I know you’re used to me mostly writing about more upbeat topics, but sharing about my anxiety journey has been on my mind for a long time. I mean, technically it does fit under my “Live a better life” umbrella, right? After all, my anxiety has improved so much over the years. I am living better…much better. And I’m hoping that my story will help give you hope.
a psychiatric disorder in which debilitating anxiety and fear arise frequently and without reasonable cause.
I had my first panic attack when I was driving. It was July of 2005, I was nearly 25 years old and I was on my way to a performance for the musical I was in at the time. I was talking to my best friend on the phone when a super weird sensation rolled over me from top to bottom. I started to feel extremely nervous throughout my entire body. My vision seemed to change a bit. It became difficult to catch a breath. I had no idea what was happening, and I was scared. I turned around, went back home to my husband, Ryan, and called someone at the theater to tell them I couldn’t make it. You know something’s wrong when someone calls in sick to a musical performance, because it almost never ever ever happens. Thankfully, I was in the ensemble of this show and not a leading role. My absence wouldn’t be noticed by the audience, and it wouldn’t really have a large affect on any cast members. I got it together enough the next day to go back and continue. The show must go on…
Just days before my first panic attack, I found out that my little brother was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which is basically a combo of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I knew he had struggled at least somewhat for a little bit with “issues”. But I had no idea it was severe or even an actual illness. He lived with my mom in a different town, and I just wasn’t in the loop of all of his health details.
Hearing about his diagnosis started to cause a lot of anxiety in my life pretty much immediately. But I wasn’t educated on anxiety enough to know signs or symptoms right off the bat. So when I had that first panic attack in the car, I was clueless, and it took a couple of days for me to feel like maybe I understood what had happened. But quite honestly, I still felt unsure and confused.
I started putting the pieces together about why this had happened to me and realized I was scared. Actually, I was terrified. What if I developed a similar mental illness to what my brother had? If it could happen to him, it could happen to me. After all, we’re siblings. Is it genetic? I had so many fears and what ifs running through my mind. And I was simultaneously dealing with almost constant panic symptoms, which meant my mind was foggy, I could never really catch a good breath, I sometimes felt disconnected to reality, I had vertigo, and on and on. My brother’s diagnosis had scared me into a panic attack and changed my life for forever.
This went on for several months. I basically felt like a nervous wreck that could possibly die at any moment (because panic disorder can convince you that surely you’re about to die from one of your ailments) for a really long time without treatment. I didn’t want to “be medicated”. There’s a stigma to it, and nobody I knew was openly talking about it. I went through another production feeling almost constantly panicked. My feet sweat so bad at rehearsals that my leather sandals changed to a darker color almost immediately. I remember feeling horrible at almost every rehearsal and even during performances. There was one performance where my ear started ringing, which freaked me out and affected my vision for a moment, and I almost walked off the stage in fear that I might be about to faint. (Side note: random ringing in my ears has been an issue ever since, even when I feel fine.) But, hey, to my credit, I did manage to audition for a play, get a great role and complete the run of the show all while feeling like shit. So, go me. 😉
I finally decided to go to the doctor. I was sure he was going to tell me that I was, in fact, going to die soon from one of my weird ailments. But to my relief (odd, but yeah, it was a relief), he diagnosed me with panic disorder. I was prescribed Paxil and began taking it right away, despite my underlying anti-medication attitude.
The nurse told me many people gain weight when they begin that medicine. I shrugged it off considering the most weight I’d ever gained in my life was “the freshman 15”. Otherwise, I had been a naturally thin person. Not super skinny, but never had to try hard to stay fairly thin. I didn’t take her warning seriously.
The good news about starting Paxil is that I calmed the hell down and felt a good bit better when it was time for our one year anniversary trip to Vegas in December 2005. The bad news is that the nurse was 100% right. I started to gain weight, although I didn’t notice it at first. If you’ve ever been through a time period of weight gain, you know that it’s not real noticeable until one day when you’re buying new pants, and you realize you can’t buy the old size. Significant weight gain (I probably gained 30 pounds or so) was foreign to me, so I didn’t notice any early warning signs. Plus, even though I didn’t feel totally normal, I still felt better than I did pre-Paxil, so I was incredibly grateful for that. When you go through something bad with your health – physical or mental – and you have a day where you wake up feeling normal or even good, the level of gratitude you have is just out of this world. Weight gain wasn’t even on my radar…yet.