[TRIGGER WARNING: in-depth talk about panic attacks for next 8 paragraphs]
I began having anxiety attacks when I was in second grade. At seven years old, a wave of panic would come over me at random times and I didn't know how to deal with it other than to go to the school nurse and let it pass. By the time I reached fifth grade, I felt panicked at the mere thought of leaving the house, a fear called "agoraphobia". Of course, I had no idea what was wrong back then, I thought they were "stomachaches". In fact, I didn't even figure any of this out until no more than a couple of years ago. I lived for more than ten years dealing with these emotions with almost no tools to cope with them.
Even though the cause of a panic attack is rarely ever rational, it's still one of the most acute experiences that a person can have. It's like you're in a different dimension. A panic attack is described as a severe sense of doom; feeling as if you are losing control or even dying. (Some people even check themselves into the hospital because of this intensity.) Your heart speeds up, you can't catch your breath, you're sweating bullets. You're dizzy, trembling, sick to your stomach. Wave after wave of utter panic. I can only list symptoms because I honest to God cannot put that kind of surreal despair into words.
To put it into more perspective, I sometimes attempt to calm myself down from a panic attack by thinking about my problems with school. I am so desperate to replace that intensity, that the thought of being stressed about work and grades feels like a paradise.
My body has always coped with panic attacks by vomiting. It's my only defense because it's the only sense of relief I have in that situation, in which I sleep holding a plastic grocery store bag in my arms in case I wake up in sometime in the middle of the night and have to throwing up uncontrollably all over again for a reason I sometimes don't even know why.
So there you sit. Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. You realize it's been days since you've showered, because it either takes too much energy, or feels physically impossible to move without needing to vomit. You can barely move or shift positions where you're laying without the whole thing starting over again. With literally any move you make, any anxious or intruding thought, you risk another wave of terror over you, resetting everything you've tried to get past this nightmare of a mind game.
And with panic disorder, all of this repeats: sometimes weeks apart, sometimes months apart, in severe cases sometimes days or even just hours apart. Every single day is a war, as you battle being "on the verge" of a panic attack before you lose control.
This was my life at ten years old. While all the other kids were off making memories with their friends or at birthday parties, I was at home hovering over my toilet wondering when it'd all stop.
I went to see my pediatrician about these frequent "stomachaches". He told me that I should eat more protein.
I’ve been diagnosed by several different doctors with severe anxiety, along with panic disorder, some social anxiety, and even a touch of OCD (it's a party in my head). After a prolonged cycle of this constant emotional exhaustion (even from too much stress), a person begins to experience a deep emotional depletion, otherwise known as depression.
The best way I can describe depression is that your entire body feels like room temperature Diet Coke. A completely numb pain that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Your chest is an anchor, your feet like anvils, your body utterly bleak and dismal, exerting itself to try and make it to the end of whatever this is versus a mind that wants to die.
Beyond a chemical imbalance, depression can stem from many other factors: stress, hormonal imbalances, etc. It's a very real thing, a physical malfunction of the brain, as you can see above. Click here to read about some of the chemistry behind it.
The reason a depressed or anxious person is so tired, irritable, or sluggish, is because we spend a ridiculous amount of time mentally preparing for small tasks that are essential to the bare minimum of survival. The most commonplace example being getting out of bed in the morning - a challenge we all face some mornings, with a mental illness or not - but in this case to a much further extent, sometimes resulting in missing parts of daily obligations, even work or school.
The challenge of starting the day for a depressed person goes far deeper than just feeling tired. It’s not only physical exhaustion that daunts us, it's the weight of starting another day. Some days you wake up, already in pain. You already know that the day ahead is going to be a fight. That there’ll be more trials, more demons to face, and getting out of bed means you're vulnerable to all of it.
Yet, like I said, everybody experiences mornings when they don't want to get out of bed, so to a healthy person, this appears as laziness. Frankly, existing with depression in a higher functioning environment is a lot like you're drowning and the sentiment offered to you is to “just stop being so lazy”.
Although it's not necessarily their fault; it's just one of those things you have to experience to be able to fully understand. To a healthy person, healthy is all they know. You hear "it's all in your head" (like, yeah, because your brain produces every thought and emotion, way to go).
That’s precisely the issue, though - learning to cope with feelings that seep into every aspect of our life.
Depression and anxiety can come from traumatic events and external factors, and in the same way that anxiety can lead to depression, certain aspects of depression cause a person to have anxiety. (That’s why people often say that they go "hand-in-hand".)
The unseen danger is when they stem from chemical imbalances and genetic dispositions. My circumstances don't weigh on my feelings of depression and anxiety; frankly, it's the opposite.
