Mental Health Awareness Month: My Battle with Anxiety

Since we are coming to the close of Mental Health Awareness month, I figured it would be as good of a time as any to share this with you guys…especially seeing as 1 in 4 people will suffer from some form of mental illness, I know I am not alone here. And maybe my personal experience can help someone else out there, and give them some comfort and even hope.

Not sure where to begin, so I guess I’ll go all the way to the beginning. Since I was little I have always been a nervous person. I would always say I had a stomach ache and wouldn’t want to go out to eat. I had to sit at the end of the row at church, and the movies. I always needed to know where the exits and restrooms were. I would say I was sick, or my stomach hurt, to avoid social situations where I felt I would be overwhelmed, or wouldn’t know anyone. This was all normal to me. This was just who I was, and I lived with it. Now don’t get me wrong, I still did many things that tested my levels of anxiety but I pushed through because traveling, dancing and singing have always been things I greatly enjoyed. So even though it was difficult for me to overcome, I still traveled to Chicago, and New York, participated in state solo and ensemble as well as region choir in grade school and even reached the second in command position of the dance team at my high school. All of this was hard emotionally for me, but worth it…I could manage and internalize my anxiety.

When I Reached My Limit

But on the night of the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Olympic Games, I had my first full blown panic attack. And not just and panic attack, but a rolling panic attack which lasted for hours and through the majority of the night. It came out of no where, and for no reason. I thought I was dying…it was like a nightmare that never ended…that I couldn’t wake up from. And from that day on, and for the next year, I struggled to overcome the condition known as panic disorder without agoraphobia, enduring panic attacks on a daily basis, and had to work to regain the life I once had.

While going through this period of my life, there were times I thought- well this is it. I am never going to be the person I was before, that person is gone. I will never be able to travel anywhere…further pursue my career, there is so much I want to see and do in life, and now I cannot. This negative thinking quickly spiraled me into depression which I suffered from in the early months. I no longer felt I had control of my body, my mind was betraying me. I took a back seat, and something else was running the show…something I felt I had no understanding or control over. Colors lost their luster, smiling felt…off, and I didn’t have true emotions for anything. This path is destructive and dangerous. I thankfully had wonderful support from my physicians and family to help me through this time and surpass it. But staying positive and hopeful is key.

Coming to Terms

So the first step to getting my life back (as it is with most things) was acceptance. For the first few months, I would not accept that I was having panic attacks. I thought something was physically wrong with me, it just had to be! I wouldn’t, and couldn’t rest until whatever it was, was diagnosed. The problem is, that when your mind is creating the symptoms, they are not there when you are at the doctor’s office. I just couldn’t believe that my mind had gotten the better of me- that just couldn’t be possible. But once I had every test under the sun performed and all came back healthy, I finally accepted that the doctor’s knew what the were doing, and that I was having panic attacks. Only now could I start to get better.

I started seeing a therapist who assisted me in understating the reasoning behind the condition, and guided me through how to handle situations with breathing techniques, positive affirmations, and tools to live my life. I also went to a psychiatrist who prescribed medication to assist me to get back on track. Now here’s the thing… I grew up thinking medications that chemically change things in your brain had to be avoided at all costs and must not be taken, to the point where I actually feared these forms of treatment. I had to be tough enough to control my own mind on my own…right? Well, let me just say, sometimes you need a little extra help- I know I did. I don’t mean to be negative or defeatist here but, I needed more help then I felt I could give myself. When you can no longer eat a balanced diet, run your daily errands, or carry on with normal life activities, something has got to give. And although medications aren’t a cure-all miracle, they did vastly improve my quality of life. In saying that, they have a lot of side effects, and one that worked for some, may not work for you…it’s a trial and error game. But for me, it was worth it to have a glimpse at a normal life again. Thankfully the second medication I was prescribed was the right fit for me, and over time the side effects subsided, as did the attacks. I was able to….live again. Yes that sounds pretty dramatic, but it’s the truth. I was able to go an entire day without thinking about anxiety. I was able to say yes to going to lunch with my co-workers, I could answer a question in a meeting, I could go out to dinner. These are all trivial actions to people who do not have anxiety, but to someone with it….it is an inner struggle.

The first time I was able to go an entire day without a panic attack was monumental! Having control again was one of the most liberating and joyous moments of my life.

I will have to say, that you cannot allow yourself to feel discouraged, or pity yourself. Praising yourself for even the smallest steps of progress makes such a difference in the long run, and understanding that anxiety is like a roller coaster. It isn’t straight uphill or down. You are still going to get upset, have an attack, think negatively… and that is okay. That is being human.

Reflecting Back

Now I like to joke around and say I had my quarter life crisis, and that’s all this event in my life was, but in reality, I do not know why this decided to happen to me when it did, and I have to accept that. It happened, I got through it, and it’s okay. Sometimes things just happen. You cannot get better until YOU want to. It is your life and you have to fight for it. Other people can want whats best for you but at the end of the day, it is solely up to you to make the change to live your best life. I have always believed that God never gives us more then we can handle. And even though at the time I felt I wasn’t strong enough, he knew I was. And because of this, I have learned so much about myself and have grown so much as a person.

And in regards to where I am now…I am happy, healthy, and yes I do still take medication to help me along the way. When I was at my worst, I made a promise to myself to not let my anxiety be the reason I missed out on opportunities in life (if and when I got better) and I have held myself to that promise. I have traveled multiple times to Canada, Boston, New York, Rome, Mexico, and even Amsterdam! I say yes to events, give presentations at work, and even started my Instagram and blogging adventure. I shouldn’t have waited for something monumental to happen to me to start pursuing my dreams, but now is better then never, right? I have accepted that anxiety is part of who I am. I am thankful to have surpassed that hurdle in my life, and am gratefully blessed for every panic-free day I have.

If you are currently struggling with anxiety and panic, just know that you are not alone in this. Many other people have been there, or are currently struggling through the same thing, and that isn’t something to be ashamed of.