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This poem is about my experience of panic attacks triggered by sensory problems. I’ve been having these problems for several months. I am having fewer and fewer panic attacks as I recover, but I still struggle.

I Wish I Could Explain My Panic Attacks in a Way You Could Understand

I wish I could explain,
How recently, a trip to the store
Means an assault on my eyes,
Of clashing colors of orange and turquoise blue,
Shelves in disorder and too close together.
How lately, in a crowd,
I hear every conversation at the same time,
The voices and words clashing like a discordant chord.
A sound that causes me pain with every note.
How everything feels too close and too loud.
I stand in line at the supermarket and
Am accosted by the man behind me muttering,
The man in front of me wearing too much cologne,
The woman speaking to the cashier, and pausing to echo the words
Of the music blaring from the stereo.
I take deep breaths,
Focus my attention on a woman folding the clothes in her cart,
Her hands moving in a rhythm.
I count the items in my cart.
Sometimes I make it,
But sometimes I leave my cart,
Leave the store with my hands shielding my face,
To the welcome stillness of the air,
My quiet house.

They name my problem sensory processing disorder
(Though that may not be right
Since I’ve never had this problem before).
I think my brain associates crowds
With the crowded hospital that swallowed my husband for four days in July.
The hospital spit him back out,
But since then, crowds swallow me,
And so many things are hard.
Going to a store, restaurant, or church.
Only the parks can hold me, and
Only my lonely house.

Things are slowly better.
New Year’s Eve, I sat by the wall in the kitchen,
Surrounded by 21 relatives in a tiny house,
Counting down the minutes to midnight
And fighting off panic attacks.
I made it.
Only my husband knows
How this was a great triumph.
I hold out hope that I will recover,
And live fully in the world again.

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Thinkstock photo via Transfuchsian.

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I am more intimate with panic disorder than I care to be. Its onset is rapid and its process agonizing, but what I want people to understand more than anything else, is that it need not be forever. Panic disorder has sometimes isolated me with scary distortions of the larger world. Because the fear lives inside me, I m not able to outrun it when it strikes. In trickster fashion, panic disorder has far too often fooled me into believing I am only safe within the confines of my home and it never wants me to leave. It straps an arrest monitor around my brain to ensure I remain where it wants me to be.

Before I gained the upper hand in my fight, if I so much as contemplated escape, the bracelet activated and I had visions of recent attacks. Panic attacks seem to scar the minds of its victims. I remember how my lungs constricted and how my breath was stolen. I recalled how my heart thundered through my chest and vibrated in my ears. I anticipated torrential sweat regardless of winter frost or chills despite the summer sun. I remember how my limbs burned as if something rancid had been injected into my veins. I feared nausea so strong I might vomit on the pavement for the world to witness. Then I crumbled to my dark bedroom in response to imagined fingers pointed at me in judgment because I fear being labeled “crazy.” People seem to point and laugh at what they do not understand.

When I was last confined by panic, my friends demanded I “get over it” or “try harder” as if I chose to live with this thing. I absorbed every admonishment and my pain was compiled by guilt created by perceived social neglect. It is hard for some people to grasp mental illness as real illness.

I took medication to quell symptoms, but recognized I needed therapy to get to the root of my attacks. I explored meditation apps, deep breathing, mindfulness, grounding and every strategy offered by psychologists who examine panic. I explored those modalities because I could explore them from the seclusion of my bedroom.

I fought like mad to combat my cruel imagination with a bit of rationale because I knew hope lived in my first step out my front door. I practiced with walks around my block to prove to myself that people on the street posed no threat to me. It took two weeks after my last attack for me to get in my car and drive even a mile. Every destination reached I assigned a designation of safety and every subsequent day I attempted to drive a bit further. One of those markers was the office of my therapist who had been conducting phone sessions with me until I could leave home. She helped me dig deep enough to find the wounds and heal them, but recovery is a process and not all of my wounds have been healed.

