When I was 14, I had my first panic attack. It came out of nowhere, and I thought I was going to die. My family rushed me to the emergency room, where they hooked me up to an EKG machine after attempting to unclench my fingers from the defensive fist they’d formed. I dug my nails so deep into my palms they bled. My teeth clenched so tightly it loosened a filling. My heart rate was a resting 180. My extremities were numb, my head spun, and both my stomach and chest ached. I didn’t realize I was gasping for air and sobbing until a nurse offered me an oxygen mask.
“What’s wrong with her?” I heard my mom, angry and terrified. A distracted nurse who had seen all too many panic attacks explained shortly “It’s a panic attack. She’ll be fine.”
A panic attack? But I wasn’t nervous! There was no fear! I was watching a movie and eating eggplant parmesan when I suddenly felt like the ceiling and walls closed in around me. This was not a panic attack.
Eventually, the physical symptoms passed. It felt like hours, but I was then told it had been about a half hour from start to finish. I tried to tell them how I felt, how close I was to a heart attack. This was not a panic attack. They assured me it was, and suggested I see a therapist.
It was difficult, but over the past decade I’ve come to grips with my illness. It’s hard to explain to others—that having anxiety is different than just being anxious. Multiple relationships have being impacted or ended because of my anxiety, and more so, because they didn’t know how to handle my episodes or inhibitions. There are seven things I’ve wanted to tell these men.
1. Don’t tell us it’s all in our head.
I promise you, we’ve heard this from friends, family, co-workers, even therapists. The thing is, we KNOW it’s all in our head. We know exactly what screwed up brain chemistry causes anxiety. We know consciously that we are not dying and we know that most of our hang ups and fears are irrational. We KNOW that it’s all in our head, and that’s the entire fucking problem.
2. Don’t push us.
We want to be social and we want to open. We want so desperately to be outgoing and fun, to stay out late and befriend everyone. Unfortunately, sometimes we just can’t. Most of us went through hell before we were diagnosed and weren’t taken seriously. Most of the people we met laughed, or judged, or didn’t understand. What if we have an episode at the party? What if we space out talking to a new person and then can’t explain why? For so many people, part of anxiety is constantly worrying what others think of them. It makes social events hard. Respect that we’re trying— if we didn’t like you, we wouldn’t. If we aren’t able to participate fully, please don’t make us feel bad for it. We’re trying.
3. Just let the episodes happen.
That sounds counterintuitive, but if we feel an episode or a panic attack coming on, there’s literally nothing we can do to stop it. Over time, some of us find better coping mechanisms to lessen the impact. But it’s going to happen. Just sit with us through it. Don’t tell us to relax, don’t tell us it’s going to pass, don’t tell there’s nothing to panic about. We can’t just relax, we know it’ll pass, and we know there’s nothing to panic about. None of that is going to stop the very real, very much happening panic attack we’re experiencing. Ask us if we want you to stay with us. If we say yes, stay. If we say no, give us some space. And if you we want to stay, please understand that we’re letting you see us at our absolute worst. There’s no bigger display of trust.
4. Please don’t get mad or annoyed with us.
We don’t get to decide when a panic attack hits. Usually, it’s the most inconvenient time possible. When you get annoyed or angry, it only adds to the inherent guilt we already feel for ruining your night. See number two for a refresher on how hard we’re fucking trying.
We don’t need you to become an expert in psychotherapy or brain chemistry. What we do want is for you to understand what anxiety is. It’s not the nervousness you feel when you’re about to give a big presentation, or the discomfort of making an important phone call. It’s risking a failing grade because giving a big presentation physically cripples you. It’s missing out on a job opportunity because making a phone call is tantamount to skydiving with a broken parachute. What we’re dealing with is a crippling weight constantly bearing down on us, a dark cloud usually off in the distance but we can see edging closer and closer. The more you know about what we’re facing, the better you’ll understand how to deal with it with us.
6. Understand that trusting you is probably hard for us.
Not because of you, and certainly not because we don’t want to. There’s a suffocating stigma around mental illness and opening up about battling one is often hard to do with someone new. If we tell you about our anxiety, it’s because we trust you, and that’s a big deal. Honor that.
7. Be gentle with us.
Don’t treat us like we’re broken, because we aren’t. We spend every day fighting off something inside of our own head. There’s no greater strength. But some days, we might be more vulnerable than others. There will be days when we feel particularly low, and there will be days when we feel like we’re undeserving of you. Those are the days we’ll need the most compassion, the most patience. For so many of us, our anxiety has driven away more people than you could ever know. Those are the days we’ll need gentle touches and reassurance.