My first huge anxiety attack was on January 13th, 2011. I’m not sure I’ll ever really forget the date, although I wish I could because whenever January 13th rolls around I get a heaviness stuck in my throat like I’ve swallowed a brick and it doesn’t matter how much water I sip throughout the day – the brick just won’t go away.
Previous to that I would have odd little experiences. If I thought too hard on a topic that bothered me – mostly the thought that one day I’ll die – I would have to catch my breath. A feeling of dread that would snatch the air from my lungs, and fill my chest with an odd, cold feeling would wash over me, but I was usually able to brush it off. For whatever reason, I never had a full blown panic attack before.
The night of January 13th I wasn’t home. I was staying at my then girlfriend, now fiancee’s home, and it was late. We were about to go to bed when suddenly my heart started pounding. I was terrified. I actually felt my heart beating fast and hard. I asked to go to the hospital. I couldn’t calm down. I thought I was having a heart attack. I was 19 years old at the time.
My fiancee and her father took me to the hospital. The drive was incredibly scary. I still get nervous driving at night because it reminds me of that bumpy ride.
The hospital didn’t recognize my symptoms as a panic attack. They hooked me up to machines. Took EKG’s – everything was normal. There wasn’t enough room in the hospital for me to have my own room, so I laid on a stretcher, hooked up to a heart rate monitor in a hallway, across from the nurse’s desks. I think I laid there for a few hours. My fiancee and her father were stuck in the waiting rooms, not knowing what was going on, where I was, how I was doing. I can’t imagine doing the same.
They eventually hooked me up to an IV. I hate needles. I’m terrified of them, after a horrible experience when I was 5. (I needed shots and was moving too much and crying too much and screaming too much. My mother, 3 nurses and 2 doctors had to hold me down. I still hate being pinned down to anything as a result. Laying down on tables and looking up at bright, fluorescent lighting still makes me sick.)
I tried to calm down. I really did. Then I overheard one of the nurses say “we don’t know what’s wrong with her. We have to get her heart rate down. I don’t know what we’re going to do.” They thought I was sleeping. My heart rate monitor spiked.
Eventually, I did fall asleep, only to be jarred awake from other people screaming and getting sick in the hall, and nurses chasing after a man running around naked. Another person was rushed through the hallways, blood everywhere. The sound of heart beats still scare me.
I was released a while after that. My fiancee saw me, her face tear-stained and she hugged me hard and tight. They took me home. I was exhausted. I was never told about anxiety. They said they didn’t know what was wrong with me.
The anxiety attacks came daily after that. All of January, February, and March of 2011 was a mess of me not eating, not sleeping, not being able to function. I was afraid to eat anything. It all translated to food = sugar = diabetes = death. Or food = salt = high blood pressure = death. There was no way to rationalize it to me. I was terrified all the time. I had to sleep with my mother, only to jerk away every time my eyelids closed. I was afraid she’d die in her sleep. I was afraid I’d die in my sleep.
During the day I’d stand in one room, staring out of the windows for hours at a time and then just moving to the next room to repeat the process. That lasted for about a month.
My mother took the whole month of February off from work. Every day we’d leave the house, go to a store and walk around, just anything to get me from staring out of the damned windows. My curtains are always drawn at home now.
I still didn’t know what anxiety was, what panic attacks were, that’s that what I was suffering from. I just thought I was crazy. So did everyone around me. None of us had ever had any experience with anxiety and anxiety disorders. No one talked about mental illness. It was “all in my head.” “That’s the problem,” I responded. I hated myself. I just wanted to sleep.
I somehow managed. Watching kid movies on repeat until I actually passed out from sheer exhaustion seemed to help. I have every single word of Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Casper, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, and Hocus Pocus memorized. I’d just loop them over and over and over again. When I have a bad day I’ll pop Casper in. Yay coping skills.
2 years ago I had another huge anxiety attack that resulted in a hospital visit. I had had an idea of what anxiety was but was still having a really hard time dealing with it. I had only a handful of coping mechanisms and most weren’t actually working.
This time, however, I had an amazing nurse who asked if I had ever tried therapy. I responded no. Therapy was too expensive, our insurance would never cover it. She smiled and walked away, and after a while came back with a business card telling me “your first appointment is 9am, December 24th. Don’t miss it. I’m calling you after to see how it went.”
I went. It was amazing. Miraculously my insurance covered this place. My therapist, Donna, was and still is amazingly supportive. The nurse did call. I promised I would keep going. I’ve been going for almost 2 years now and have only missed a handful of sessions, and only when absolutely necessary.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I firmly believe that we need to normalize mental illness. We need to talk about it, especially in Pagan communities. We have enough crap running against us that we don’t need to the stigma that Pagans aren’t welcoming or “are crazy” as well.
Many Pagans have a mental illness. That can be said with any religion, because mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Anxiety and depression affect so many people, and yet we never hear about it. It’s not talked about publicly. People who have mental illness aren’t nearly as supported as those with other illnesses. Recently this was made painfully clear when a co-worker of mine, who also has an anxiety disorder – asked to go home early. She was having a horrible anxiety day and my manager understood and let her leave. Coworker B however, wasn’t nearly as forgiving, claiming that Coworker A was flaky, unreliable, unable to perform her duties. I commented that if Coworker A had had a broken foot and wasn’t feeling well there’d be no problem. Coworker B replied “yeah well, anxiety and depression and all that…I don’t believe in that hoopla.”
Mental illness is not a fucking thing to believe in. It doesn’t just go away if you state you don’t believe in something. If so, I would have stopped believing so I could finally get some sleep at night.
Today I’d like to ask all of you to please be kind. You never know what someone else is going through.
If you deal with a mental illness and want to, tell me in the comments. I’d love to support you in any way that I can.