Treatment worked enough to allow for a return to functionality. I am optimistic long term recovery is possible, but my optimism is cautious because I know the possibility of recurrence exists.

I have to believe in the possibility of recovery and its effectiveness because I am a therapist who treats people anxiety disorders. I hope my revelation informs people no one is immune to mental illness, not even the helpers. Sometimes I disclose my struggles to my clients to let them know mental illness is not weakness.

I also strive to instill hope through writing, because nothing is more far reaching than written word. I want people to know panic disorder need not stop us from utilizing our talents to reach those in need. I want it known this illness is beatable, but consistency of self-care is paramount in the fight. I know this because I remain dedicated to my own regiment.

There is a need for people to understand the severity of anxiety disorders, because the lack of understanding from family members and friends adds to distress and increases feelings of loneliness and isolation. The combination of isolation and despair can be fatal for people with mental illness.

Panic disorder is a bully, but it is a bully we can defeat when we rise up. I know this because I am three years panic attack-free and I fight daily to remain this way while I help others with their own battle.

I hope anyone who reads this understands while our disorder is real, the things we fear are not. Panic disorder can be overcome with hope and healing.

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Thinkstock photo via JetFoto.


My screenwriting professor is lecturing; everyone is taking notes. It’s happening again. My stomach is burning, my chest is tightening, air seems like a foreign substance trying to slide down my closing throat. My head is numb, the room is closing in on me, I’m no longer in control. I grip my desk trying to ground myself as a full panic consumes my body.

I’m sitting in class, but I can’t seem to understand a word the professor is saying. I slowly try to release the death grip I have on my desk. I need something to calm me down — anything. My shaky hands grab my water bottle and clumsily unscrew the top. I force a sip of water down my throat, hoping it will bring some fragment of relief to my body. It doesn’t. I’m still shaking. What do I do? I need to leave. I need to escape from this room immediately. Can I even walk? What if I just stand up and fall over? I can’t sit here anymore. If I do I might faint, lose the last bit of control I have.

 

I’m sitting in class, but I cannot wait another second. I’m doing it. I’m getting up. I quickly pack up my bag, trying to be as quiet as possible. People are starting to notice me. I keep my head down, avoiding eye contact with everybody.

Leave Haley, you need to leave.

But what if the professor calls me out? I can’t even speak right now. He will think I’m disrespectful and I’ll do poorly in the class. Oh God, my heart is pounding harder than before. I take my last ounce of strength and stand up.

Holding my breath, lifting one brick leg at a time, I make my way to the door. People are turning. I hear them shuffling in their seats, wondering why that girl is leaving after only 10 minutes of class.

I’m embarrassed. I’m ashamed. I’m terrified.

I look up and my eyes fixate on the threshold between suffering and freedom. For those who didn’t already notice my desperate escape, the opening of the creaky lecture hall door brings their attention to it. I’m in the hallway where I can finally breathe. I’m starting to come down now. Exhausted, sweaty, and limp-legged, I look down at my phone. 8:10 a.m. – it’s only the first class of the day.

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In 1669, Margaret Hughes was credited as the first actress on the English stage. In 1895, the first gay couple was portrayed in the film “The Dickson Experimental Sound Film.” In 1927, actor Lincoln Perry became Hollywood’s first black movie star. In 1948, the melodrama “Johnny Belinda” depicted a woman with a disability as the main character and was the first film to bring sign language to moviegoers.

But last year, female protagonists made up about a quarter of the heroes portrayed in the top 100 grossing film. Although reconciled this year, last year no black people were nominated by the Academy Awards. Four percent of characters on primetime television were identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual in 2015 and only 2.4 percent of speaking or named characters in film were shown to have a disability.

I understand why it’s a big deal when people don’t have fair representation in media. There is something to be said for seeing a character who understands what you’re going through.

It makes you feel less alone.

I felt this when I watched the last two episodes of NBC’s “This is Us” because it was the first time I have seen a character who experiences panic attacks.

