 was when we’d start trying to get pregnant. That’s in July for him, November for me.

But then life happened, and a lot of stressful events piled up on me at once.

One of my clients broke my foot in September. And we put in a bid on a house.

In October, my grandfather, who we lived with to help care for, was suddenly diagnosed with cancer and passed away two weeks later. He begged me to bring him home to die, which I did, and we started round the clock hospice care. My grandmother and mother were devastated and since my mom is an only child, I planned the funeral and did all of the hosting, etc.

In November, we closed on our house and adopted a kitten. And my brother and sister-in-law split up, and she took my nephew and moved back home to Florida. And I accepted a new client which added 10 hours to my caseload. I was burning the candle at both ends with moving, nesting and working. I drank more coffee and slept less. And started picking my skin again.

In December, I stopped sleeping abruptly. I was already unable to sit still for longer than 15 minutes without compulsively straightening and organizing. I paced all night to try to wear myself out and keep the obsessive thoughts at bay, anything from what if I got sick and died to what if the hot water heater breaks. I became forgetful and short-tempered. And we rescued another kitten. And one of the kids I worked with was constantly in crisis. And my psoriasis went from covering five percent of my body to 30. I tried to push back the little voice in the back of my head that said, “If a parent was describing these symptoms to you, you would recommend an evaluation.” I work with most of the psychologists in my area dealing with the kids I work with, and I was reluctant to mix business with personal.

All of this led to me sobbing in my primary care physician’s office. He’s known me since I was born, and has always checked in during routine appointments about my OCD.

And so, “You’re not planning on having kids any time soon? Good.

I know I should give him a call and talk to him about this. Maybe call my OBGYN, too. But the truth is, I’m terrified they’ll say, “Well we can cut back the medication slowly and see what happens.” Or, “We really recommend coming off of it all together as soon as you start trying.” Because, since I’m already being so honest, I don’t just feel better than I did six months ago; I feel better than I have since sophomore year of college.

I have an appointment at the end of July, and I’m working up the courage to bring this all up. Maybe I’ll show him this article. Or if I can’t sleep again tonight, maybe I’ll call tomorrow.

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Why Anxious Introverts Are the Worst (and Best) Friends You'll Ever Have

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I did not make many close friends during my five years at university. Friendly acquaintances, sure, but very few who I actively spent time with. It turns out, making friends is hard. I kept thinking things would fall into place and I’d find my group, but it never really happened. Why? Because making real friends takes hard work in areas I am terrible in.

I am an introvert living with anxiety. Individually, either of these can make making friends difficult. But combined, they make it a nightmare.

As an introvert I’m at a disadvantage from step one.

We’re awful at small talk, you see. No, that’s a lie. We can make small talk. We just hate doing it. Small talk is exhausting and such a waste of time. It sounds terrible, but I really don’t care what your plans are for the weekend. For people like me, small talk is what you do to avoid awkward silences with strangers when you make the mistake of going out into the world alone without headphones. It is shallow and pointless, but it fills the silence.

But when I’m trying to make friends I want to find out what you’re passionate about. I want to talk about your favorite books and why you related so strongly to a particular character. I want to know what your dreams are and what you are most afraid of. Basically, I prefer to skip the tedious polite acquaintance phase and jump right to the deep existential conversation phase. It’s an introvert thing, and it can be off putting for some and that’s fine. But the real problem is that when you pair this with an anxiety-ridden mind that constantly tells me I’m annoying everyone around me, I end up being too scared to start up any of the conversations I actually want to have. Which means I get bored. And I also come off as really boring.

On the odd chance I survive phase one, you might think things would get easier from there. If only.

I rarely make the effort to reach out to people, which probably makes a lot of people think I don’t care enough about our friendship to be bothered. Most of the time I badly want to talk to someone more, but I avoid reaching out because I worry I’m bothering them. Then (and here’s the real hypocritical kicker), when people don’t reach out to me, I assume I was right and they don’t actually care about me or like me. If they had any interest in me, they would have texted, right? Obviously.

On some level I of course realize this goes both ways. I cannot expect others to make an effort when I won’t, but the voice in my mind insists that no, they just don’t like me. They are just being polite when we’re together. I did them a favor by never trying to talk or hang out.

If I am too anxious to text someone, it maybe goes without saying I’m also terrible about making plans. I probably come off as either a boring introvert who never leaves her house or someone who can’t be bothered to try and therefore isn’t worth the time. The truth is  I avoid making plans with people because I’m terrified that if I try, nobody will show up and I’ll look like an idiot. For someone without anxiety it might just be a bit disappointing, but for someone like me it is utterly humiliating. And it has happened before (file under: reasons I no longer do anything for my birthday). It might sound ridiculous, but trying to make plans with people has a high risk factor in my mind. Best not to bother, the voice insists.

