My first real panic attack happened in 2006 in Chicago. I had traveled there with my husband for a business trip and spent the day shopping on the Magnificent Mile while he worked. Later, we attended a company dinner where we mingled with interesting people.
We had just settled into bed when my body began to shake. Bob had already fallen asleep, and I didn’t want to wake him. I got up and tried to control what was happening. I couldn’t. I lay back down thinking it would stop, but it didn’t. I couldn’t catch my breath. Fear began to escalate until I was sure I would die.
I woke Bob and he tried to stop the shaking by holding me tightly. It didn’t work, so we decided it would be best to go to the emergency room. On the cab ride to the hospital the shaking began to subside, but the overthinking and fear did not. After some tests the ER doctor concluded my symptoms were due to a panic attack and suggested I follow up with my general practitioner to discuss medication.
I didn’t understand. I had no reason to feel anxious or have a panic attack. And, I definitely didn’t want to take medication.
This is a problem more and more people seem to face. From the outside a person’s life may look perfect. She may be beautiful and talented. He may have a wife and family who love him unconditionally. No one would ever expect people so charmed to be anything but happy.
But, that’s not how anxiety disorders work. In fact, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks often aren’t related to specific life events. When I followed up with my doctor, we talked for a long while. He ran many tests to be sure nothing else could be causing my symptoms. During the follow-up appointment he informed me all the tests were normal. That was when he broached the subject of mental illness.
Mental illness? What? To me mental illness was schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and I was sure I didn’t have either of those. He explained anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder all fall under the umbrella of mental illness. I list those specifically, because I have experienced all of them at different times in my life.
While I was adjusting to this new reality, the doctor discussed medication. My response was a definitive NO. I’m not exactly sure why I was against it. Maybe the (imagined?) stigma, maybe the side effects, maybe the feeling of being weak, maybe believing I should and could control my own mind and emotions.
He explained although the symptoms manifested in a psychological way, the cause was completely physiological. Many of us who suffer from these disorders simply can’t believe they are rooted in a chemical imbalance in our brain. It’s so hard to let go of what we want to believe and face the truth.
The doctor asked, “If you had high blood pressure, would you take the medication you needed?” Of course, I said yes. I knew he was making a point, but to me it just wasn’t the same. I left that day without a prescription.
As time went by I found myself visiting his office more and more frequently. Each time, I described sometimes familiar, sometimes new symptoms. All of them prevented me from living the life I wanted to live. Without treatment, the mental illnesses we refuse to see as illnesses we can’t control imprison us. We are not free.
Finally, I agreed to try medication. According to the doctor, if my symptoms weren’t due to a chemical imbalance, I would not feel any better. He prescribed the lowest dose possible. I researched the medication before filling it and held on to the prescription for a week before starting to take it. I was sure I would suffer from every known side effect.
Instead, after I took the medication for a few weeks I noticed a positive difference. Eventually, I recognized myself. I was me again, only a better version than I had been.
I tried to stop taking medication several times in the years that followed. Each time I believed I was well enough, strong enough to not need it. I failed to see I was well and strong in large part because of the medication.
Of course, not everyone who deals with these illnesses will need medication. Maybe some who don’t take medication find alternative ways to help themselves. Maybe others who live in the shadow of these disorders cope but aren’t living the life they’d hoped to have. Our circumstances are unique to each one of us, and you must garner the strength to choose what is right for YOU.
We need courage to not be judged by society’s antiquated beliefs about mental health. We need bravery when we look in the mirror to truly see our self worth. We need strength to achieve our best selves. Most of all, we need faith to believe we can and will get through the challenges we face.
Never doubt you will.