Ever since I was a child, I have suffered from a panic disorder. I cannot remember for the life of me when or how it started, but what I do know is that it is genetic, and impossible to actually cure. The only thing that one can do with this disorder is learn to cope, which is much, much easier said than done. The irrational, terrifying thoughts that cross our minds will not ever stop; we have to learn how to shut that area of our brain off in order to function.
I suppose I was one of the “lucky ones” with this disorder growing up- many of the women in my family suffered from the same thing, including my mother, who became my personal “coach” through all my attacks. She constantly reassured me that everything was going to be alright, and gave me strategies to use for the days when the battle going on in my head was impossible to ignore. I know in my heart that if I did not have her, I would not be here today. My heart aches for those who do not have anyone around to help them and are unfamiliar with this disorder, as it is not hard to mistake it for a loss if sanity when it first hits.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this disorder, I will try to sum it up as accurately as I can. Imagine feeling like something terrible is about to happen to you, and no matter what you do, it is close to impossible to shake that feeling. It is as if any moment, the world could collapse around you, and there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it. The triggers that begin panic attacks can be nonexistent sometimes, therefore making it difficult to reverse the association. The majority of my attacks come out of nowhere; I can be enjoying myself on a sunny day, and one second later I feel like I am under my own personal thunderstorm.
Even the most ordinary activities can be high stress for those of us with this disorder because our brains will automatically find a way for it to become a horrible situation. I have to look for the exits every single place I go so that I know where to run if there is an emergency. I actually say to myself things like, “If someone comes in with a gun, where is the best place for me to be?” People like me always feel that doom is coming, that each new panic attack will never end, and that we are trapped in this cycle of panic forever. The worst part of it all is that we are the ones keeping ourselves stuck there, unable to separate that irrational part of our brain from the rest of it despite how bad we want to.
We know that the thoughts in our heads are irrational. We are completely aware that we are overreacting, and that it is useless to constantly be worrying all the time about things that we cannot control. We know that control is an illusion. As nice as it is that we recognize that, it doesn’t cure us. There are times that we get so fed up with our disorder and we can have a worry-free hour, day, or even week, which are probably the best times of our lives. Sadly, it doesn’t always last, and we are constantly fighting to get back to those times when our minds are quiet, and we feel like our true selves.
In college, I gave a presentation in one of my classes about this disorder, and my professor approached me and told me that her brother has been very depressed, withdrawn, and thought he was going a little bit crazy. She said that the symptoms I described matched a lot of what he was going through, and asked me to talk to him because she had no idea what else to do. I reached out to him, and over the course of many long walks and giant cups of coffee, we discovered that he has a panic disorder as well.
He told me how he felt completely beside himself, and did not understand why his brain could not function properly anymore. He got very upset and truly believed that he was a weak person for having panic attacks. I shared my strategies with him, and over time, he was able to function again as he once did. He is now able to stop many panic attacks before they start, and has become okay with the fact that he has them. I have never felt more proud than I did the day he told me I saved him. Mike, I thank you for empowering me to overcome this disorder as much as I can, and pass my knowledge onto others who are struggling with it. I am truly grateful to have met you, and I am glad to call you my friend. You saved me, too.
The more people that I talk to with this disorder, the more I realize that everyone has one “focus worry,” for lack of a better term, that every other worry seems to revolve around. For me, it is becoming very ill or dying, and for Mike, it is going mentally insane. One of the questions he and I have asked each other is, “why can’t we be normal?” The more I think about that question, the more I realize how silly it sounds. No one is normal! No one has a normal brain! I’ll give you one minute to explain to me what makes you “normal,” and I bet that you are unable to do so. (If you are going to be all Barney Stinson about it and accept that challenge, you can go ahead and leave your answer in the comments. I’ll be sure to laugh at it later).
I have a theory about normality that can be best described as an imaginary box. Everyone has at least one “box” in their brain, and inside is the major obstacle that gets in the way of them living their lives to the fullest every day. Person A’s box could hold cancer, person B’s box could hold deep insecurity that forms into sexual promiscuity, person C’s box could hold alcoholism; the list can go on and on. Everyone’s is different, but they are all the same in that they all present a constant struggle that needs to be dealt with by that person every day. For people with a panic disorder, picture that box with a broken hinge. It is always open just a little bit, and without warning, it can pop open completely and mess up your entire day. Like I said, panic attacks are always lingering around. Without a trigger or a warning, one can consume you, and fighting it off is mentally exhausting.
I am sure that some of you who are unfamiliar with this disorder are shaking your head right now thinking, “You’re insane,” or “No way she feels like this- my mother’s friend’s sister has it and she seems totally normal.” There are probably some of you out there (if you haven’t stopped reading yet), thinking “Suck it up, it’s not a big deal.” To those of you I say: How dare you? (I would say some other things too, but my mother told me I should never name call…)
We should not have to apologize for the way our minds work any more than someone with Alzheimer’s should apologize for forgetting your name. Should cancer patients apologize for having to go through chemotherapy? Should a gay person apologize for loving someone of the same sex? Should a blind person apologize for not being able to see your face? The answer to all of these is simple: absolutely not. All of those things are completely out of our human control.
What I want you to take away from this article is this: We do not have to apologize for the way that we think as long as we are actively trying to beat our disorder, and take the small steps outside of our comfort zone to live our lives to the fullest. It is not our fault that we were either born with this, or developed it due to a traumatic event, and we do not need to apologize for the way we are. Instead of viewing us as the weak, you should view us as the strongest people you know, because I bet it takes us 100 times more strength to fall asleep at night alone in a big house than it does for you, and we force ourselves to do it anyway.