This submission comes from Rebecca, the creator of this wonderful piece of art that was published last week on the website. Her story details the intensity of anxiety and the panic that can accompany it. As with most Coping entries, it’s lengthy, but I promise you it’s worth the read.
Here’s Rebecca’s story.
How do you explain to your daughter in fourth grade that you can’t continue to pick her up early from school day after day, even when she is sobbing on the phone in the nurse’s office? How do you come home to see that same girl two years later, white as a ghost, talking to herself in between hyperventilation gasps?
I couldn’t really tell you because I was that girl.
I don’t know where my anxiety stemmed from then, but I guess that is why I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It’s an odd experience to be twelve years old, having already seen three different therapists and now taking medicine every day because of something called “anxiety and depression”. It is also an odd experience to be in high school and to begin to realize that the same medicine that has been “fixing” you for four years is now not working as well and that the anxiety and depression can come back way worse than it had ever been. And now they have a new friend.
And it is a harsh realization to be in college, being so proud of all you have accomplished and gotten through and yet still forgetting that these moments of hell come back and being honest enough with yourself to go see the therapist on campus.
I’d like to share with you the worst panic attack of my life. Although it happened nearly four years ago, the thought of this night Is still clear and makes my stomach turn. I think it is important to disclose difficult parts of our lives, if we feel comfortable enough to, because although it was something I am still scared to reminisce about today, reflection is helpful to not only myself, but others. So, here we go:
It was towards the end of October during my senior year of high school. Due to a mixture of my birth control and my anti-depressants, and my already rampant anxiety over anything and everything, I was having a bad night to say the least. My boyfriend at the time, Mike, was over and everything was going okay.
My anxiety was definitely bad that night, it was as if waves of fear were rolling through me and I was feeling like I was riding a roller coaster full of sudden drops and an unsafe cart ready to break at any moment. All of a sudden I felt sick to my stomach. Vomiting was and still is one of my triggers of my anxiety, be it the feeling of it happening, or even the sound. Although I have not thrown up in over 10 years (knock on wood), it still triggers my anxiety. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to leave. I left my room and went straight to the living room. Mike had not noticed right away, as I had not given him an indication that there was a panic attack about to happen. I went to the couch and did the only thing I knew to to do to cope with the loss of breath I was experiencing and the churns of my stomach;
I dug my fingernails into my arms.
I was never a cutter, I never had the courage to take a blade to any part of my body. I did, however, need a distraction when I was anxious and hurting myself was a good distraction. To this day, unfortunately, still scratch and claw at my arms as an impulse to not being able to catch my breath or when I’m nervous. Plus, scratches fade and I was very aware of that. So there I am, tearing my skin off my arms and trying my best not to freak out. My attack is getting progressively worse and I am slowly slipping out of reality and into my own tunnel vision. I begin to hyperventilate and slowly lose any sense that anything is going to be okay. I am sweating and panting, and I don’t know what to do. Mike, wondering where I could have gone, came out and saw me in utter distress.
I’d like to pause my story for a moment to fill you all in about Mike. Although we are no longer dating, there is no one else that could have handled this situation better. Mike was very aware of my anxiety issues from the beginning of our relationship and did everything in his power to help me at all times. I needed him in that moment to sit with me and accompany me on this ride that I couldn’t get off until it had finished its course. I am so thankful for him.
Mike runs over and is trying to figure out what is going on. I am now on the couch with my knees to my chest, tearing away at the raw skin on my forearms and in full hyperventilation and bawling my eyes out. I remember blurting out some type of sentence of “I don’t know what is going on, I am having a panic attack” and crying louder. My brother and my dad have come into the living room now and they have no idea what to do. I remember that this was a Tuesday night because my mom worked her second job on Tuesdays and she was not there at this moment. Mike is trying to grab my hands because he is seeing the damage I am doing to my arms and I yank my hands away. How am I supposed to deal if I can’t scratch? I am full out wailing in between catching my breath. Mike is sitting next to me rubbing my back, trying to tell me I’m going to be okay. “Just breathe babe” is what keeps telling me, but I can’t.
