Coming To Terms With My Mental Health Struggles
This is a blog about my mental health journey. If reading about issues relating to anxiety, depression, and panic attacks is triggering for you, please be advised.
You may be familiar with the Alcoholics Anonymous saying, “the first step is admitting you have a problem.” By this, they mean that in order to start your recovery, you must acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place. This really resonates with me because my biggest obstacle in healing my mental health was recognizing that I was truly suffering and acknowledging the extent of my problem.
I had known for a long time that level of anxiety and panic I was dealing with on a daily basis was not normal. Since I was a kid, I was aware that things that stressed me out, like using a public bathroom, swallowing a pill, or, you know, leaving the house at all, were easy for other people. But I just thought that was “who I was” and an unchangeable part of my personality.
My perspective started to change 8 years ago when I woke up in the middle of the night, out of a sound sleep, thinking that I was having a heart attack. A trip to the ER resulted in a clear EKG, a baby aspirin, and an Ativan for what the doctor told me was a panic attack. While I was able to acknowledge that this was a serious situation, I was also able to convince myself that I didn’t really have a problem though I was just under a lot of stress. I had my first trial coming up, I had just started my own practice, and my grandfather had passed away. Things would get better. And for a while, they did.
A few years later, I moved several hours away from my family, friends, and the only area I had ever lived. The separation and isolation were bad, and I experienced an escalation in my panic attacks, with the first significant one happening on Thanksgiving day, 2017. I was given Klonopin to take for panic attacks on an as-needed basis. From Thanksgiving through the end of the year, things got worse, and I spent a significant amount of time sitting in the closet in my spare bedroom, trying to slow my heart rate and calm down my breathing so could function. By the end of the year this was happening for hours a day. Thankfully, I moved home in the new year.
I thought everything would get better when I got home, and in some ways, it did. I was extremely relieved to be back with my support systems and able to see my friends regularly, The panic attacks stopped, but my day-to-day anxiety continued to worsen. It manifested in a series of physical symptoms that caused me to have an endoscopy because I was unable to eat and lost 10 pounds in just about a week. I also became a frequent flyer at the cardiologist and neurologist. I was nearly fainting every time I got up to teach a class (which was awesome considering I taught multiple times a day, multiple days a week), and I was losing feeling in my arms and legs while driving on the highway (which…fun.) It may seem obvious to you at this point that clearly something was going on here, but I just kept focusing on treating the medical symptoms.
Then the pandemic hit. At first, I was very anxious about Covid and everything that was happening. But once the full shutdowns happened, my anxiety virtually disappeared for a while. The day-to-day stressors of leaving the house were gone, and my fear over the pandemic seemed proportioned. I didn’t feel crazy for once. I thought I had been given a life reset button. That once things went “back to normal,” I could do things differently and be different.
But, as we now know, there is no back to normal, and through the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, I had a really hard time navigating our new existence. I was scared to go out, scared to stay home. And the familiar anxiety and panic returned. This time, they brought a friend with them called depression. I coped with all the uncertainty and my deteriorating mental health by working non-stop. I mean 60+ hours a week. I used to work to distract me from everything else.
And then, one day, it was all over. The semester: over, grading: over, busy season at work: over. There was nothing left to do but face myself and what had been going on in my mind for the last year. As you can imagine, this went exceptionally poorly. I was having daily panic attacks over strange things (there was that fun day where I was convinced I was going to swallow my own tongue, and no one was going to tell me otherwise).
During this time, I happened to go for my annual doctor’s appointment and I think my doctor (who is positively wonderful) immediately could tell I was unwell. After a bit of discussion, she asked if I was open to trying a daily medication. She suggested that I try Lexapro and explained to me how it worked.
And this, my dear friends, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Because I trusted her, and if she saw anxiety that was bad enough to medicate, then it must be real. And, if it was real, what if it couldn’t be fixed? If it was real, I couldn’t just wish it away or treat the symptoms. I had to deal with it for REAL.
It is this reality that caused a total system shutdown that I affectionately refer to as the Great Meltdown of 2021. Humor is how I cope, but to be honest, this wasn’t funny. I couldn’t do anything except sit on the couch and alternate between crying and panicking. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I was so weak I needed help going to the bathroom or taking a shower. I couldn’t be left alone. Not because I was suicidal. Quite the opposite, I was absolutely terrified that my anxiety and panic were going to kill me.
With a lot of support from my therapist, doctor, family, friends, and coworkers, I came through. I realized that I become a master coper and had been holding my mental health together with tape and glue (not even gorilla glue, just the Elmer's stick that barely lasts till the end of the day).
But, most importantly, I learned that my mental health problems were real. I have anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. I didn’t make that up in my mind. I’m not just sensitive. I’m not overreacting. This is real. Even though the path to acceptance was brutal, I’m grateful for it. Admitting I have a problem is what allowed me to accept all the help I needed and truly set me on the path to healing. Is my mental health perfect? Certainly not. But, because I am not ignoring it, my ups and downs exist on a much more manageable spectrum, and I easily navigate my day-to-day life., Now, To quote my dad’s favorite band, The Beatles, I get by with a little help from friends…and Lexapro.
If you are somewhere on this journey, stick with it, there is light on the other side. Please don’t do it alone, lean on your support system and seek out professional help.
The information contained in this article has not been written or provided by a mental health professional and is not mental health advice. If you or any one else has a medical concern or mental health concern, you should consult with your health care provider or seek other professional medical treatment.