“This is Us” has tackled a lot of significant issues that aren’t so commonly tackled. Obesity. Adoption. Bisexuality. Addiction. And now, with Randall’s character, anxiety.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), a panic attack is described as the “abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes.” I can’t even explain the feeling of seeing a character who, like me, has them.

Seeing Randall in his bedroom crying or sitting in a corner in the fetal position, I thought, that’s me. The episodes showed how truly debilitating an anxiety attack can be.

In Tuesday’s episode, Randall talked about how his adoptive father, Jack, kept his anxiety in check. “Whenever I’d get too in my head, he’d take his hands and put them on both sides of my head and he’d just say, ‘There you go, breathe with me.’ And we’d just sit there, breathing together until it passed.”

He said, “It’s always been like that. Putting the pressure on myself ever since I was a little boy.”

I, too, have had panic attacks since I was little. When I had them, my mom would sit on my bed and rub my back until it passed and pray for the “bad thoughts” to go away. The panic attacks would happen when I was about to go on stage for a dance recital. It would happen when I was studying for a big test. It would happen after I came home from school after being bullied. It would happen when I tried to fall asleep, And, now, it’ll happen after a stressful day at work, after I stretch myself too thin or for no reason at all.

I have to say there was something magical about seeing a television character who went through exactly this. No stereotypes. No calling him crazy. Just a man who, when things get to be too much, has a breakdown every once in a while. And it’s OK.

I have to say, this really did make me feel not so alone. And I want to thank Dan Fogelman for creating and actor Sterling K. Brown for portraying a character who experiences anxiety, just like I do.

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Photo via “This Is Us” Twitter.


It starts before we ever leave the house. Swirls of nervous energy swish through my body as the traitorous thoughts begin. It would be better if you stayed home. You might get in a car wreck. Think of all the bad things that might happen if you leave the house. You don’t really feel well anyway. My heart begins to race and it is hard to catch my breath. My mouth is dry.

I reach for the directions to my destination. They are carefully written out because I cannot trust the GPS. It might fail, says my anxiety. Then I would be lost in the big world out there. I might have to talk to strangers. The directions are ready but I am not. I need to get dressed.

I pick up the outfit I carefully selected and tried on last night. Today my anxiety is quite critical. Are you wearing that? Honestly, it makes you look like you are 80-years-old! Do you have any sense of fashion or style? I hang up that outfit and try on three others before I can quell the criticizing voice. I still feel inadequate but now my my rational side and my anxiety are informing me I am running out of time. I need to finish getting ready or I might be late. I cannot be late. I cannot not walk in late. Hurriedly, I finish dressing and apply some makeup.

I glance in the mirror to check my appearance. My anxiety points out every fault. You look old and tired. That lipstick is not the right color. You are having a bad hair day. That outfit makes you look fat. How can you go out looking like this? My hands get clammy and my breathing rate increases. I have no defenses against these thoughts as I struggle to remember what my therapist taught me to do to combat these types of thoughts. I cannot remember!

Knowing I must accomplish this task, I pick up my purse, keys and directions and head for the door. I make certain the dogs are in their crates, the lights and stove are off and I stop at the threshold. My heart is pounding, my breath is coming in gasps and I feel a bit dizzy. I can do this, I say to myself. I step outside, lock the door and walk to my car.

I slowly unlock the car door. So far, so good.

I stow my purse and directions on the passenger seat and cautiously take my place in driver’s seat, shutting the door. And like a tsunami, a panic attack strikes full force. My hands are clammy. I am hyperventilating. I think I might throw up. My heart is racing. I am freezing, yet I am sweating. I have a sense I could be dying, yet I know I am not in danger. I feel like I am crazy. My hands are numb. Where is my emergency medication? I cannot find it! I feel trapped in the car. Feeling trapped at the prospect of having to drive anywhere. Trapped and needing to call if I am late or do not arrive. I am trapped!

Unable to make a choice, my breathing accelerates as I go from chilled to overheated. My hands and feet now feel numb. I am certain I must be sick but I don’t think I can move. Anxiety and panic are winning. My world is spinning out of control.