I’ve had never attempted suicide. I had moments in my past of, “Hey, there are scissors right there. You could definitely do something with those” and “How many pills is too many pills” but I have never, ever done anything. In fact, I told my mom right away. Death has always scared me and although I have felt the deep lows of depression, suicide was never an option. I knew what it would do to my family, my friends, and to be honest, I was too chicken. I saw this funny thing online that pretty much says:
“Depression: Thinks about dying all the time
Anxiety: Gets anxious over the thought of dying
Having both: wtf.”
I say this is funny because it explained me perfectly. Although death would linger in my head, the anxiety of the situation caused this weird conflict. Anyways…
This night though, I wanted to die. I wanted it all to end. I was screaming on the outside but inside my head I was shouting at God. “Please, please stop this all. Please end it”. I was scaring myself so much. I have never seen my family so scared. Mike was crying because he couldn’t help. I didn’t know what to do.
My mom came home and she joined Mike on the couch. I was slowly coming down, but every time I was a little bit closer to reality, the anxiety would roll back in. Crying was my other coping mechanism. Crying, even if I was out of tears, was the distraction. I would feel that anxiety rush back in and so I wailed. I cried hard. I would stop my deep breathing to cry because in those moments, the anxiety took a backseat in my brain because all I could feel was my throat aching to make a noise.
I finally tired myself out and the roller coaster ended. My parents let Mike stay that night, and he fell asleep next to me, our hands held tight. My mom slept on the arm chair, not to keep an eye on us but to be there in case I woke up in the middle of the night for round two. I didn’t go to school the next day. The panic attack lasted about an hour and a half but felt like years.
I told my doctor about what had happened and she had mentioned that it was probably the mixture of the birth control and my Zoloft. I told her I was no longer going to take the birth control because of this incident and having an attack while taking my SATs a few weekends before, and you know what she asked me? “But how are you going to stay sexually safe then?”It took everything I had not to say,
I choose not killing myself over the chance of getting pregnant”.
Instead I told her I would be safe in other ways and then the conversation ended.
I have had panic attacks since then but nothing to the caliber of that Tuesday in October of 2010. Although writing it out was tougher than I’d like to admit, I also found it cathartic. I am still here. I am alive. I am so thankful that I am still here and breathing. The scariest moment of my entire life did not break me, it did not burn me, and it did not kill me. I am stronger because of that night. I am the strong person I am today, because of that night.
I have learned a lot through living with a mental illness. I have learned that my struggles are valid and that continuous work, even on my happy days, is the only way to continue to feel good. I have learned that I am much stronger than I like to think and that embracing what I am diagnosed with can actually empower me and help others. I have learned that I am no less of a person than someone who isn’t struggling with anxiety and depression, and I am no more of a person than someone who is struggling more than I do. We all have something in our life that is hard. It is the way that we work with what is difficult that makes us stronger.
I created my piece to explain a little about mental illness. We are all human beings but some of us, those living with mental illnesses, can sometimes be ‘tainted’ with our diagnoses.
We do not wear our illnesses like badges,
they seep into the back of our minds and can hide in the background.
Sometimes however, we do have things visible to the naked eye. Sometimes we have scars, scratch marks, or other forms of self-harm that streak our bodies. Regardless of our struggles, it is important that we see the vibrant, beautiful people that we are and do not let our disorders keep us from blossoming.
I do not consider myself a writer, or even an artist. I create things selfishly because my paintings are what I have control over, what ease my anxieties. My art and especially the string of roses I have painted over the last year have gotten me through breakups, sleepless nights, stress, and days where my anxiety has decided to come back in full force. Before using art therapeutically, I was very hard on myself and what I would create, which can trace back to my anxiety. If something was not perfect, then it was no longer good. If I was not acting perfect, then I was not good. I have learned to push those ideas to the side when I instead trade perfection for therapy. I trade perfect lines of realistic ideas for minutes of a clear mind, free of whatever is going on in my life. I have traded a mask of “normalcy” for a blank face of honesty. No longer are my paintings for the purpose of being finished and to be hung up, but to be a positive motion during my day where I can pause and unwind.
I wrote something on a whiteboard in a classroom at my internship during this spring that has now been my own mantra, and I hope it can help others reading this blog and elsewhere. I originally wrote a saying to remind my students that who you are right now is okay, and that you will only continue to grow and change. Little did I know, this has helped me on my good days, and especially on my bad, anxiety ridden days.
To all those living with a mental illness, or simply have a friend or family member that needs the extra support, please remember that,
“We are all continuous and beautiful works in progress.”