It’s been a long journey living with depression and anxiety for 30+ years. I remember with great and vivid detail my very first panic attack. I spent years trying to dismiss my anxiety, ignore it, cover over it with busyness, and then eventually I fell into a deep depression from the battle. But I finally listened and learned, and chose instead to make peace with the monster of anxiety. It’s been a long journey, made longer by all my attempts to escape its grip. And though I say I’ve made peace with my illness, we will always be ‘distant’ friends; I still don’t like getting too close.
And So It Begins: My First Anxiety Panic Attack
April of 1986, my husband and I had had a minor spat. It wasn’t unusual or intense, but I was tired and overwhelmed. We had two small boys under the age of 4. My husband worked two jobs and I stayed home and we were both on the ragged edge, all the time it seemed. He decided to shut it down and went to bed. I’ve always resented how he can fall asleep so easily, but I tried to lay down next to him and go to sleep when out of the ever-loving blue, this fear like I’d never known gripped my whole body and I just knew I was going to die.
It’s hard to explain what a panic attack feels like because what you really feel is the most intense dread and sense of impending and imminent doom. You’re aware from the periphery that your legs feel like jelly, your stomach is doing flips, you’re having a hard time breathing, and you’re sweating like crazy but you feel incredibly cold. Physiologically the symptoms can be intense. Many people think they’re experiencing a heart attack. My main focus was to stay alive and to make this–whatever this was–STOP!
Desperately Seeking Answers: How do I Get Rid of This Anxiety?
1986 held several trips to doctors offices and to ERs. I was desperate to find answers to why my body and mind were doing this, but I didn’t like what I heard. We were told again and again that I was having a panic attack and that it was brought on by stress. I thought that was ridiculous! I felt like I didn’t really have ‘stress’ and even if I did, I would be able to handle it, not fall off into the abyss of fear! To make matters worse, I was so averse to medication I would barely take Tylenol. I became terrified of medication, thinking it would take away my control, so I avoided it.
Thankfully, I became pregnant with our third child late in the year, and the pregnancy hormones gave me a sense of calm that lasted several years. It was a beautiful reprieve.
Could It Really Be Gone?
Our daughter was born in 1987 and I felt like panic and anxiety were well in my rearview mirror. Moving on. Until my husband took a job that required travel and I was left alone with three kids a great deal of the time. I loved being a mom so the work part didn’t bother me at all, but the weight of the responsibility started pressing down. Thoughts like…How would I get all 3 of them out of the house if it caught fire? How would I handle it if I got deathly ill and couldn’t care for them? What if I lost one of them in a crowd? What if one of them got badly hurt under my care and I couldn’t get ahold of my husband? Crazy, terrifying thoughts. The anxiety came back. With a vengeance.
I began to avoid things I usually enjoyed. I couldn’t sleep. Food lost its flavor. I didn’t want to drive, especially on the highways. I didn’t want to leave the house because I had more control over what went on under our little roof. The thought of being around people who might be sick and would, in turn, make me sick sent my anxiety into overdrive. And do you know where all these thoughts and fearful questions led? Straight to deep depression. And more anxiety.
One usually leads to another. If you are depressed, you often times develop anxiety over the fear that you’ll always be depressed. If you have anxiety, you often times develop depression over the fear that you’ll always have anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle. Added to that cycle were my irrational fears of taking medicine, of sickness, of death, of the world, until I found myself hanging on by the tiniest of threads.
At The Very End of My Rope
Many years later, in the late 90’s, it finally got to the point where I knew I would either need to trust a doctor to help me, or I wouldn’t be able to hang on much longer. I never contemplated suicide, but I did think death would at least bring me peace. Oh, those were dark hard times.
I took a calculated risk on a doctor in Texas where we had just moved. I was determined to let him treat me, and I would follow his directives. My doctor was kind and attentive; he didn’t dismiss my fears as craziness. He patiently taught me to understand this was an illness and not something I was doing wrong. From the very beginning, he told me that it may take several tries with different medications before we found what worked best for me. He urged me to stay in counseling to learn how to better deal with the invasive thoughts and how to respond better to the anxiety and panic.
And he was right. It did take a few years, a few bumps, and many discouragements, but we found it. We found the right combination of meds that gave me enough hope to find my way back to better thinking. It worked!
There Is So Much Hope
I can honestly say I am so grateful for the journey. All that fear and worry and sadness and pain led me to where I am today: able to enjoy my life now. There are still dips into depression, but I don’t stay there. I still feel the occasional anxiety, but it doesn’t take me under anymore. I have tools and experts and friends and support. My focus shifted to knowing better how to care for myself and manage the stress, which is very real. I’ve learned to recognize my limitations and to accept them. I’m learning still to honor my journey and not compare it to what I thought it would be or wanted it to be. I have joy again. I look for it and I see it. And I jump in and grab it, because I know too well what it feels like to have no joy.
If you are struggling, please don’t give up. It’s tough out there, especially this year.
See blog post by Jeanne Hutchinson, My Anxiety Relapse During the Covid Pandemic; and Navigating out of the Mental Mess. Don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for help. Do your research, ask around, find a good doctor, and a caring and professional therapist. Fight for your health as best you can. There are so many good resources available. You can even get counseling online these days. Hang on! Don’t quit. Your journey may look different than mine, but every step you take toward hope is worth it.
Some places to start:
National Alliance on Mental Illness; www.NAMI.org
www.psychologytoday.com for help on locating a therapist
www.BetterHelp.com for help in finding an online therapist
No Panic offers help through support groups and recovery services for those who suffer from panic attacks
The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne, PhD