For almost ten years on the dot, panic attacks and anxiety have been the bane of my existence. If I experienced anxiety before that, it was minor compared to the monster that was about to be unleashed. I woke up one day as a high school sophomore, and went to bed that night as a whimpering ball of existential terror. One acute episode of absolute panic triggered what will probably be a lifetime of chronic generalized anxiety.
Some details I had left out in my previous accounts of this event to friends and family, but I’m not embarrassed by that anymore. So this is the full story.
At my high school, we had what was called Mentorship Day. The seniors would be assigned to a classroom of underclassmen of varying grade levels and would give a 45-minute long presentation on a mentorship project they’d spent the year on, usually as it related to their chosen career path.
I was not a senior, of course. For the rest of us underclassmen, it was supposed to be a chill day of staying in the same classroom as seniors filtered in and out to give their presentations. The classroom I was assigned to was that of my English teacher, Mr. Scott. The first person did their presentation without incident. I think it was during the second presentation that my brain short-circuited.
The story I’ve previously told involved overthinking the whole presentation thing and freaking out over the inevitable fact that in two years, that would be me speaking to a bunch of kids for almost an hour.
The truth is that I really, really had to take a shit.
I didn’t want to interrupt the presentation, however. So I sat there, sweating, and pleading with my bowels to not cause any embarrassment for me with a fart or whatever. The pressure became too much. I forgot how to breathe. I thought I was dying. I gesticulated wildly to Mr. Scott from my seat and mouthed, “I can’t breathe.” He nodded toward the door, and I silently slipped out of there.
Apparently I didn’t have to take a shit after all. I tried and nothing happened. I also tried to throw up, because I certainly felt like it. Ultimately, I paced in the hallway and then sat on a bench with my head between my legs, hyperventilating. Mr. Scott sent a classmate to check on me, and I explained that I thought I was dying. They walked me to the nurse’s office, and I told her my symptoms: shortness of breath, sweating, clammy hands, fast heart rate, and certainty of impending doom. A heart attack, probably. But she treated it as she would any panic-ridden student, and lo and behold, I began to feel better. She said if it happened again to come back and she’d send me home.
After lunch, I got confused about where to go because the next presentation was going to take place outside of a classroom. Nobody I asked knew where Mr. Scott was. So I just went back to the nurse, said I’d had another panic attack (I hadn’t), and she sent me home.
In the weeks after that, I discovered it was not to be a one-time thing. Every once in a while it seemed like a raging storm was threatening on the horizon; it was like an aura, which usually precedes migraines, but for panic attacks instead. I’d do what the nurse instructed and breathe deeply, desperately trying to keep myself from being swept away.
After a while, I was able to keep my shit together during the day, but when I lay down at night, there was no other option but to ponder how horrifying it is to exist, how death is inescapable, blablabla, basically just chipping away at my own sanity until I managed to fall asleep.
I suppose that was the story of my life for the next few years. I did a great job on my mentorship presentation, considering all the time I’d had to prepare. I can’t remember how often I weathered panic attacks. Over time all the stress of worsening bipolar II, depression, and identity crisis after identity crisis resulted in dropping out of college, going back, dropping out again, going back, changing my major several times, and working several crappy restaurant jobs. Age 18 through 23 was a blur, and I didn’t retain very much from that time.
Things came to a head in early 2014 or 2015 (again, it’s a blur, so I don’t know what the timeline is). My anxiety manifested itself through clamminess and vomiting. I became suicidal. I was so afraid of dying that I wanted to be dead. I knew death itself was infinitely better than the anxiety associated with fearing it. I have always been a huge hypochondriac, and I was convinced I was dying of multiple things at once. I went to the ER one night for suicidality, which was entirely useless. Feeling dehumanized by sitting in a hallway in a hospital gown and no one around me paying me any notice, not allowed my phone, sitting for hours with absolutely no idea of when anyone is going to do anything about me, only to have a five-minute Skype session with a psychiatrist in India, was not helpful in the least.
A few weeks after that, I was feeling suicidal again, so I followed my psychiatrist’s recommendation and drove to Laurel Ridge, a psychiatric and substance abuse facility. I assured them that I didn’t believe I was in any actual danger, and just wanted help, so I was admitted to their outpatient program. And that really turned my life around.
I hear doing inpatient there is a different story, but the outpatient program was pretty good, I thought. I was there from 7:30 AM to 2:00 PM, Monday through Friday. I’d eat breakfast there, always biscuits and gravy. We did group therapy of various sorts, meditation, yoga, and even slack-lining. I learned about grounding, wellness tool-kits, and safety planning. I filled out worksheets that helped me visualize a future for myself. Most importantly, the psychiatrist diagnosed me as bipolar and prescribed mood stabilizers. And wow. I just can’t believe how much I needed that, and how long I’d gone without it.
I enrolled in summer classes at SAC, and applied and was admitted to UTSA as a psychology major. After a while I got the sense that the facility was keeping me there to milk my insurance, because I had cycled through the entire curriculum and things were getting repetitive. I was able to get out of there because the summer session at SAC was about to commence.
The next two years whizzed by. I never knew what an excellent student I could be. I finally graduated with a 3.6 GPA. For the most part, anxiety wasn’t taking over my life.
Things are different in the springtime, however. Just based on various traumas that always seemed to occur in the spring, it is a time associated with great anxiety. It’s also a time associated with the peace and calm of my stay at Laurel Ridge. So seeing as it’s spring right now, I am simultaneously a nervous wreck and a sentimental fool. I eat biscuits and gravy for breakfast several times a week. I sit out on my swing in the morning, peacefully reflective of the things I learned while there. I dry heave at night and go to bed early before the anxiety makes me sick. This is my life, before the heat of the summer evaporates my anxiety and replaces it with straight-up crankiness. Then fall and winter comes and everything is alright.
So that’s just an introduction to my experience with panic attacks and generalized anxiety. I will probably make future anxiety-related posts that are more specific, such as coping mechanisms, triggers, etc., so stay tuned for that and more.