I was 21 when I had my first panic attack.
I didn't realize what was happening because all I could focus on was the fact that I couldn't breathe.
Chest-tightened. Eyes wide. I thought my lung had collapsed.
After a trip to the doctor's office, then the hospital and then another transfer to a different hospital, I finally got my answer. My oh-so-kind emergency room doctor sat down beside me as I lay in my hospital bed, terrified. He smiled at me as I searched his eyes for some clue of what was going on. He started, "I think you know why you're here but I want you to say it."
The truth is, I didn't know. But gauging from his watchful gaze and soft tone, I concluded that I must be dying. I watched enough Grey's anatomy and E.R to know that doctors don't just sit beside you for no reason.
His explanation surprised me.
"We're pretty sure you had a bad panic attack. Have you been experiencing a lot of stress lately?"
"Maybe a bit?" I replied.
This was the understatement of the year.
For the last few months I had been ignoring the sensations in my body. The overwhelming feeling of dread that coloured each day from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed.
I had been more than "a bit" stressed. More than just a "tad" anxious. I hadn't been able to eat properly in months. Food just wasn't going down right. And the food that would go down would sit in my stomach like a rock. I had resorted to eating smoothies and soft foods and grazing all day because I hadn't been able to swallow properly without feeling a lump of stress in my throat.
Of course, over the months leading up to my hospital visit, I had checked in with my doctor at the school's walk-in clinic who assured me again and again that there was absolutely nothing wrong with me. I should get more exercise. I should try to "relax."
Relax is a trigger word for me. Telling an anxious person to relax is the equivalent of yelling, "fly" to someone falling off a cliff.
Sure, I'd love to but the question is how?
So I pretended I understood what she meant and proceeded to do what any 21-year old would do.
I ignored my problems and hoped they'd go away on their own.
Hint: They didn't.
I'd be lying if I said that I would chose this experience however in some twisted way, I'm so glad I did experience such a low in my life. I've had so many beautiful conversations and heart to hearts since my breaking point when I was 21. I've spoken with friends, friends of friends, and complete strangers about our shared experience with depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness in loved ones. And I realized that by opening up about my experience , it really didn't do any harm. It just made me more human and because of my honesty, I finally felt more at home in my body and my mind.
Months went by. I got thinner. I also got a lot of compliments on how great I looked. My anxiety got worse. My abs looked great.
I drank more than usual because that was the only time I felt relaxed. SEE, I can give stupid medical advice too.
But since I wasn't eating enough to be able to handle my liquor, I was mostly a drunk mess through-out my whole third year of school. Yep, It was a super cute time in my life.
Alcohol, for the record, is a bandaid for anxiety. You take a drink and you feel better. But the next day, you feel worse. So you have to drink again in order to feel calm. And so on, and so forth.
My next charming symptom was lack of sleep. Try as I might, I couldn't sleep properly. I started getting irrationally scared about things that the logical part of mind knew weren't threats.
The mind is a powerful friend or foe depending on how you treat it.
I was hungry but too stressed to eat. I was tired but I couldn't get my body to move out of fight or flight mode. At my worst, I would line my stomach with apple sauce to fill up the spaces where I'd let myself hollow out.
I became more reserved. The world was a scary place and I was scared of myself in it. Friends and family asked me if I was okay on a regular basis which only made me feel embarrassed and misunderstood and paranoid that people were noticing I was losing it.
All I wanted was for someone to say they understood but I was scared of what would happen if I told anyone what was going on. I isolated myself. My life became lonely and dangerous and which was masked by the fact that I had a perpetual smile plastered on my face.
I have a really convincing fake smile. Just ask my friends.
That's probably why many people didn't notice for a long time. I was glad because that meant I could keep going on with my life. Business as usual.
The thing about the human body is that it can only take so much abuse for so long. Sure, you can coast for a good long while but then, Bam. Face plant.
For me, it was about 8 months of hell before anything changed. And no, it was not by choice but because of one of the lowest moments of my life.
My anxiety slowly turned into depression. Or maybe I had been depressed for a while and I wasn't conscious enough to notice.
You see, depression is anxieties quieter and unfiltered friend. It whispers things that no one should hear about themselves.
Depression is dark and terrifying and numbing. I wouldn't wish depression on my worst enemy.
For those of you who think depression is the same as being sad, I can assure you, it's not. I long to punch anyone in the face who says, "Happiness is a choice" to a depressed person.
But I digress.
Being sad is watching Bridget Jones Diary in your sweatpants. Being sad is eating pizza everyday for a week and going out for mopey drinks with your friends.
Being depressed is lying in your bed, not being able to get up no matter how much you've slept. It can feel like you have a really bad flu that just doesn't let up. Instead of reaching out for help, you want to be alone. Maybe you even convince yourself need to be alone. After all, who would want to hang-out with you like this? But you are also afraid to be alone because that's when all of the terrible thoughts you've been thinking come out and hang out with you. Depression and anxiety can take turns beating you up. You don't have much of a choice in the matter. And no inspirational quote is going to make that better when you're in that dark state of mind.
When you're depressed you're constantly reminded about how worthless you feel and you realize that everyone else has probably already noticed how shitty you were before you even did. Look, you even suck at being self-deprecating. Great one, loser.
If you've ever had to look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you still wanted to live today, then you know the difference between being sad and being really depressed.
So as I sat in the E.R, knowing that the doctor, was waiting for an answer from me, all I could do was stare at him. I was lost...in my own life.
Time passed. I tried to help myself on my own. Things got worse. Until the day. The day everything crumbled. The day where the pain of pretending got to be too much. My skeleton was too heavy, and I finally found the courage to reach out to anyone and everyone who was around me. It was painful, it was messy, it was the thing that saved my life.
I got help. I talked to people. I finally told the people closest to me what was going on, and I quickly found out who I could trust, and who would say things like "Life is hard." The thing about life is that you see who is really there for you when you're no longer the "fun one." When you aren't the cheery, bubbly person who you strive to be.
I lost friends. I lost relationships. But I also gained the ability to know that I could be open about what was going on.
It's taken me years and many ups and downs to finally get to a place where I feel good. I do actively work at it. I know what is good for me and what makes me backslide into old patterns.
I'd like to think these experiences happen to us because they make us more empathetic towards our fellow human beings. We can't live in this world and ignore the fact that life is sometimes hard on ourselves and other people. Now when I hear of people having a hard time mentally, I have nothing but love and well wishes for them because I do understand.
There is something empowering to openly talk about my experience because for so long it was something I was truly embarrassed about. It felt like a dark mark written across on my forehead. She's been depressed. She's anxious. She's not well.
And now, I am able to gift other people what I so longed for all those years ago. When someone tells me how they are feeling, I will never say, "Life is hard." I will look at them with all the compassion in the world and tell them, "I know it's hard. I understand, you're not alone." I'm unbelievably grateful for that.
I started working on a play a couple years ago called Surfacing that deals with anxiety and depression in a young woman and how difficult it is to get anyone to understand her experience. Although it's not my story exactly, it does include a lot of feelings from my own experience. It's happening in January 2017 and I hope to see you there!
Why not use art to start a conversation and let people know it's okay to talk about. It's more than okay, it's life saving. Trust me, I know.
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I hope that if you or anyone you know is going through a tough time that you can see there is hope. And that with the right treatment, you can live a very happy life.
As always, much love.
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