This isn’t easy for me to write. And I want to first say that I’m not writing it in order to receive any kind of sympathy or pity. That’s not the reason I’m doing this and I don’t expect it from anyone. The reason I forced myself to write this after starting and stopping about 100 times is because I think it’s important for people with mental illness to discuss it. To bring it out in the open.
Talking about it helps prevent the illness from festering and morphing into something even scarier in your mind, and it also lets people know they’re not alone. It’s so easy to feel alone when experiencing this.
I’ve had anxiety and panic attacks for as long as I can remember, but I’ve only really started to face it in the last year and a half. Before that, I never, ever spoke of it. In my mind, if I didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t a real thing. It was just nerves. It was just something that I had to deal with. Bringing it outside of my own mind would make it real. It would make it an illness.
But right before my senior year of college, it got to a point where I couldn’t ignore it anymore. My attacks were worse than ever and I knew it was time to face this thing I’d been pushing away my entire life. It was by far the scariest time of my life, but it was necessary and inevitable. So in order to help you understand what this sort of illness is like, I wanted to break down for you just a few things I feel people should know about anxiety and panic:
1. People with anxiety are excellent at hiding it.
I had major panic attacks for 15 years without attracting the attention of a single person. Not because my friends and family are negligent, but because we become experts at concealing it. It just becomes a part of life. Daily mantras include: “How am I going to get through this event/meal/class?” “OK, here’s what I have to do.” These are just a few of the things constantly running through the mind of a person with anxiety.
2. It’s difficult for people with panic attacks to return to places where they’ve had an attack.
I had panic attacks every single day, almost all day long, during my senior year of college. This made life extremely difficult and daunting because I was forced to return to the same buildings and classrooms every day. Once a person has had an attack in a certain location, it might trigger another one when they go back. It’s a vicious cycle that can make everyday tasks nearly impossible.
3. Panic attacks make me feel like I’m dying.
A lot of people ask me what a panic attack feels like for me, and this is the best description I can give you. Plain and simple: It feels like dying. The physical signs of panic can manifest themselves differently in each person, but that underlying characteristic is always the same for me. It’s as terrifying as it sounds.
4. Mental illness is fluid.
It’s ever-changing, and there’s no definite solution. It’s different for everyone. No one is ever “cured” of it. It will always be there. You could have a really great few months, but you never know when it’s going to come back at full force. For me, my anxiety is not triggered by particularly stressful events in my life. It’s totally random, which makes it entirely impossible to predict. It can also make life entirely scary.
5. Anxiety often effects eating habits.
It’s for this reason (and many others) why I give the following instruction: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever comment on a person’s eating habits. You have no idea what this person is experiencing; what if he or she has an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, etc.? Pointing it out will make that person feel worse and possibly even ashamed of the situation. Just don’t do it. Ever. Your friend’s eating habits, however bizarre or erratic they seem to you, are not a reason for you to put them on the spot like that; it may actually be a sign of real distress. Talk to them privately if you are concerned or alarmed.
6. Mental illness is traumatic.
Memories of panic attacks or particularly anxious times can be traumatizing. They stick with you. Especially because you’re the only one who experienced it. Even if you got through it and are doing well, those memories don’t just fade.
This is extremely difficult and scary for me to publish. But like I said, I feel it’s necessary. I want to spread awareness about an illness that is so incredibly isolating. I want people to feel less alone. And I want those unfamiliar with mental illness to understand what their friends or family are going through. Because I guarantee you know someone who’s experienced this. I also want to send a sincere thank you to my friends and family who’ve helped me through some of my lowest times. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you all. Thank you for trying to understand, for being there, and for loving me.
A few months back, I lost a childhood friend who had also experienced similar issues. In an attempt to reach out after some concerning Facebook posts of hers, I told her I could relate to what she was going through. I told her that my mantra had become “Just keep going.” Because with this type of illness, it’s too easy to focus on the mountain of possible struggles in front of you. What I have learned is that you have to keep going. You can’t focus on the negative. You just can’t. You won’t get through it. You have to get up, get dressed and focus on the task ahead of you. You have to believe you can handle whatever life may throw at you. You just have to.
My friend unfortunately passed away. My hope in writing this is that others will be inspired to find their strength and know that they are never, ever alone.
This story was published on The Mighty, a platform for people facing health challenges to share their stories and connect.