Want to take a drive with anxiety and me? I often do not make it out of park.

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Thinkstock photo via Marjan_Apostolovic.


There was a scene on a recent episode of “This Is Us” that has been getting a lot of praise for its portrayal of the experience of having a panic attack. A character is in his office and his hands are shaking, he cannot focus and he calls his brother to tell him he won’t be able to make it to see him perform in a play that night. His brother, hurt at first, realizes something is wrong and leaves the play (and his co-star) without explanation, rushing to comfort him. A lot of people who experience panic attacks are expressing they feel comforted by this scene and that they feel advocated for by an NBC drama.

I hate to be the guy who takes issue with a well-meaning (and in many ways progressive) television scene, especially one that sheds light on a character struggling with mental illness. But in many ways I am that character. I have panic attacks. I had one today. I could not begin to tell you how many I have been subjected to in my 25 years of life. I am someone who struggles and my reservation with the scene in question has nothing to do with the on-screen portrayal of my struggle. I think that was spot on. My concern is with the selfless and beautiful, yet ultimately unrealistic and unfeasible response of the character’s brother.

It’s not just this one TV show that showcases mental illness in a beneficial way yet goes overboard with the somewhat saccharine response of the characters on the sidelines. I don’t really follow “This Is Us,” but there are movies and television shows I am fully up-to-date on and for every refreshing portrayal of mental illness, I have grown accustomed to an unrealistic and rather unhelpful narrative resolution offered to the characters whose pain I identify with.

American legal drama “Suits” character Harvey Specter had a season-long arc exploring his journey and recovery through a battle with vicious anxiety attacks. A friend happens upon him in the middle of one such meltdown, immediately panics and picks up the phone – because surely what he was witnessing was a heart attack? Similarly, in the last “Iron Man” film, Tony Stark is triggered and thrown into trauma, immediately concluding his heart is failing. I see these scenes and I feel a bit vindicated. To see the casual, arbitrary struggle I experienced for so many years shown on screen in an empathetic light is no small thing. I’ve endured these routine anxiety assaults in silence and shame and often felt the world looked on, confused and decidedly distant.

Representation matters. But the fact they are shown as such earth-stopping events met with matching responses from those witnessing them makes the fact that so many of us experience panic attacks on a regular basis all the more discouraging. Because life doesn’t stop to give us time for our panic attacks. Yes, they are that intense and for many of us, they are by no measure infrequent.

I have some good people around me and even more within phone’s reach. I don’t feel I am lacking in allies as I fight against the tireless and cruelly creative beast of anxiety. But the responses of allies we see in the realm of fiction seem increasingly idealized and impractical.

I am privileged enough to have a number of people in my corner who do a great number of things to encourage and empower me in the fight for health and wholeness. But I do not have the privilege of putting my life on hold when anxiety pounces on me. I’ve got a life to live, a job to do, bills to pay, people to engage with in their joy and their pain. By some estimates, anxiety is the most common mental illness in America and many of us don’t have the opportunity to “check out” of our other responsibilities. And I don’t know if it’s fair to expect those who love us to blow off their own commitments every single time our fight-or-flight response is misused against us, simply because it can and does happen so often.

I believe we have a responsibility to care for those around us. I believe people are perhaps the greatest gift we all receive in this life and we have a duty and honor to fight for those people — not least of all in the realm of their mental health. But while anxiety attacks are traumatic, devastating and honestly, disgusting things to endure, they are far too frequent to supersede every other aspect of our lives every single time they happen.

Even when I was having them daily — even hourly — panic attacks were only part of the picture. Though it tried to tell me otherwise, my anxiety disorder has never been the only thing in my life – or the life of anyone else I know who is hurting. We have jobs and passions, adventures to go on and goals to achieve. Some of us have families and more of us have friends. We have lives to live and panic attacks try to punch holes in those lives, but we fight like hell and we have to keep going.

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Photo via “This Is Us” Facebook page.

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