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In a June 2016 article by Sarah Schuster, she describes what it means to have “high-functioning” anxiety. People related to it instantly. I am one of those people. I skated through college as an over-achiever. I was involved with the student government, the newspaper, did research, wrote a book, and the list goes on and on. But what happens when your high-achieving college years dissipate and you must join the real world?

A growing amount of researchers are starting to see what can be described as “post-graduation depression.” With growing underemployment, questions about the affordability of healthcare, and a lack of companies guaranteeing benefits, many people are entering the workforce unsure of their direction.

I graduated from college in May of 2015, and the next morning I was on my way to Florida to start an unpaid internship with a mental health nonprofit called To Write Love on Her Arms. I quickly became immersed in the culture, looking for that next big thing to attach myself to in the absence of my college busywork. My anxiety needed the high that came with new challenges and feeling as if I were more important than I am. In the next few months, I started an online literary magazine with friends, joined a junior board for a sexual assault awareness nonprofit, and began trying to write a book on my experiences with mental health. I plunged myself into work that I felt was “noble,” and people affirmed me.

I spent the next year in Florida volunteering here and there with To Write Love on Her Arms and working full-time as an AmeriCorps college readiness coach. By the following summer, my AmeriCorps year was ending, a job I needed fell through, the magazine folded, and I was left to run back home with my tale between my legs. My anxiety rocked up to a previously unreached level. I doubted my abilities. I doubted my worth. I doubted my experience.

During the last six months, while working to get back on my feet, I have learned three things about my post-graduation self and combatting my anxiety:

1) My worth is not measured by the number of tasks I do or do not complete.

2) The perfect job takes a lot of preparation to get; otherwise everyone would have one.

3) Patience really is a virtue.

Throughout the last six months, I’ve had to learn hard lessons about my identity, oftentimes tearing down parts of my identity that weren’t healthy or weren’t constructive. This includes pushing back against my anxiety. After the magazine folded, my roommates sat me down and reassured me my self-worth was not measured by the magazine’s success. While it took me months to fully embrace the idea, they were right. The hardest part to accept about being a creative is that you are going to fail more than you succeed. However, your successes will be so much larger than your failures will be. If you keep your confidence, you will usually fail up.

I also had to learn that having a good job, one that pays well and gives benefits, is difficult to find. The people who in their early-20s do have these jobs are the outliers, not the norm. I am still looking for that perfect job, but it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the job I have now.

The hardest lesson I’ve had to embrace is that the old saying “patience is a virtue” is actually true! For somebody with “high-functioning” anxiety, the phrase was never conducive of what I wanted to accomplish. It was better left in a kitchen drawer, left beside other tools I would never use. However, sometimes allowing yourself to slow down, sit down, and daydream is the best way to cope with anxiety. Pushing yourself to just give a few minutes a day to think is the best remedy for a busy mind. I also know when I decide to launch the next big project, I will be prepared because I have given myself the patience to research thoroughly and slow down my need to impress and achieve. The next project won’t be simply about achieving but doing good for the world.

Let me be clear. I still struggle with my anxiety. I still overcomplicate my schedule and take on too much, and sometimes I break down. However, I’m learning my limits. I’m learning when to take my foot off the gas. I’m learning the accelerator isn’t always the best option. Sometimes, self-care in the middle of a project is the best option. You must give yourself grace and have a moment of courage and do what is best for your health. Most importantly, make sure you don’t get caught up in the rat race, or if you do, make sure you control the terms. That is the true way to succeed in your early 20s.

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My anxiety comes in two forms. It used to be three, but I’ll come back to that.

There is the slow build. The always-there, low-level panic that feels like there are little gnomes living inside of my chest that have chains wrapped around my lungs and are pulling them ever tighter. It can last for hours and never really gets any better or worse. It just pulls me down and makes me want to curl up into a ball and wait for it to go away.

