In support of National Mental Health Week, and being inspired by my friend Kama’s honest and beautifully written account of her experience with depression (http://www.mothering.com/articles/my-depression-the-part-below-the-waters-surface/), I have decided to share my personal experience with anxiety and panic. I am acutely aware that mental illness is incredibly stigmatized in our society. While so many of us (and maybe all of us, to some degree or another) struggle with our mental health, we don’t talk about it enough. We don’t share our personal experiences, but we keep silent. This stigma is real, and creates shame. Shame that something is wrong with us, that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t successful. In my opinion, this societal stigma and resulting personal shame is truly what should be called an ‘illness’, and needs to change. Societal stigma is really what makes us ‘sicker’, what drives us to the edge or tragically, sometimes over the edge.
So, I’m taking a deep breath and sharing my story. Because I want to break this stigma. Because I want to help in any way I can, to make others feel less alone in their own struggles with mental health. Because I want the conversation to be opened and shame to be lifted.
My first panic attack felt like it came out of nowhere. It leapt up from behind me, and took everything away from me, within a span of 10 minutes. I had worked hard my whole life, chasing goal after goal, to get to this point in my life – a great job, a happy relationship, an awesome group of friends. This was 12 years ago (before kids), and people would describe me as ‘type A’. I was a high achiever, worked all the time, loved my job (so was happy to work all the time), and while admittedly ‘tightly wound’ and had trouble relaxing, I didn’t feel that I needed to relax when I had so many projects on the go and so much to accomplish. I was presenting at a conference, and really excited about my workshop and speaking to others about a new framework for working with volunteers from a community development perspective. I was showing up under personal stress, as my father had just had a major heart attack on an airplane and was in a hospital in Vancouver, far away from where I was in Kingston. I remember calling my father and speaking with him, worried about his life, from the conference hotel in Kingston. But I pushed my worry feelings for my father away (or deep down), so I could be on my ‘A game’ in presenting an amazing, inspiring session at the conference. I practiced my session, getting ready for my moment to inspire change.
The session began, and I started to speak. I had been waiting for this moment. But as I started to speak, I immediately like I was about to faint, that my knees were buckling out from under me. I felt sweat under my arms, like I was so unbelievably hot. And then the strangest and scariest part happened, where I felt like I left my body, like I was watching myself, a different self, facilitate this session. I was having a breakdown. I don’t how or why, but no one noticed and I actually got through the session (with pretty positive reviews). But I left the session feeling incredibly afraid about what happened, and utterly exhausted from keeping myself together. I went back to my room, closed the door, fell on my bed and sobbed.
This was the beginning of a private hell that I experienced for 2 years. The only person who knew what I was going through at the time was my amazing and supportive wife. I came back to my home and life, and I continued to have uncontrollable panic attacks. I was volunteering at the United Way, and I went to a session where we had to go around and introduce ourselves, and I had the same sensation, of pure physical terror when it was my turn to speak. My job was doing a lot of public speaking, and I was miserable every day, anticipating when this would happen next. It happened when I drove my car, and my greatest fear was that I would faint behind the wheel, and kill myself and others. I couldn’t predict when I would have these feelings, this physically terror that would leap up and grab me. It continued to show up out of nowhere, choking me with its power. And the fear of when this might happen next was constantly on my mind, weighing me down. The fear of the panic attack became larger and more powerful than the panic attack itself, to the point where I couldn’t differentiate between my panic reacting to the fear or to a certain situation. It felt like a miserable, never-ending vicious cycle. The fear spiraled into shame, and I was convinced that I was ‘going crazy’.
As the Type-A personality that I am, I decided to attack this problem like any other problem that I have faced in my life. I was determined that there was a solution, and that I was going to find the solution. I read every book and article possible about anxiety, and I recognized that what I was experiencing was called a ‘Panic Disorder’, different from generalized anxiety. I created my own version of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), determined that this would not ruin my life. I drove back and forth across the Gardiner, with the windows open so I could breathe, to prove to myself that I wouldn’t faint and that I could drive. I continued to put myself in stressful situations so I had to face my monster, again and again. I learned how to do a body scan meditation and I practiced breathing every evening.
But truthfully, none of these strategies really worked. I was angry with my condition, and I wanted it gone. I was working incredibly hard to get rid of it, to fix myself so I could move forward. I split myself into two – the part of me from before my panic attacks that I approved of, and then this newer part of me that felt uncomfortable, uncontrollable and scary, and I wanted gone. After much internal fight and pain, I decided that I needed professional help. I was at a loss in terms of helping myself. I found myself a wonderful therapist, where the first 6 months was spent with me just crying in her chair. I was holding so much shame. And then we started to talk, and over time, she helped me to accept myself and my panic. Through acceptance, she taught me to face my fear. Most importantly, she taught me to be gentle with myself, with all parts of myself. The irony of it is was that my panic attacks only started to subside when I truly accepted this part of me, without judgement and without shame.
My story doesn’t wrap up like a present with a nicely tied bow. Mental health is a continuum, and we all have good days and bad days, good moments and bad moments. We live in a highly stressful society, with not enough time for self-care and not enough focus put on our personal or communal mental/emotional health. I continue to struggle with anxiety and I have had panic attacks from time to time. However, they are less intense than before, and I am better at taking care of myself during those moments. I have learned how to check in with myself on how I am doing, on a daily, or sometimes hourly basis. I have found self-care strategies that work best for me – my top strategy being to run to the beach as fast as I can, so my adrenalin is physically released, and the waves of the water can remind me to breathe. Most importantly, I remind myself to let go of judgement and shame, be kind and gentle, and love all facets of myself unconditionally, including my panic.