The Big Scare: My Anxiety Disorder Story
On October 31, 1992, while I was in my senior year of high school, I had my first memorable panic attack. I say memorable because prior to that, there were two other “panic” moments in my life: one was before a French final in my sophomore year (who doesn’t panic before French finals?) and another was in my junior year, after trying to show off to my friends that yes, yes the nerd girl can drink beer—I downed four really fast. In both instances, I was overwhelmed with the sensation that I had to run, that a bear was chasing me, and I was so terrified I might actually bolt out of my body. Those moments prior to the memorable panic attack on Halloween 1992 didn’t last more than a few minutes, and I just brushed them off.
But the “Big Scare” on that Halloween evening in 1992 happened without much cause. I was standing in the kitchen making some dinner before going out with friends for an evening of scary-movie-watching when I was seized from head to toe in spine-chilling fear. For absolutely no apparent reason.
Eight hours later, I was sitting in the ER with my mom, holding a prescription for Valium and discharge papers that recommended a psychiatric evaluation. My mother made that appointment on the Monday and, immediately, when I walked into Dr. Pierson’s office, I was comforted by his graying ponytail and tiny gold earring. We talked a lot about “separation anxiety” and how essential it was that I “individuate” from my mother and get on with my life, even if I was scared.
His words didn’t impact me until I found myself only leaving the house with a “safe” person (my parents), for almost 6 weeks after that first memorable panic attack.
When I went for my second visit to Dr. P, I was ready to face the reality that overcoming my panic attacks would take work and a willingness to be uncomfortable. He insisted I return to school and prescribed me some medication to help with the transition back. Even though I was embarrassed by all of it, I made sure to tell a few of my friends what I was going through so that going back to school would be a little less scary. Surprisingly, though it was 1992 and there wasn’t widespread information about panic disorder or anxiety, my close circle of friends were understanding. One of them called my attacks “tweaking” which became a code word—as in if I felt an attack coming on, I could tell my friend, “I think I’m tweaking” and she would squeeze my hand or tell me something funny to distract me. Sometimes, if it was really bad, we would leave school and drive to the beach.
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I eventually climbed my way out of the agoraphobia (leaving my house only minimally and with a “safe person”), went on to apply and get into a whole bunch of colleges, and had a somewhat normal senior year of high school. However, that panic attack on Halloween night was the beginning of what would become an almost decade-long struggle with panic and anxiety. Motherhood (at age twenty eight) cinched it for me, and soon I could count not months but years between panic attacks.
So imagine my surprise when, a few months shy of turning thirty nine back in March 2014, they returned. At first, they only occurred when I was driving, and I found ways to distract myself—focusing on the car directly in front of me, making sure that I only drove on the right side so I could be near the shoulder just in case… Just in case of what? A panic attack? That was happening anyway, but the mind of a person caught in their cycle of anxiety becomes, well, irrational. After a month of struggling and soon avoiding driving to certain places, I had what I call my second Big Scare on April 30, 2014—roughly twenty two years after my very first one. This one was similar in that I became paralyzed by the fear, and like my senior year, I recoiled into a shell of myself and completely shut down. I stopped functioning normally (no driving, only working sparingly, unable to be alone, as in alone in a room, even) and certain people became “safety signals.” If my husband, mother, or best friend weren’t within sight, I became anxious to a level ten (think of one as sitting in lotus position meditating and ten as a boiling tea pot ready to blow). I spiraled down very quickly. Within weeks I was not recognizable to myself.
There are a couple of differences with my new panic attack. This time I went from anxiety into a deep, deep depression. Something I had never experienced before. Depression scared me as much as anxiety—actually more so because depression makes you think about things from a very dark and helpless place. A place from which you feel like you cannot crawl out.