Then there’s the panic attack. And by “attack” I mean it feels like someone has punched me with a metal hand – fist straight through the rib cage, squeezing my heart. Squeezing and pulling out from between my lungs that no longer work. My lungs no longer draw air and my heart no longer pumps blood and I’m getting dizzy and it’s going black and I’m going to pass out and wake up heartless, breathless and inside a hospital.

This is something that has never happened and never will happen. It used to be a serious, serious fear but now I’m very aware it’s not going to happen. But it hasn’t made the panic attacks any easier, let me tell you.

The third type of anxiety I used to struggle with is the complete and utter breakdown of all my brain and body. Violently rocking back and forth and kicking things and being completely unable to think of anything, anything at all except for more kicking, more rocking, more mental screaming until it stops and we’re back to the punch in the chest or the gnomes or some crying.

Sometimes the two — or three — forms connect or blend together, going from one to the other. I feel the gnomes, pulling those heavy metal chains ever tighter inside my chest and I’m anticipating the fist any minute now. There is nothing I can do to stop it. And often the fist in my chest is removed and my heart and lungs return to working again, the gnomes holding it all together too tightly for the rest of the day. The day that has effectively been ruined because a fist in the chest is really hard to get over and the gnomes never, ever give up.

I’m telling you this because this is how I feel right now. Right before bedtime. I take medication but still here I am, waiting for the metal fist to the chest.

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Before my husband Rodney and I decided to have children, we met with a physician for counseling. I was worried about having a child given both our histories of anxiety and depression. Would the poor kid would be doomed? Do we have a child anyway? Would having a child be selfish? How can we create another person knowing  her chances of being anxious and depressed could be pretty high?

While I don’t remember the exact conversation with the physician, he said any children we had could have a predisposition for anxiety or depression, meaning they would inherit the propensity for a those disorders, but full-blown depression or anxiety wasn’t a given.

Now, nearly 10 years later, my daughter Zora sits in front of me with a stomachache, glistening eyes, and a voice knotted with anxiety.

“I don’t want to play capture the flag at climbing camp,” she says in a scrunched up voice, her dark eyes buried under furrowed eyebrows.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because I never get to climb on the wall. I just sit on the side!” she croaks angrily.

“Why?” I persist.

“Because there are always people ahead of me!” she says.

“Why don’t you push to the head of the line?” I ask.

“Because they won’t let me,” she answers.

Her dark red hair forms an angled curtain around her face. Her skinny arms wrap around her knees.

I try changing the subject. “Have you had breakfast?” When she’s anxious, she won’t eat. I was like that, too.

“No.”

“C’mon, then,” I say as I lean over to pick her up. She struggles in my arms, then grudgingly throws her arms around my neck.

“What am I going to do when you’re bigger than I am and I can’t pick you up?” I whisper into her ear as I carry her lanky frame into the kitchen.

After a bowl of dinosaur oatmeal and a glass of soy milk, we’re upstairs in her room picking out clothes. She flops on the mattress and looks at her feet.

“I still have a stomachache and I’ve eaten,” she announces.

“Look, next week I’m off and you don’t have camp. You don’t have to go anywhere. Won’t that be fun to look forward to?” I say.

Transitions are difficult for her. New situations are difficult for her. Asserting herself is difficult for her. There are expectations to meet, not only hers, which are likely high and unreasonable, but also what she perceives others may expect of her a.k.a. mind reading. Reminding myself what I think and feel may not always be real has always been a struggle for me, and I can see my little girl shares that propensity.

She nods, and we get on with the business of getting dressed. I kneel down beside her and pull a t-shirt over her head and mint green leggings over her feet and narrow hips. I grab her hand, and we head downstairs and out the door to camp.

Once in the car, Zora and Jasper request no music or NPR. They’re not bickering, which means that dark cloud of emotion has moved on. I relax and pull out of our street onto the main road.

“Next year, when I’m in fifth grade, can we get a fluffy dog?” she asks.

“We’ll get the dog that’s right for us at the right time,” I say. My response is maddeningly parental and noncommittal, so I add, “I read that cockapoos are good for kids.”

