When your profession puts you in a position of perceived perpetual strength, power and “togetherness,” it appears to become difficult for people to suspect or even believe that you endure the same stressors and emotions that they do. As a therapist, I put on my Superwoman invincibility cloak every weekday morning to provide the empathy, hope, validation, support and problem-solving my clients need in their lives for our hour or two sessions. About three months ago, my own “stuff” tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me to sit in the other chair: being the recipient of help.
I am a wounded healer. I am a depression survivor. And I am still out here surviving. My interest in the mental health field stemmed from my upbringing, being immersed in situations and people battling illnesses and addictions that sprouted from seeds of trauma. I had never seen what healing looked like. I wanted to learn more about it. I wanted to do it.
People would assume that I was fine because I looked fine in my pictures. Most of my time for the last couple of years has been consumed by working and being a full-time student, so what most people think they know comes from their interpretations of the glimpses into my life that were provided on social media. Maybe I wanted people to think my life was perfect, or maybe I actually am so private that I was embarrassed to share the lows. After all, nobody is entitled to knowing everything that happens to us. However, the moment I started being a little more transparent about the hardships I was experiencing, a miraculous moment happened: I felt more free. I literally felt the pedestal that my family, friends and stranger friends had put me on being lowered. A pedestal I had kind of wanted to be put on, but not really. Not when that meant people constantly craving a sip from my endless chalice of strength, unknowing that I was down to the last scant drops. Because then …
What had happened was, the stress and anxiety started hitting my body. Hard.
One day a few months ago, I was at work speaking to my supervisor, and became lightheaded.
The exact feeling is indescribable and still scary to think about. I stepped out of his office in shock and fear of losing consciousness, and did not want to drop in front of him. After running to the bathroom to splash water on my face and still sinking into this horrendous debilitation while hyperventilating, I stumbled back into the office and asked the receptionist to call 911. I was transported by ambulance to the ER. Inside the ambulance, my heart had to be reset because my pace and rhythm became accelerated to dangerous levels, and the EMS crew had no idea what was going on, either. They were trying to save me from whatever was happening.
I had been to the ER a few weeks prior for the same reason: I had almost passed out while I was driving.
Being hard-headed and stubborn, combined with the slight terror of losing my new job and being zapped back into poverty (versus the faux poverty of living paying to paycheck), I returned to work a day or two later, and almost passed out again. I woke up on a Sunday morning with an accelerated heartbeat, almost passed out again. Ended up back in the ER. Have I made my point yet without being obnoxious? My goal was to be just a tad repetitive by establishing a seamless, but predictable, sequence of events as I built angst and suspense, but I may have overdid it. We are on the way to a late 20s (cringes), wise-beyond-her-years, third (or seventh) quarter life crisis mental health epiphany and will be arriving shortly! Spoiler alert: I was having Panic Attacks.
I was informally diagnosed with Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The way it was described to me was the way I described anxiety to my clients, although I had never experienced it to this degree before: my body’s “Fight or Flight” response was jacked. Normally and historically, it serves as a useful survival tool, increasing your awareness of perceived threats. For example, when we lived in caves, hunters would sense that a bear was in their vicinity, and the fight or flight response would give them a heads up to flee or target the bear first. Straight survival-of-the-fittest style. The issue here was that no bear was in my vicinity. I was not even consciously aware of fearing or sensing a bear, yet, my body was reacting as if I was about to be Winnie The Vicious Pooh’s snack.
Anxiety has looked like getting down on all fours in a crowded Harris Teeter because my body and nerves were physically shaking as parts of my body became numb from lack of blood circulation and oxygen. Anxiety means I have thought about writing this article for weeks, but could not physically get to it. My mind was cluttered and overwhelmed, forcing me to prioritize myself into paralysis — wanting to do everything, so instead, doing nothing or the tasks that I absolutely could not postpone any longer without the risk of jeopardizing my employment. As I type, I resist the urge to pop an Ativan, telling myself that this is positive stimulation and nervousness: making time for my often neglected, but forever pondered about, love: writing.
Even the act of taking a prescription medication for anxiety is a huge breakthrough. A few months ago (and possibly last week), I was sobbing in a hospital gown in the emergency department, utterly opposed to taking any medication, although my anxiety had finally exploded into a severely disabling state. Years of “being strong,” “pushing through,” and “carrying on” despite the traumas and emotions that remained unprocessed, had finally caught up to me, hopped on my head and tackled me into sitting down. Years of suppression and repression, consciously and unconsciously forcing negative, unpleasant or threatening feelings out of my mind in order to function. Sometimes, unleashing these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (in my mind) would have completely disrupted whatever my present goal or survival circumstances were, to the point that I would have become a completely unwound puddle of tears and pain. Sometimes, I convinced myself that the admission of my humanity and mortality were weaknesses, perhaps because I had not experienced the privilege of feeling emotionally (and oftentimes, physically) safe growing up. It was a maladaptive coping strategy that had now stopped working. I had lost control. Surrendering to this realization has probably been the hardest pill to swallow to date. Pun intended.
I share this experience in hopes of normalizing the conversation about mental illness, especially in underserved communities. Outside of my studies, I had never grasped what it meant to live with anxiety, and thought “panic attacks” were just humorous hyperbole for being very nervous or antsy. I did not know they felt like death. I did not know anybody who looked like me who had them. I had never heard them talked about or described in detail. I did not know years of suppression and repression would cause panic and anxiety to sneak up on me. What I had seen and heard of was self-medication and depression, while still not quite comprehending why people chose to ruin their lives by becoming dependent on substances (this was pre-therapist, I now know that it is not this simple of a process and actively fight against the stigma).
There is power in softness. When we share parts or ourselves, we free both ourselves and someone else. After reading this, someone will no longer postpone addressing their traumas, because he or she does NOT want to start having panic attacks. Someone will stop self-medicating and seek professional services and resources. Someone will know they are not alone.
Gentle reminder, reader: Please do not put taking care of everyone else above taking care of yourself. You simply can’t. It is not sustainable. You need YOU, your body and your health for ALL of the great things waiting to be accomplished. Everyone needs support and safe spaces to vent. Everyone needs to process their emotions. Everyone needs help, and that includes the helpers and the “strong friends.”