I lost my best friend over the summer and it has left me with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. In the beginning, I felt very alone in the way I experienced the loss. I felt other people were making strides ahead of me. I wanted to isolate myself because I felt uncontrollable grief and I didn’t want to be a burden to others, make them hurt the same. But before I go there, let me go back further.
I’ve always been a social butterfly. I’m a Leo. I loved to be the center of attention. I didn’t just enjoy social interaction, I thrived off of it; it gave me energy. Throughout high school and into early college, I loved going out. I loved to drink with my friends, dance, explore cities, and go to concerts (that includes mosh pits). I loved long drives, loud music, and adventure—I loved everything. On the opposite spectrum, I also loved to go to church, I loved my youth group, I loved spending time with my family, I loved school, and I understood how blessed I was to live the life I did…that’s what made it all so special—I appreciated it.
A few months after my loss, I experienced my first panic attack. At the time, I was still living at school. I had just gotten in around midnight from a night of going out with my friends, and I was sober. I got into my PJs, brushed my teeth, did the whole routine, and got into bed. Out of nowhere I started sobbing, I looked at the pictures on my wall of my best friend and I began to shake uncontrollably. When I say shake, I mean it. My body would literally vibrate. Overwhelmed with nausea, I ran to the bathroom, I think you can fill in the blanks about what happened next. When all of my symptoms worsened, I started to suspect I had been drugged. I called my mom around one o’clock in the morning and stayed on the phone with her for hours. I eventually calmed slightly and fell lightly asleep with ice packs on my forehead, my neck, my chest and my arms. When I woke up in the morning it began again, I called the school infirmary, insisting I was sick but I assume they immediately knew what was going on because they passed me through to a counselor. He told me I was having a panic attack.
Over the course of the next few months, my life entirely changed. I became closed off, panicked, and not functioning on any level. I was pulled out of school and brought home, where I was seeing doctors and counselors regularly. I felt like an outcast, I was a recluse. Every time there was an unfamiliar noise in my house, I hurled into full panic mode, assuming a member of my family had dropped to the floor. I tracked my family constantly. Every time my phone rang, I refused to look at it because I was afraid someone was calling to tell me bad news. I couldn’t drive; I couldn’t be in the car with a person driving that wasn’t my immediate family. I couldn’t eat most foods because I was afraid of foodborne illnesses. Needless to say, I could not go out with my friends, I could not even think about having alcohol, I could not go out to eat. My quality of life had severely diminished. And I kept it hidden.
My panic attacks escalated. I eventually started to wake up in the middle of the night without feeling in parts of my body. This happened every night. The worst night, I woke up, complaining about tingling in my body like I usually did, when I passed out at my parents’ doorway and hit my head. I was rushed to the emergency room. I had lost a lot of weight from not eating because my body was constantly in combat mode. The doctors told me I was severely dehydrated and my heart rate had dropped so low, it was dangerous.
All this time I had been fighting medication because I thought it would change me. I did not understand that my illness had already changed me.
Things changed after that. I started taking medicine to put my anxiety under control. To avoid the issue of trial and error with medications, I underwent easy and noninvasive genetic testing that allowed my doctors to be provided with a chart of medicines that would metabolize best with my body. It was fast and is incredibly affordable; there are resources out there. I am a fully functioning human again. I work full-time at a busy, fast-paced bakery. I commute to school full-time. I am writing a novel and a memoir at the same time. My parents and I have welcomed a beautiful black lab into the home as a new member. I eat whatever I want, I take road trips, I dance in the rain outside, I cry, and I smile.
It is unfortunately true that I used to be very ignorant about mental illness; I had to go through it myself for any understanding. I remember in high school, I watched a teammate have a panic attack and I did not help. In fact, I whispered over to my friend, “She should just get over it.” I feel ashamed of that moment and I think about it almost every day. The pain and unbelievably horrifying experience of panic disorder is inexplicable. And for me to sit by while she endured that and aid to the stigma of mental health makes me feel disgusting.
I am writing this because it’s something I do not talk about. And for those of you that know me well, you know I talk nonstop. The stigma of mental illness terrifies me. We need to be there for each other and most importantly, we need to be open and encouraging—that is the only way to help each other. Love is such a powerful medicine—almost as powerful as real medicine! What is important is to not diagnose each other, not treat each other poorly or lesser because of what we deal with. People with mental illnesses are still people, living and breathing and functioning in your society. I guarantee some of the strongest people you know are battling demons behind closed doors. And to my reader, if you are struggling, ask for help. It is so courageous and others will follow your lead.
Moving forward, I am so much better. I know how to ask for help. I know when I’m having a hard week or day or month, and I know how to let people know. My medicine, my doctors, and my support systems have been everything to me. To be honest, I am not sure I’d even be around if it weren’t for everyone that’s helped me. All I want is for others struggling to get the help they need and if this touched anyone then I feel like I did my job.