“What’s a cockapoo?” Zora asks. Jasper, who is four, snickers. I said “poo.”

“A cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle,” I say. Then, knowing that silliness takes her out of negative place, I continue.

“So… you and Jasper are either,” I pause for a moment, thinking “‘Evodneys or ‘Rodvonnes — a combination of me and Daddy.” They giggle. “Which name is better?”

“Rodvonnes!” she’s taken the bait. We spend the rest of the trip to rock climbing camp describing the characteristics of Rodvonnes, everything from sensitivity to loud noises like toilets flushing in public restrooms (all Rodney) to wide, freckled noses (all me). And, I think to myself, the sensitivity and mood issues.

But so what? Yes, Zora is a genetic mashup of me and Rodney, but our own struggles with depression and anxiety aren’t her destiny. Zora is her own person: sensitive, anxious, change adverse, but also funny, creative, sarcastic, tenacious, and original. As her mom, I can’t mold her into less anxious, gregarious person. Changing her into something she’s not is a losing battle and a rejection of her unique talents. My job is to help her become and accept herself.

“Tell us more about the Rodvonnes, Mommy!” Zora urges me, as we pull into the parking lot at the camp. Yup. She’s excited about her own possibilities.

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Foggy vision. Burning pain. Shallow breathing. I can’t walk. Heart palpitations. I’ll never get through this. Heart racing. I’m dying. Uncontrollable crying. Choking. Shooting pain in throat. Why? I’ll never get through this. Dizzy. I’ll never get through this. Dizzy. Foggy. Numbness in my face. Blurry. Dizzy. Thump thump thump. Why? Who can help me? I’m dying. Smoke. Can’t feel my arms. Dry mouth. Frozen. Tongue numb. Can’t speak. Why won’t my legs work. I’m going to faint. Nausea. I’m so tired of this. Upset stomach. Heavy chest. I’m dying. Tense. Trembling. Chest pain. Shaking. Crying. Heart hurts. Stomach pain. Why? Crying. Excruciating. Trapped air. Hyperventilating. Shooting pains down my legs. I’m dying. Can’t breath. Water in my lungs. Shrinking. Collapsing. Sweating. Dissolving. Crying. Crying. Crying. How did I get through that? Despair. Crying. When will it happen again…

Even after thousands of panic attacks – some with as little as one of the above symptoms, some concurrently, some all at once — one thing that’s consistent is the fact I am certain I am dying and that whatever is happening to my body will kill me. It sounds silly, dramatic and totally irrational, but the feeling could not be more real, more terrifying or more debilitating… every.single.time.

You’d think I’d be able to apply logic: “It didn’t kill me last time,” “This will pass,” “It’s a panic attack.” True, I know my reaction to the sensations I feel are that of panic, but what I don’t believe is that panic brought them on in the first place, so each time this happens all I think is, “It will get me this time, this time it will get me.”

What’s hard to explain to those close to me is that in every single attack I have, the terror is just as strong as the last, but each time it happens, outsiders’ sympathy and help lessens, understandably so. “Oh, there she goes again.” For those of you who never have (and hopefully never will) experienced a panic attack: it’s like someone is about to push you off a building, like you’re on a sinking boat, a crashing plane. If you’re with me… hold me, reassure me, let me know I am safe with you.

I could be walking along the street, watching a movie, out for dinner, in the shower, at a party… in fact, I can probably guarantee I’m doing something with entirely no stress attached to it and I’m probably quite happy or relaxed… then bang. Blood drains. Here we go again.

I wanted to start writing about my demons. Anxiety. More specifically, panic attacks. This year, panic attacks have destroyed me. My life has fallen apart, and I have no idea how to put back the pieces, but I’ve been writing in a diary. It’s a total mess and random collection of thoughts, worries, feelings, anger, etc., but the idea of writing a somewhat more legible piece that others could read and quite possibly find help in seems like quite the cathartic task.

I hope the above image gives a little insight to others in how panic attacks can feel, so you can see what we’re up against.

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Thinkstock photo by Vanessa Galeote

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