People like me are terrible friends. When we’re first getting to know each other we will want you to reach out to us and make an effort to invite us places, while rarely doing the same for you. We will sometimes back out on plans because we’re having a bad anxiety day. We’re the worst for spontaneous nights out because we get overwhelmed when our plans suddenly change, and we’re probably already in bed with our sweats on anyway. We will need constant reassurance you actually like having us around, and it will take you months to convince us to stop apologizing for literally everything.

But if you are patient with us…

 …we are also the best friends you could ever ask for. The more time we spend with you, the less high-maintenance we’ll become. We will realize you don’t secretly hate us, and we will start reaching out to you. We’ll send you pictures and videos we know will make you laugh and tag you in every adorable puppy picture we find on Instagram when you’re having a bad day.

Our introversion and our anxiety means we are always tuned into to our environments and the people around us, so we will always know when something is bothering you. We will let you vent for hours while we just sit and listen. We will trust you with our deepest secrets, and we will never share yours. We will never be angry with you when you wake us up in the middle of the night, because we know better than anyone how terrible it is to be hurting and alone.

We will never judge you for what you love. We’ll watch your favorite shows with you even if we think they’re silly, because we know how important they are. We will remember every single inside joke, partially because we are so embarrassingly excited to have inside jokes with someone. We will value you more than you could ever possibly know, because we know exactly how difficult we are to be friends with. And because we will never forget how much you made our day the first time you asked us if we wanted to hang out.

I am working hard to become a better friend.

I am trying to make a point to reach out to people, to try making plans, to let them know I would actually really like to have them in my life. But it’s a process. And even knowing how much I have to improve on, it is really discouraging to feel like no one cares enough to shoot me a text, and that gives my anxiety just that much more fuel when it is trying to convince me not to say hi to someone.

I know I am not the only one who feels like this. So, if you were kind enough to take the time to read this whole post, I encourage you to reach out to someone today. You never know; you might make their whole day with just one quick text. And if you know you have introverted friends with anxiety (or any friends with anxiety, really), be patient with them. Take the time to reassure them they are valued. Remember that it is highly unlikely they are ignoring you or blowing you off. In reality, they are probably terrified of annoying you, and are hoping you’ll decide to text them.

And when you do, it really will mean more than you could ever possibly know.

Follow this journey on Katsyxo.

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How a 'Game of Thrones' Character Helps Me Cope With Anxiety

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There have been two constants in my life: anxiety and a love for fiction. They’ve been among my defining characteristics for as long as I can remember. So, I suppose it’s only fitting that as my anxiety has grown over time, so has the intensity of my connection to books, television and film to the point that the latter has often served as a coping mechanism for the former.

One character in particular has developed into an invaluable (albeit improbable) source of strength: Theon Greyjoy from “A Song of Ice and Fire” (ASOIAF) and “Game of Thrones.”

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Actor Alfie Allen portraying Theon Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones.”

A little over a year ago, I was struggling to get through my last semester of college. Three and a half years of unprecedented anxiety had deteriorated my mental and physical health, and I was struggling to function. By sheer coincidence, it was during that time that I listened to the latest installment of ASOIAF, “A Dance With Dragons,” on audiobook and binged season 4 of “Game of Thrones.” Theon’s arc stood out to me.

To succinctly summarize several thousand pages and over 60 hours’ worth of character development, Theon Greyjoy was the salty ward/hostage of house Stark who, after making a series of supremely bad decisions, was taken prisoner by the sadist, Ramsay Bolton, and tortured. In both “A Dance With Dragons” and season 4, Theon emerges from the Bolton dungeons as Reek, a docile slave, conditioned though pain to serve his master. The further into Reek’s arc I got, the more I related to him.

To be very clear, I am not conflating anxiety with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) nor am I claiming insight into the experiences of torture victims (though, for what it’s worth, a domestic abuse survivor thanked Theon’s actor, Alfie Allen, for his portrayal of trauma).

The truth is, however, I do identify strongly with Theon Greyjoy, and I’m writing this in the hope that my experiences might prove instructive to someone else. Because for those struggling to cope with reality or feeling disconnected from those around them, fiction can offer much more than just entertainment or escapism.

In my case, Theon offers me a much-needed sense of connection, validation and hope. His desperation to avoid pain and his disproportionate fear of what seem like minor concerns to other characters reflects my own thought process with eerie accuracy and, in the show, Alfie Allen’s stooped posture and uncontrollable shaking resembles my physicality during intense anxiety.

It’s easier for me to describe my mental state or explain anxiety to others by using Theon as a reference i.e “You know how Theon can’t just snap back to his season 1 self? He can’t just press a reset button and function the way he once did? Well, neither can I.”

