Everything began during my senior year of college, it was a night like any other, I had just finished a wresting match with my old roommate and we had some pasta with meatless meatballs (I was trying new things to switch meat out of my diet). As 10 o’clock hit I got ready for bed and knocked out quickly. However, a few hours later I woke up to an uneasy feeling in my stomach, a racing heartbeat, tingling in my hands, and rapid breathing. I remember feeling like I was going to be sick so I made my way to the restroom.
As I hunched over the toilet, I looked around and everything looked a bit different. Not different in the sense that objects had changed their color, size, or shape, but different similar to the way everything looks for a few minutes after I would race the 800m while on the track team: slightly light headed, distant, and almost fake. (Later on I would describe this sensation as that of “feeling/looking like I’m in a movie”).
Immediately, I sensed something was wrong so I asked my roommate to drive me to the ER. Before I knew it, I was in our campus hospital hooked up to an IV bag as nurses drew blood and I waited for the confirmation that I had some sort of food poisoning. I figured it might have been the meatless meatballs I tried, it seemed like the most logical explanation at the time.
A few blood tests, an MRI, and a CAT scan later the results came back and… nothing. Not only was I confused, but I was also slightly embarrassed at having been driven all the way to the hospital to have the doctor tell me there was nothing wrong with me. After some time my symptoms subsided, and the doctor suggested I stay with them for further observation. I conceded and a few hours later I was given the green light to head home.
I was able to manage some sleep and when I woke up I recall having felt slightly better. That was of course until I turned on the lights. I looked around everything still “looked like I was in a movie”. My stomach dropped, I figured whatever physical ailment the doctors failed to identify had resolved itself, and thus all of its symptoms should have passed as well.
An impending sense of doom took over and I remember thinking “this is it, I’m going crazy”. The thought of it activated all of my fight and flight responses, and that in turn made me feel like I was closer to a mental break than a few seconds ago, and THAT thought made my heart race even faster, which in turn made me feel even more sure that I was having a mental break… suffice it to say, it was a vicious feedback loop. One which ended with me in tears, and which I now realize was the way my panic attacks worked.
I don’t know how I managed to compose myself enough to get up and try to remedy the situation, but I did. I reached my laptop and searched “why does everything look fake”. Not only did I find a slew people who had experienced what I had gone through, but I also found reputable websites which suggested I might be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Upon reading this I decided to call my school’s psychologist and schedule an appointment.
I was 23 years old and this was the first time I would be seeing a therapist. I expected it to be similar to the way it was when you take a car to the mechanic: go in, asses the damage, and start immediate repair. It wasn’t really like that at all, after brief introductions I was asked to explain what I was experiencing and when I finished I expected a full psychological assessment and a course of action.
What I received in turn was an acknowledgement that what I said was heard, and then a series of questions among which I remember being asked “do you ever have thoughts of hurting yourself or others”. I was fully aware that these were standard and necessary questions in order to get a full assessment of the situation, but upon hearing that question an image flashed in my head of what “hurting myself or others” would actually look like.
It was here that my second anxiety symptom manifested itself, I began to fear that I was going to lose control (This isn’t to say the therapist was to blame for this, I believe that this symptom, as well as any of the others I experienced would have manifested themselves regardless, it was just a matter of opportunity). I left the office gutted. A direct quote from my journal on this day reads “I went in thinking I could have an anxiety disorder, and I left feeling like I could possibly turn into a deranged serial killer”.
I left in low spirits, but I was determined to get better and I continued my weekly sessions. My doctor officially diagnosed me with Generalised Anxiety and Panic Disorder, however after having experienced the severity of symptoms like derealisation it was difficult for me to believe that anxiety could be the cause of something so extreme.
Ultimately it was this thought process would hold me back from getting better. Looking back at the start from where I’m sitting now, it doesn’t surprise me that I thought this way. In general there is a lack of understanding about mental illness in society. I would go even further and say that there is a general stigma in regards to anyone suffering from mental disorders. Funny enough this idea was reflected within my own anxiety, I literally triggered panic attacks because I feared going crazy.
About seven years ago, I experienced my first panic attack. I wasn’t aware of it then, but this was the beginning of (what at the time felt like) a very frightening anxiety disorder which would shape my life in unimaginable ways. I don’t mean to sound as if my anxiety disorder is some sort of catastrophe, in many ways I’ve become a much better person because of it. A version of myself which would have been lacking in a various aspects had I not learned how to cope with it.
I can confidently say that I am in a much better place now. I wish I could say that I’m in an even better place than I was before my first panic attack, but to be completely transparent I don’t really remember what my emotional state was like before then. I didn’t learn to care for myself and my mental well being until after I was forced to.
However, I can say with equal confidence that if I had faced my first panic attack with a better understanding of mental health and less of a stigma about people who experienced them, I would have been further along in my control of this disorder and in an overall better place emotionally during the process.
If I could go back and give myself helpful words of advice I would say that things will get better. It’s not going to be easy, but you’re going to get though it because you have no other choice! I know sometimes it gets so bad to the point where you seriously consider an irrevocable end, but your life is still worth living because you become a much better person to yourself and others as a result of this experience. One day you will reach a point where your anxiety symptoms are almost negligible, and if they ever do pop up again, you will know exactly how to manage them. You’ll get to a place in your life where you’re comfortable enough with having lived your experience and overcome it. Maybe even to the point where you’re able to blog about it in hopes that you might help others going through similar situations.