At the end of my high school years, as I was applying for colleges, I started having these strange, random moments of panic. I didn’t know anything about anxiety or panic attacks, had no clue that what I was experiencing was related to the stress of the decision I was in the process of making. For me it seemed insane, I would be reading a book or daydreaming on my way to school and all of a sudden I would be in full on panic mode. I brushed it off each time and after I started college it faded away and I thought nothing of it. Then, as I was finishing college they started up again and I finally decided it was time to see someone about it.
By this time it had gotten so bad I would randomly start hyperventilating in public, and I was in a constant state of terror, never knowing what would set me off. Because the things my mind would obsess over were not at all related to my current situation it seemed like it was completely random. I would be reading happily and all of a sudden I would feel my mind plunge over the edge into this chasm of horrifying thoughts. Always the same worry, this overwhelming fear of death. Not dying, not pain, but the status of being dead. No longer breathing, and most importantly, no longer thinking. How could I even imagine no longer thinking? How do you think about not thinking? My mind is what tells me I’m alive, the idea that I won’t be here or anywhere or feeling or thinking anything is just absolutely terrifying. I would be frozen, unable to move, doing everything I could to force my brain out of its trap. To no avail, once I was over the edge and into the deep end there was nothing I could do to get out. Finally I would exhaust myself and fall into a coma like sleep, if I was lucky.
I ended up seeing a psychologist and then a psychiatrist, both immediately diagnosed me with classic anxiety disorder. The psychiatrist especially was very comforting, I spoke with him for five minutes, crying and choking on my sobs within the first two, and he immediately knew what the problem was. He told me that I was experiencing panic attacks related to the stress I was under and he explained the science of what was going on in my brain when I had these emotions. He prescribed me zoloft and klonopin, the former as a long term solution, the latter as a short term. I and my family were hesitant. Though I trusted my doctor, understanding that these thoughts were due to a chemical imbalance in my brain was difficult to process. How could thoughts be affected that way? It just didn’t compute, but I figured I had nothing to lose so I followed his directions and started taking the medication. In one week I called him back, crying again but this time joyfully, I felt like myself again. I could read, watch movies, talk about the future, and no breakdowns. I was beyond overjoyed, I was ecstatic. I had my life back.
Years passed and I continued taking only the zoloft, a minimal dose that allowed me to control these symptoms but didn’t leave me feeling numb as higher doses tended to. After a while I felt stable and went off the meds, thinking that I was balanced now, I knew the science behind what had happened and I believed it was a temporary problem that should be a non issue now that I wasn’t in the middle of major life changes. The result was that all of a sudden I had a hair trigger emotionally, the death related thoughts didn’t start up again but rather I would find myself tearing up at the silliest things. Commercials would have me sobbing, stupid internet videos would leave me melancholy and weepy for hours. But I thought, no panic attacks so that’s a good sign. But as things changed in my life, as I found out about my fibromyalgia, as I decided to go back to school and then move to LA, I found the death thoughts creeping in once again. Not full blown, no hyperventilating, but rather I could feel my mind skittering on the edge, trying desperately to grab hold of something so as not to plunge into that awful darkness. I held out as long as I could before caving and making another psychiatric appointment. I went back on the meds, evened back out, and all was well with the world.
But after all that, even knowing why this was happening and the simple solution to fix it, I was still hesitant about taking the meds. Such a stupid issue, but one that I don’t believe I’m the only person to experience. For some reason when it comes to mental issues I find myself saying, “I can push through this, I’m strong, these are just thoughts.” They’re not just thoughts, those thoughts are merely the symptoms of a physical problem. That’s the key, remembering that it is a physical problem. I’m not weak for having these thoughts, I can’t just force myself to “pull it together” and “calm down.” That’s not how these things work.
The mindless terror of a panic attack is not something easily explained to those that have never experienced them. You can’t break out of it. You simply can’t. You are absolutely powerless, a bystander watching as a some horrific accident unfolds in front of you. You stand, transfixed, as the car crashes and bursts into flames. And the worst part is watching this horror and seeing that, even as you stand to the side and watch, you’re also in the car.
It’s ludicrous, that these thoughts and emotions, these feelings that have no tangible qualities, are the result of a chemical imbalance. And so you try to push through, to tell yourself you’re fine, but you’re not, not at all. Because reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy shouldn’t set you off in a terror spiral. So if a little pill will solve this problem, then trust me, just take the pill. Even if you think you can cope, think you can overcome and win this struggle, listen to me, and just take the damn pill. You can thank me later, when you’re able to watch banking commercials without breaking down in tears.