Some nights, I used to be able to tackle hours of homework with ease, and others I'd have to miss parts of school the next day because the added stress of studying for one simple quiz or test along with my pre-existing overwhelmed and anxious emotions felt like too much to bear to even function. This eventually turned into a pattern of tremendous effort to complete very simple tasks on a day-to-day basis. It goes beyond the comprehension of an assignment for school or the drive to complete a task or chore. When I cared too much about what I was doing, it felt like I was drowning (think of the Yerkes/Dodson graph). So in order to cope, I stopped letting myself care at all.
You can reach a point of such deep depression, such indifference about your life, that you really don't care what happens to you. You begin to stop taking care of yourself.
It starts off slowly. Maybe one night you're too tired to brush your teeth. Then the clothes begin to pile up, neglected on the floor. Picking them up takes too much energy. Then the work keeps coming. Responsibilities become very overwhelming very quickly. Not enough motivation to face them. Then habits change. The grades start to slip. What’s the point? Then you feel even less in control. The anxiety builds. But you can't find the energy to do anything about it. Then relationships start to fade. Alienation from friends and family. So much focus is put on survival and self-protection, that there isn't any left for others. Now that cozy fog that's been surrounding your thoughts in a void is immersed. You’re so dissociated from reality, that you have no sense of anything anymore. You look in the mirror and have no idea who is staring back at you, and you don't even care. No matter how much you want to care, it's too far gone. You are empty.
Imagine haunting your house while you're still alive. Passing through your day to day activities, all those faces passing you by, and you're invisible. None of them notice how you're crying out on the inside: "Why can't you see me? I'm drowning! Somebody help me!"
Because, of course, depression IS a ghost. Haunting every aspect of your life. Seeping into every little thing you do all day. Creeping into every thought, every action, and every relationship. They call it "the silent killer": it’s like a horror movie where you have to watch yourself slowly rot from the inside out.
You can feel depressed to the point that renders physical symptoms. It hurts to move, your appetite is shot, your whole torso is in knots. Your only defense is to sleep the pain away.
I used to never be able to even begin to understand what drove people to self harm, but I think I have found the answer: that even for just a moment, you are in control of what you are feeling. These persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, despair, never seem to fade. Not for long enough, at least. So you slit your wrists or thighs or wherever is the least noticeable or feels "right", to generate a distraction. No longer are you focused on those feelings, because it's a natural reaction that the physical pain becomes the focus in your mind, and it stops whenever you let it. In that moment, pain stops. The desperation is quenched for that moment. No matter how short, how painful, how scarring.
A certain technique allows these scars to eventually fade, but I still carry those wounds in a heavy heart. I don't quite remember a lot of things that happened to me because I either blocked out those memories or was living in complete fog, but I remember how they felt. I remember trying to slash my wrists in a high school bathroom stall with a bobby pin on Leap Day. I remember desperation like I've never felt when I felt so trapped by the circumstances of my home life that I could barely breathe, using every ounce of my energy not to rip apart my bed sheets or punch a hole in my wall. I remember sobbing over my toilet one night in August, begging God to let me throw up so I wouldn't have to go to something as harmless as a marching band rehearsal the next day, and how it was my favorite place to be and my favorite thing to do just a couple of years before. Before all this happened, of course. How difficult it was some days to drive to my destination instead of acting on the urge inside of me that wanted to just drive straight into a brick wall and get it over with. How surreal it was after so much speculation to be finally holding a bottle of pills in one hand, and writing a suicide note in the other.
But the memory that feels the most pungent is that overbearing cloud of dread that walked the halls after school with me every day. I was wholly perfused with the bitter greyness that took over my body; the dismal pit in my torso that ran all the way through my toes and my fingertips. Most of the time, it was there for no reason at all, other than making it through another day.
Because that's the prominent theme here, isn't it? Desperation. Living in survival mode.
But in this state, am I really even living?
It pains me to write all of this, because even though I've learned through my experiences, I can't help but feel that I've lost my youth to depression and anxiety. My chest grows heavy when remember how I've had to live like this for so, so, long. To think of those "carefree" teenage and childhood years that I'll never be able to get back.
I used to be someone with great potential. I was smart. I was talented. around middle school, my anxiety got the best of my study habits and started to affect my work habits, which, I can assure you, has been on a SHARP decline ever since. I came into high school winning first chair French horn in band right off the bat. That audition was one of the last things I ever played to my full potential. I think of the musician I could be if I never had to deal with this. The titles. The opportunities. How, this year, I no longer had it in me to even get out of bed and practice for things that used to mean the world to me. I mean, hell, if I'd kept up with music the way I did before high school, I might even be on my way to Julliard right now.