- I’ve struggled with anxiety and panic attacks my whole life.
- It wasn’t until I was 20 years old that a psychiatrist diagnosed me with a panic disorder.
- I’ve been on anti-anxiety medicine for almost two years and it has allowed me to take control of my life back.
In Gloria Steinem’s book “My Life On The Road” there’s a chapter in which she talks about how everyone has before and after moments in their life. They’re an event or instance that you come to define your life by before and after they occurred. For her, it was being a part of the Women’s Conference. For me, it was the day I was diagnosed with a panic disorder and started my anti-anxiety medicine.
This was the day I finally took control of my life, the day I finally understood who I am and why I feel the way I do. This is the story of how I got to that point and why going on anti-anxiety medicine has made every day after feel like a new life.
What it was like growing up with an undiagnosed panic disorder.
I’m in tenth grade, it’s around midnight on a Saturday and my friend has fallen fast asleep, breathing deeply. Then there’s me, laying across a mattress on the floor, wide awake, heart beating so fast I can’t believe the sound of it hasn’t woken her up. I can barely breathe and it’s as if a dark blanket has wrapped itself around my brain, enveloping it with the worst thoughts it could fathom. I have no idea what is happening, my only thought is that I must be dying.
It wouldn’t be for seven more years until I would come to learn that what I had experienced that night, and many other times in my life was a panic attack.
It came to a head the summer after spending my junior year of college living abroad. I was staying with family on the west coast and I could feel my anxiety had been getting worse. It was becoming increasingly harder to eat, something I had previously experienced when my anxiety flared up. My throat closed up and, no matter how hungry I was, refused to open back up and swallow anything.
At the same time, I had begun to seriously experience dissociation. Psychiatry.org defines dissociation as “a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of who he or she is.” I felt as if nothing was real, I was simply floating around, unable to feel grounded in one place.
One night I made the mistake of looking up how I was feeling, finding chat rooms filled with people describing their symptoms. That triggered me and I ended up having the worst panic attack I’d ever had. Again, still at the point in my life where I didn’t understand what a panic attack was. All I knew was that it felt as if my body was going to die, a feeling that lasted for almost three hours until my mind mercifully fell asleep.
I woke up in the morning knowing I couldn’t continue to live this way. Going home a few days later, I wanted to tell my family how I was feeling. Yet, once home, every time I tried I couldn’t seem to form the words. Terrified of my mind and what I was feeling, I didn’t want them to worry.
I kept putting off dealing with it until eventually, it was time to go back to school
Thankfully my university offered free counseling to full-time students and I called the first day to make an appointment.
Two weeks later, I was sitting across from a stranger in a small room with the heater turned up much too high for a mid-September day. I didn’t know where to start but when I finally did it felt impossible to stop. I told her everything from struggling to eat to the negative thoughts to the ever more common instances where my heart raced so hard I couldn’t breathe.
When I finally finished, I already felt just a little lighter, knowing someone, anyone else, knew how I was feeling. She generally went over what I had told her and then said, “I recommend you go on medicine.”
I had taken anti-anxiety medicine one time before, during my senior year of high school. I was in a bad relationship and overwhelmed by a variety of factors. It had become almost impossible to eat and I was losing too much weight. I stayed on it for seven months, going off it around the time I started college.
I knew I needed it again and was relieved she thought so too. Unfortunately, the soonest I could see the school psychiatrist was a month from then. While I was able to see the therapist weekly, that month felt excruciatingly long as I struggled to control my mind.
Finally, it was October 16, 2016, the day of my psychiatry appointment. I sat down across from another stranger, unaware that in the next 30 minutes she would change my life forever.
After giving her the same rundown as the psychologist, she said the sentence that would finally clarify 20 years of anxiety, panic and distress: “Sarah, you have a panic disorder”
In that moment, finally being given a term, a clarification, a name to how I felt, it was as if everything crystallised and I was going to be ok. It’s amazing how just through knowing what’s wrong, things can feel that much easier to deal with.
She then went on to draw a diagram explaining what my panic disorder was composed of. Tying together anxiety, panic, OCD, in the sense that I obsess over when my anxiety will next manifest, and low grade depressive episodes, I finally had in front of me a description of what I’d been feeling all along.
She agreed that medicine, combined with regular therapy, meditation and a variety of other coping methods, was the way to go. Since I had a good experience with Lexapro in high school, she wrote me a prescription to take 10 mg a day.
I walked out a completely different person than I had been just 30 minutes before
In the almost two years since that appointment, I’ve had ups and downs managing my panic disorder. I’ve had panic attacks and days where my anxiety feels overwhelming.
But I’ve also been able to make the low grade depressive episodes all but go away. I moved to the other side of the world by myself and started dating again. My panic disorder will always be a part of my life but knowing that there’s a little extra push from medicine helping me to fight it – well – makes me feel like I actually can.
The way I think about it is, if I broke my leg I’d wear a cast. Anti-anxiety medicine is a bandage of sorts that gives me the foundation I need to heal. Getting help when you need it can be hard and leave you feeling vulnerable, but should never be avoided due to fear of stigma or judgment.
I will probably take anti-anxiety for the rest of my life and, you know what, I’m OK with that. Two years into the after I can’t believe I didn’t go on it before.
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