I could write a grocery list of events that were going on in my life at that time that would probably set anyone into a highly emotional state of anxiety. Back in 1992, it was applying to college, my parents’ marital problems, an on again/off again destructive relationship with a boy, a borderline eating disorder, and friend problems. And now—I mean anyone who is thirty eight years old, trying to work, complete a graduate program, raise children, be a good wife, have time for yourself, write and publish books, and see your friends and family feels the vice-grip pressure of the unwinnable game of Having It All. Not to mention, around this time we lost one of our family pets as well, and the other had a stroke in front of me (both were cats we’d had for fifteen years). So, when I fell apart, no one was completely surprised, and everyone was incredibly sympathetic.
There is a biochemical component to this, and I have it, two-fold. Hereditarily, as in, DNA-wise, I’m biochemically wired to be prone to depression and anxiety. Genetic testing confirms this. Plus, my father suffered from panic attacks for years.
I had to work my ass off to get better. But the ability to do that is also in my DNA; it’s the same set of genetics that is both responsible for my speedy fight-or-flight response to non-life threatening (and life threatening) situations, and my ability to do, as my husband says, three thousand things at once. It’s the same set of genes responsible for my boundless energy and for my enthusiasm to learn and grow. It’s the same set of genes that allows me to be really disciplined with school, working out, and time management.
Depression and anxiety are in our genes. According to research, there is a thirty percent inheritability for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Some folks are predisposed to this condition in the same way that they can be susceptible to Type 1 Diabetes. Anxiety disorders can be within your DNA make-up just like some forms of cancer. Bottom line is, if it’s there, you have to learn to live and deal with it. You cannot hide in your closet forever.
The good news is that so much research has gone into anxiety and depression. We have many, many therapeutic modalities and medications that can help. But guess what? There is no magic in getting better. Even medications, cognitive behavioral programs, meditation, acupuncture all require that you take action—you show up to the counseling appointments, you do the homework, and that you give all of these things time to work.
Moreover, you have to stop being afraid to feel your emotions. Anxiety and depression are like dogs—if a dog knows you are afraid, it will respond in kind. If you respond to anxiety and depression with fear-based behaviors, it will only get worse.
The shift for me this time around with anxiety and depression was that I was finally able to let go and accept what I was feeling. It’s there, both physically and mentally. However, I did have choices. I could do nothing, stay in my closet and cry, or I could get out and live. And here’s the key—I had to live my life while feeling the anxiety and depression (it’s called exposure therapy in the counseling biz). So I drove, worked, took care of my children, was home alone, road my bike, went to see friends, all while anxious and depressed. I did all of these things while having those awful body symptoms of anxiety and the heavy and scary feelings of depression.
I’m not saying any of this was easy. I often felt I was carrying a hundred pounds on my back as I tried to live; I had debilitating anxiety and depression for those first few months, and every step out of my house, out of my bedroom, terrified me. But I still kept going. I walked through the walls of anxiety and depression because, as they say, the only way out is through. Doing this enough over time, I had these clicks of awareness of my achievements. Every few months, a click would settle in, like, “Look you have been driving to Providence for the last week and you made it! Yay you!” Or, “You worked an entire eight-hour day, and though you are tired, you did it!” Or, “Your husband was away overnight and you were fine!” Each time I walked through the wall of anxiety and depression by living my life, a click towards getting better occurred. The thing was my goal no longer was to feel better to but feel better. That is, allow the feelings I had to be there and yet still live my life.
Our culture tells us that HAPPY is the goal and FULFILLED and PRETTY and INSTAGRAM-PERFECT are all achievable. But that is a lie.
That real deal is that it’s impossible to achieve those goals because the human body is not wired for that kind of existence. It’s wired to have a range of moods and emotions and thoughts that are both what we would call HAPPY and SAD and all the stuff in between.
That I had my FIRST panic attack on Halloween is especially metaphorical—and very handy as a storyteller. The lesson I didn’t get the first time around was that I had to get right back out there and face the ghouls and goblins of my mind.
The second time around, I did just that. I looked each monster feeling and monster thought square in the eye, and rather than try to avoid or to fight, I allowed them to just be.
And it was far less scary.