Depression, Anxiety, and Panic Disorder: From Daunted to Driven
by Gianna Santoro
I am staring at a PowerPoint full of Civil War graphics, it is my junior year of high school, and I’m in my favorite class: AP United States History. My eyes are on the board, and my mind is focused until it isn’t and I can’t catch my breath. My typically analytical, concentrated brain is flying in more directions than the number of notes I should be writing right now. What is happening? I don’t get distracted. Irresponsibility is not how I achieved a 4.0 GPA with a schedule full of AP and Honors classes. I look back to the board and my heartbeat quickens to keep up with my rapid breaths. Everything is hazy now. It takes me ten minutes to finally ask if I can be excused to go to the nurse’s office.
When I arrive, my symptoms only get worse. My heart is racing, my lungs are working overtime, my fingertips begin to go numb, and tears start pouring from my eyes that are drooping with exhaustion. When I tell the nurse what I am feeling, she scurries me into a more quiet, private room. I am prepared to hear her call an ambulance. However, she asks me if I’ve ever had a panic attack before. I tell her that no, I haven’t, but I don’t think that’s what is wrong. She assures me that this is what I am experiencing, and helps me focus on my breathing. She urges me to seek help, so I tell her that I will. I leave the office shaking.
As I move on from this first attack, I try to brush off the incident, but my internal and external panic keep recurring. My friends and teachers start to worry, but I assure everyone I am okay. I have to be okay…my goal of perfection cannot be tainted by these episodes, so I learn how to hide them. However, these seemingly minute disasters of hidden panic attacks in class start piling up inside of me, and I begin drowning. My struggles begin to break me. After months of gasping for air, I finally shove my pride out of my path of healing and reach out to the teacher who was present when this all started: My AP United States History teacher. I trust her advice and her judgement. After class, I ask if she would be available to talk tomorrow. She says “yes,” and I see concern written all over her face. That night, I spend most of my time thinking about how the conversation will go.
Tomorrow comes and we sit down for our conversation. I have told my friends that I am getting extra help with some history content, so they don’t question my absence at lunch. I have, of course, covered all of my bases to maintain a put-together persona. However, as I sit down with my teacher, I know I am about to shatter that.
She starts the conversation with small talk. I think we both know what I am there to talk about, but we keep the conversation light at first. Then, she asks me how I have been feeling lately. She tells me she’s noticed my visits to the nurse’s office have grown more frequent. Although at this point in my life she is the adult that I trust the most, I find it hard to verbalize anything I am thinking. All I let out is, “I just haven’t been feeling like myself lately…I don’t know…something is wrong, but I don’t know what.” She asks me about my home life, my friends, my workload.
When it’s time to go back to class, she tells me her door is open any time I need support. I appreciate this more than she knows, and I leave her room feeling vulnerable, but hopeful. Although this conversation was far from an epiphanous therapy session, I seldom talk about my problems, so merely speaking at all is a feat of its own.
My teacher and I have countless conversations like this in the future, each revealing more of my emotions and thoughts than the one before. Six months after that first conversation, I am sitting down with my teacher again. I explain how my emotional state has gotten worse rather than better, and she asks me to elaborate. I say that sometimes, I just want everything to stop. Although vague, she knows exactly what I mean, so she asks me if I think about suicide. After bursting into silent tears, I say “yes.” She asks if I ever think about how I would do it, and I, again, say “yes.”
She says that we need to talk to someone who is more knowledgeable about mental health, so she leads me down the hallway to the nurse’s office, and now I find myself sitting in the same quiet room where the school nurse helped me ride out my first panic attack months ago. The nurse asks me if I want to die. I say “yes.” She asks me if I feel safe going home by myself. I say “no.” This answer alarms her, so we take another field trip to the guidance office, where a local mental health coalition is called to come to my home and do an assessment to see if I need to be hospitalized. I wail and I beg and I protest saying that I am okay and that I am being dramatic about my thoughts. This is a lie, of course. I am avoiding the disaster in my head becoming a physical reality because the two people who think they know me inside and out, my parents, are not even slightly aware of what has been brewing. I hid all evidence of pain from them, and suffered in silence. I kept my self-harm marks hidden until sweaters and long sleeves. I disguised my journal entries about my dark thoughts by giving them misleading, mundane titles in the notes app on my phone just in case anyone ever came across them.
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When I go home and the social worker knocks on my door, my mother is stunned. My dad is aghast. My family is not really one to talk about feelings, so I just figured it was okay that I kept things quiet for so long. They tell me how my future is so bright, how I have it all: a loving family, a strong group of friends, a perfect academic record, and acceptance letters to the best local colleges. They are right in the sense that I do seem to have an ideal life; I have never experienced what I perceive to be “real problems”, like homelessness, abuse, or persecution. Nonetheless, being lucky does not mean I am immune to depression. Mental illness can strike anyone at any time in any place…there is no way to be prepared. I try to explain this to my parents but my words are interrupted by my sobs.
This was my rock bottom. Although I know now that struggling is not a sign of weakness, at the time, I felt like a complete failure. I had always been able to handle everything without an issue. I did not have the coping skills or the wisdom to conquer what would later be diagnosed as depression, anxiety, and panic disorder.
I remember my world being so dark, and being so overwhelmed with emotion that I literally tried to claw it out of myself. I was so stressed, but felt numb and emotionless all at the same time, despite the high level of stress I was under. I just wanted to feel something, even if that meant inflicting pain. This is how my self-harm started. I didn’t think it was an issue at first, and no one picked up on my pain because I looked happy. After fighting alone for a while, I finally made the plunge into therapy when I was seventeen; it has been a pivotal part of my recovery, but it didn’t start off so great. The first therapist I saw was difficult to connect to, so I stopped seeing her. It took me five months to find a new therapist, but when I finally did, I was pleasantly surprised. Sessions felt like comfortable conversations, which allowed me to open up more. I felt wholeheartedly heard and supported, and I started really wanting to do the work to get better. After a few months of therapy, I also started psychiatric medication.
My life today looks a lot different than it did two years ago. I work on myself each and every day, and have to remind myself to fill my schedule with things that make my soul happy. In high school, I overworked myself and would not settle for anything less than perfect. I thought that I was investing in myself, but I was really killing myself from the inside out. Now, I leave time in my schedule to head to my local coffee shop to listen to music, write poetry, and draw. I also make exercise a priority, not to lose weight, but because I love how running makes me feel like I’m pounding away my anxieties. I make sure I get at least nine hours a sleep at night, and overall, I am more gentle with myself.
At my lowest, I did not see a future for myself, but now I am beginning it. I am a semester ahead in my college education (yes, I’m still an overachiever—mental illness doesn’t change everything!), and I am majoring in social work. I am working toward becoming a licensed clinical social worker, so I can practice therapy. I am taking my experiences and using them to help others, which is so rewarding. Despite my recovery, it would be foolish of me to say it was easy. At my worst, I never would have had the motivation or energy to do half of the things I do for myself now. It took years of therapy and medication to get me where I am today. When you feel like accepting defeat, remember that you are in the process of becoming a beautiful sculpture. Your original structure will still exist, but with a new, radiant, stronger presence. Don’t let mental illness break you. Let it be a sculptor. Let it expose the beautiful parts of you that you don’t even know exist.