Why Anxiety Sucks: Coming Clean About Panic Disorder

I’m writing this in my semi-empty living room exactly two weeks out from moving across the country. My stomach caves in on itself whenever I realize the 2300 miles that will stand between me and everything I’ve ever known. This is mostly normal, but for someone with an anxiety disorder, it’s also augmented, especially given that my anxiety, for much of my life, has been triggered by being away from home.

I was diagnosed with Panic Disorder when I was 18. Up until then, I was convinced that my panic attacks were actually asthma attacks because sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night feeling like I couldn’t breathe properly. I would go into my mom’s room and sit in the middle of her bed hyperventilating until I got so exhausted I would fall back to sleep. That, I believed, was asthma.

It wasn’t until I went off to college that I realized it wasn’t asthma. I was halfway through my first semester of my freshman year at Susquehanna University when one night I awoke at 3 AM convinced I couldn’t breathe. I hunched over in my bottom bunk bed, trying to expand my lungs and slow my breathing. You know that feeling you get when you’re about to fall asleep at night and come to the sudden realization there’s a huge deadline coming up that you’re not prepared for? Take that feeling, mix it with the feeling of missing a stair when walking down a staircase, and spread it through your whole body. That’s what it felt like, sitting there gulping down air. I used my inhaler, but nothing happened. My teeth started chattering uncontrollably, though I was sweating.

Fearing something was wrong, I went down the hall to the room of some friends. I sat in a chair in the darkness of their dorm room, feeling the pinky and ring fingers of both of my hands start to go numb. I took to pacing up and down the long hall of our wing of the dorm, shaking and rubbing my hands. I needed to get off campus. Needed to get to a hospital, maybe, but was too scared to describe what was happening and, anyway, I felt I couldn’t catch my breath enough to try. I finally called my mom, who was two hours away. I talked to her and let her soothe me until I managed to fall asleep again at 5.

When my alarm went off at 7:15, the panic picked up right where it left off. Within a week, I had to take a leave of absence from school, at that point having panic attacks nearly every day.

For a long time after that, I was afraid of going to sleep. I was so terrified I would wake up in the middle of the night in a panic that I paced my room at night with the lights on. Any time I left the house with a friend, I would secretly Google how close we’d be to the nearest hospital in case my “asthma” got bad. I wouldn’t stay overnight anywhere that wasn’t home, and even being home didn’t save me all the time.

Finally, I decided to seek mental health services. I entered into therapy and began taking medication. It was the beginning of a long journey of discovery and healing—one that will never truly end. I’ve had times when I’ve been agoraphobic, too afraid of having a panic attack away from home that I simply wouldn’t leave the house for days at a time. I’ve spent nights staring at the clock literally counting the seconds until my medication would kick in and save me from the terror inside me.

And that’s the thing—when you have this, all of it lives inside of you. You can so easily get stuck in an awful loop, because the thing about Panic Disorder is that it becomes a fear of fear. You avoid anything that you believe will cause a panic attack because having a panic attack is your worst fear. Panic attacks have the power to convince your brain that you are dying, even when you still have your mind enough to know you’re not. You are trapped inside of your mind, wanting nothing more than to unzip your own skin and crawl out of your own body. It’s as close to hell as I’d ever like to get.

Being two weeks away from moving across the country starts to dredge up some old fears and makes me worry that my illness isn’t as well controlled as I’d like. And, even though I study psychology and am often surrounded by therapist colleagues, I am reluctant to disclose these struggles because I feel like I should be excited, not scared. Because I still hear the disappointment of the chorus of voices telling me I shouldn’t have left Susquehanna. Because I still can’t accurately describe what panic feels like. Because I want so badly to be unencumbered by this—to be the kind of person who can uproot and readapt easily—but I’m not. This disorder is a part of me, and I can’t be the therapist I want to be if I can’t claim my own baggage but still expect my clients to claim theirs.

So this is it. I’m scared. I feel the tingling in my shoulders, the dissociation in my head, and that doesn’t mean I can’t do this. It just means that my illness is still a part of me, and I’m allowed to acknowledge it.

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