It goes so much further than that.
I’ve always been a worrier, a true blue scaredy cat. I have a bit of a Type-A personality; I want things done my way, and how I envision them, and if they aren’t– I freak and stress and worry. That’s completely normal.
It wasn’t until I started having panic attacks last fall that I truly saw what anxiety and panic really was. That I truly understood this world of anxiety, fear, and mental illness.
My first panic attack came out of left field- no definite trigger that I’ve discovered so far; I was on a retreat with friends, and I thought I was having a heart attack when it started around 3am. I was sweating bullets, felt like I was choking, my heart was beating out of my chest; I was shaking and trying to take deep breaths, scared I was dying. This went on for what felt like hours, but was around an hour until I finally fell asleep, exhausted. I woke up the next day sore and confused. Then it happened again (and was worse) the next night.
I didn’t understand this diagnosis: why was I panicking? What was there to panic about? Why did my every-day anxiety turn into this? I was a 22 year old college senior; yes I had plenty of school and future-related stress, but it wasn’t this bad, at least I thought.
After my diagnosis, the panic attacks kept happening almost daily. They soon spiraled into a severe pit of panic and anxiety, what I personally describe as my own mental hell: from October through January, I stopped sleeping at night (earliest I went to bed was 2am, most mornings was between 3-5am). I was in constant fear for my life from the panic attacks. Every ache and pain was feared to be something that was going to kill me in my sleep- hence why I didn’t want to sleep. I thought if I didn’t sleep, I wouldn’t die in my sleep; I’d fight sleep as long as I could, and cry when I finally gave in to it. Every night I prayed for God to wake me up the next morning, scared I wouldn’t be alive the next morning. I felt irrational, helpless, and out of control. This was crippling every part of my life, and I felt myself sinking in a hole I wasn’t sure I could get out of. I was a walking zombie for 3 months; I was numb to everything and everyone around me, and was terrified to be alone with my thoughts at night (which kinda sucks when you live in a dorm room by yourself). My anxious thoughts overtook my whole body and made me physically sick, which led to more anxiety- a never ending cycle. I was mentally out of control. I went to bed every night thinking I wasn’t going to wake up the next morning– and that is a terrifying thing.
I felt like I was at war with my brain, and I was scared it was going to win.
What I want you to know about this:
The conversation on mental health needs to change. Mental illness (of all kinds) is a serious topic that doesn’t get enough discussion and limelight compared to other health issues. I think that’s the thing for me: THIS IS A HEALTH ISSUE. I felt like I was literally crazy- NO ONE with mental health issues should ever feel that way. I was afraid to talk about it, because of the stigma- I didn’t want to be labeled as mentally ill, it felt taboo and wrong. I was worried of being judged for having mental health issues- yet I’d never feel judged for having a major medical problem, would I? No. The way we talk about mental health needs a makeover.
Use your words wisely. Phrases like “why are you panicking?” “you are going crazy!” “what is making you so anxious?” and the like are NOT HELPFUL. Thankfully, only one person has said things like this to me (who said it hurt the most, in my case); trust me, if I knew exactly what was causing me to be anxious, don’t you think I would have dealt with it to stop the anxiety? Sadly, it doesn’t work like that (at least for me). This is not something I can flip on/off like a night switch. Saying I’m overreacting and am neurotic doesn’t help either- I already know that. This is a part of my life every day, and saying things like this do the opposite of helping. If you don’t know what to say, ask. Or better yet, just be there- words aren’t always necessary.
This is not a crisis of faith. I have to tell this to myself: this is NOT a crisis of faith. I love Jesus, I know He loves me too. I try my best to follow Him every day (thank goodness for grace that gets me there). I don’t know why this has become part of my story, but I know this: mental health problems do not mean I’m sinning, or am “not right” with God, or am not following Jesus. They are mental health problems- NOT spiritual. My anxiety and fear is not a trust issue, either. If anything, this has taught me to lean on Jesus more- to trust Him literally with my life every night. I know He has me in the palm of His hand. I want to trust Him with all my might– and in my heart, I do. My brain just isn’t in sync with my faith right now. Also, I believe God can heal wholeheartedly. I also believe He uses different channels (for me, therapy and medicine) to make that healing possible. I’m never going to wake up one day and miraculously never have a panic attack again, but He has placed the right things and people in my life to help me deal with it- and that in itself is healing.
If you have anxiety, find a support system. If you don’t, BE a support system. I told about 3 people what was going on at first, but I didn’t tell them how severe it was. I was scared for how people were going to react, and after the reactions of some people, I continued to hold back. (more on that in a minute) When I finally- 3 months after it all began- told a trusted friend the extremes of it all, I felt relieved. And not alone. It took me 6 months to write about it, and to slowly begin telling other people. This journey can be incredibly isolating– I thought I was plain crazy for months; when I finally started telling people what was really going on, not only did I feel better, but people started stepping up and saying, “me, too.” To know you’re not the only one is an incredible feeling. To have someone know my struggles and be able to understand is so helpful. Find a go-to person that you can talk to any time when the bad nights happen. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help– that’s what they’re there for (I preach this to myself EVERY DAY. Why is asking for help so hard?!). Find a community you can lean on. Don’t isolate yourself on a path that’s already somewhat solitary.
If you don’t struggle with this: be there for someone that does, for all the above reasons. It’s scary when your brain wages war on your life. Anxiety is a bully. It is terrifying some days, and I have to fight against the voices in my head trying to scare me. This is immensely harder to do when you feel alone- trust me on that. Some days I need a hug, or a hand to hold. Other days I need a listening ear, a crying shoulder, or a simple “I love you, it’s going to be OK, and I’m here if you need me.” If you say you’re going to be there for someone, please BE THERE. In person, in text, in snail mail- just be present. Support is one of the best things in the world for ALL of us.
Find the best ways to help manage anxiety. Therapy has worked wonders for me- as has anxiety medicine to help balance my brain chemicals a bit. Other things that have helped me: bananagrams (if you don’t know what this is, it might change your life if you like scrabble), baking, walks around my college campus, music, journaling, self-talk, breathing exercises. Some of these may help you. Or none of them. It has to begin with YOU- what you think will help, what you know won’t work for you, etc. Honestly, I was apprehensive about using medicine, but it has made a HUGE difference for me. It might not for you- that’s OK. But take the time to figure out what solutions help you best and use them. Find resources, blogs, people that help you. TWLOHA has been a huge resource of strength for me over the past few months, as have blog posts I’ve read that deal with anxiety (words of affirmation are big for me, so reading/writing helps a lot).
It’s scary how one instance- one panic attack I had out of the blue- has terrorized and changed my entire life. My life as I was living it was shattered and replaced with a terrified, anxiety-filled existence. Anxiety has become the biggest bully I’ve ever faced in my life, and the thoughts and fears it has produced have scarred me more than I ever imagined. I have been able to keep the panic attacks under control thanks to therapy and medicine that I started in January; I still have major anxiety some (most) days, but my therapist has given me tools that work for my personality to help me deal with it. I’m so thankful that I have got some tools to help me manage this- but this journey isn’t over. I doubt it ever will be. But now I know how important this is to talk about, and how important it is to get help in whatever form that looks like. Anxiety is a serious thing– please treat it as such, and know that there are people willing to help you walk through it if you let them. People with anxiety and other mental health issues are just that- people. I live a normal existence most days. But on the bad days, where my anxious and fearful thoughts overpower my brain, please be gentle. I need support and some extra love to overcome this. I’ve walked this path by myself thus far; it’s time to ask for help and support on this journey, no matter how scary and vulnerable it makes me.