I have panic disorder. I manage chronic anxiety every single day. I had my first panic attack when I was fifteen years-old and (at the time) I had no idea what was going on. I thought I might be having a heart attack. It seemed like a physical problem at first. I had an uncontrollable racing heart followed by sweating and shaking. But then I quickly realized that nervous thoughts were accompanying my physical symptoms.
Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. Anxiety and depression run in my family, and my mother knew exactly what was going on and how to help me. I started seeing a therapist and learned coping techniques to deal with anxiety. However, the techniques I learned were not enough. From ages 15 to 18 I still suffered from severe panic attacks that made it incredibly difficult for me to function.
For the most part, I suffered in silence. The only people who knew about my struggle with panic were my parents, my brother and my best friend, who didn’t attend my high school. I attended a performing arts high school where I studied theater. I was an excellent actress, but not in the way one might think. I was well adept at hiding my mental illness from my peers.
After three years of covering up my suffering, I was mentally and physically exhausted. In 1998, when I was 18 years-old, I made the decision to see a psychiatrist. I started taking Prozac. My whole life changed after that. I didn’t suffer from intrusive thoughts anymore, I was able to breathe, I was able to function like a normal human being. I thought to myself “Oh, this is what normal people must feel like.”
I went on to attend NYU and graduate with a decent G.P.A. I could not have done this without the help of anti-depressants.
Since college, the only time I have been off of anti-depressants was when I was pregnant with my children or breastfeeding them. Other than that, I recognize and I know that taking anti-depressants helps me to keep anxiety at bay.
In addition to taking anti-depressants, I also eat mostly organic, take herbal supplements, see an acupuncturist and meditate daily. But these things are not enough. At this point in my life, I still need to take anti-depressants to manage panic attacks.
As a person managing chronic anxiety, I have heard a lot of unhelpful advice from people who don’t understand mental illness. Here are some common things people have said to me:
1. Anti-depressants are just a bandaid covering up the problem. Why don’t you stop taking them and try to deal with your anxiety?
This is analogous to telling a diabetic to stop taking their insulin and see what happens. Mental illness is a real condition that can be debilitating if left untreated.
2. You’re being dramatic. You think too much. Why don’t you just stop obsessing?
There is a chemical imbalance in my brain. My brain doesn’t produce enough serotonin. Therefore, the result is I have chronic intrusive thoughts, depression and anxiety. Unless you would like to talk to the neurotransmitters inside my head and tell them to stop firing, I think we’re done here.
3. You’re lazy.
Quite the opposite actually. I have to work twice as hard to do the things “normal people” do, such as wake up, get dressed and leave the house. I am constantly battling the thoughts in my head. I would call myself a warrior.
Whether you’re dealing with anxiety, depression, ADHD, or any other mental illness, you are fighting a battle. To those around you, it may look like an invisible war, but it’s happening. You’re working hard to be able to function.
Mental illness is real. We need to be just as empathetic and sensitive to those who are managing depression as we are to people that are dealing with physical ailments or diseases. If your friend tells you she she’s having a panic attack, ask her what you can do to help. I promise you, she’s not being lazy. She’s trying to survive.