More importantly, Theon has become an integral part of my mental and emotional fortification, that is, the internal life I draw from to keep functioning in a world I find overwhelming.

When most people around me (with a few blessed exceptions) conflate anxiety with stress and I must earn empathy and understanding through lengthy explanation, it’s comforting to feel validated, to see elements of my own mental state reflected in someone else.

Moreover, Theon’s story has taken a darkly optimistic turn, and the significance of this can’t help but resonate with me. He’s escaped Ramsay Bolton and, in the show, he’s joined forces with his sister. He continues to struggle with the psychological and physical damage he’s sustained, yet he is still functioning. He hasn’t fully recovered (and probably never can), but he hasn’t given up or been “put out of his misery” (as many fans wanted). The narrative is allowing him to remain altered by his mental illness and still move forward.

I realize some may find it strange or childish to fixate on a fictional character so intensely, but the reality is doing so helps me get by. I have stopped myself from crying at work by focusing on this character. I’ve knelt behind shelves (I work in retail) and eased myself through panic attacks by thinking, “It’s OK. You’re Theon. You’re not dying. You’re not weak. You’re Theon.” I’ve resisted the urge to barricade myself in the bathroom by telling myself it’s OK if my shoulders hunch and I shake because … well, that’s how Theon moves.

game of thrones book with locket over it

Fictional characters may not be real, but their impact on those moved by their story is. Theon is a figment of fantasy, but those who created him, author George R.R. Martin, showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff and actor Alfie Allen, had to have drawn from some truth within themselves to fully realize him.

My emotional connection to fiction may be inextricably linked to my anxiety, but for the comfort and strength it has offered me, I am grateful for it.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

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In the Mind of a Mom With Anxiety

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Sports, I love and hate them. My kids love sports. On game days, I would rather hide out and hope for something, Armageddon, zombie apocalypse or a flat. I get them ready. We are always late. I’m a failure. My anxiety is kicking me square in the teeth, as I desperately search for whichever item I’ve lost this time.

I’m gonna puke. Yep, there it goes. Damn, it’s on my shirt, gotta change.  What a screw up! We don’t have time for this! I’m going to loose it.

I’m screaming, “Get in the car!”

Crap! Why is my voice so mean?

“Guys, please we have to go!”

We get to the car and I am making small talk to avoid the fear. The crowd, it’s coming. They’ll all look and see I can’t keep it together. Is that a stain on my sons shirt? Yep, great I can’t even get that right. Oh we are getting close. My chest hurts. Smile. Don’t forget you are supposed to smile.

Did everyone get their medicine? Do we have everything? It’s too late. Oh, there are so many cars. Why are there so many people? It’s so loud. Everyone is so loud! It’s bright, all the freaking lights. Why can’t I get it together? I’m messing my kids up for life.

Oh no! I forgot to bring headache pills, always with the headache. It hurts! Crap, I’m screaming again. They are just kids. They are going to run and touch. Why can’t I let them be little kids? Are my sons OK? One has autism. He doesn’t like crowds either. He is pulling his hair. No!

I can’t be a good mom. I can’t even keep everything stable enough to keep him calm. Oh, the other one is running, and he is down. Oh poor baby! Stop acting out son! I’m going to watch this game. Undivided attention, oh the lady behind me touched me! No, don’t touch me!

My hands are shaking. Everyone knows. They know I’m going to lose it. She is touching me again. I cut my eyes to see. She is pointing at my little one. He is climbing. Babe, go get him please! Oh no I’m alone. Why is everyone staring? Stop. Ugh they see it. They see me edging.

Yes, all these things go through my mind. It’s a quick succession I cannot control. It is awful. I often wish I could spew these words at the people around me. Maybe then they’d understand. They won’t. They can’t. You either have this and get it, or you don’t. Empathy is only a reaction taught with care. You cannot understand, yet maybe you will judge every word I’ve written.

The Mighty is asking the following: Are you a mother with a disability, disease or mental illness? What would you tell a new mother in your position? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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What I Do When I’m Consumed by Anxiety

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Overthink everything.

Sweat.

Suffocate.

Cry.

Let it take over.

Have a panic attack.

Lie down.

Stand up.

Hold an ice cube till it melts.

Kind of breathe.

Take a walk.

Feel anxious on the walk.

Go back inside.

Write.

Sit and stare at a fixed point.

Call a friend.

Hang up before they answer.

Cry a little more.

Try the walk again.

Walk for longer.

Break into a jog.

Tire after four blocks.

Walk back inside.

Take a shower.

Feel a little better.

Get on with the day.

Wait for it to come back.

This post originally appeared on Medium. You can follow Amanda Rosenberg on Twitter @AmandaRosenberg.

The Mighty is asking the following: Imagine someone Googling how to help you cope with your (or a loved one’s) diagnosis. Write the article you’d want them to find.  Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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