This story is part of a blog series called, “Your Story: a conversation on mental and emotional health and disabilities.” Please read with a heart open and understanding – free of judgement.
Please be aware that within this interview, topics such as: anxiety in multiple forms, panic attacks, low self esteem, depression, binge eating, and agoraphobia are brought up. If these topics affect you in any way please stop reading, talk with a someone you trust, or contact a mental health professional immediately. You may also call the Suicide Hotline 800-273-TALK (8255).
A Note On Editing
Minor changes were made to help make the interview easier to read.
Allow me to Introduce
Anxiety and Panic are two of the most commonly felt emotions in the mental and emotional health realm. If you’re at all familiar with the George C. Scott portrayal of A Christmas Carol, I often imagine them as the hidden children of Fear. And if you’re not, please make haste and watch it.
I greatly admire the courage of this incredible teacher as she discovers that she can take Anxiety and Panic and drive along side them as she travels the roads of life.
When did you realize there was something mentally or emotionally wrong? And what did you do about it?
I had my first panic attack at the age of 16 in high school. I had just taken a hot bath after drinking way too much caffeine (which I knew nothing about) and my heart was pounding out of my chest uncontrollably. I ran to my sister for help, and later, it was determined it was most likely a panic attack. I had infrequent panic attacks thereafter until my 2nd year teaching when I developed daily panic attacks and had one of the worst panic attacks of my life while driving. I developed driving anxiety literally overnight. I started avoiding highways and red lights (those were a trigger…I know, strange). I would spend twice as long getting somewhere just so I could feel at ease. I cut out aspartame, caffeine, and started meditating again. Eventually, I went to the doctor for meds, but only took the meds off and on for very short periods of time because I hated the way they made me feel, and I didn’t want to become addicted to them.
Are there/were there moments in your life where this mental/emotional struggle becomes more present and you’re more aware of its existence?
Socially – being around strangers when I have to talk with them. Driving in Minneapolis, Minnesota is also a trigger.
How has this experience affected your relationships with others?
During my driving anxiety years, my husband really had to drive a lot. However, he has his own mental health issues. I remember sitting at the end of my driveway backing up my car and balling because I was too afraid to drive anymore. I was yelling at myself to just drive the damn car, but I was absolutely petrified I would have another panic attack and hurt someone while out on the road. I think it also hurt when I would tell family members and they acted like it was no big deal. No one really seemed to understand what a real panic attack feels like – which is essentially like you are going to die; it’s so very debilitating. It has made me a lot more compassionate and empathetic with my students who have anxiety. I actually had one student write me an email telling me that I saved her life after being open about anxiety and mental wellness in the first week of my classes. I decided I won’t hide my mental illness from my students, and it’s proved to be very valuable.
What methods have you found are beneficial for your treatment and healing?
There is a book called Dare by Barry Mcdonagh. He is not a doctor, but an expert in dealing with anxiety. He includes research and one of my biggest takeaways was to imagine my anxiety as any kind of non-threatening character you want, and instead of resisting it, you welcome it. So, every time I get on a stretch of road when I feel my hands clamming up and my heart starting to race, I imagine Dobby from Harry Potter (you know, the house elf) sitting in my passenger seat, and I say, “Hey anxiety. Nice of you to join me!” It sounds ridiculous, but I swear – the first time I did it – it worked! So, I’ve done it ever since. My driving anxiety is much much better; I actually rarely think about it now. I haven’t taken any meds for about a year and half. I’ve found saying “I love myself” in the mirror has helped my self esteem and lack of self appreciation – we’re our worst critics.
What keeps you from receiving or accepting treatment and healing?
Money. It cost almost $1000 to have one psych appointment at Mayo Clinic. Also, I don’t believe that meds were the final answer for me. I think a lot of people are thrown on medication or into therapy, and it doesn’t really help them. It’s a band-aid to a deep problem or problem related to nutrition. The doctor recommended “Deep breathing” during panic attacks which actually makes me panic more (something Barry Mcdonagh talks about in his book). Also, I was told once by my women’s health doctor that I “just have to go home and relax” – as if anxiety can just be turned on or off. That’s like saying to a cancer patient – just go home and not have cancer. I think the problem is that lots of people confuse anxiety with just being nervous or stressed out. Being nervous is not anxiety. Anxiety is life-altering and crippling fear. It sent me into a deep depression and there were moments I thought I would never “get better”.
What symptoms or behaviors of your mental/emotional health experience are the most difficult for you to handle? For example: self harm, disordered eating and sleeping, suicidal thoughts, loss of motivation.
I call them “skipped beats” but it’s an anxiety symptom that started a year or two after I was diagnosed with GAD (General Anxiety Disorder) and panic disorder. I’d have the sensation of my heart skipping beats causing me to cough. It often happened at night and could keep me up all night. The health anxiety is the worst! Also, just the dreaded heart beating out of your chest sensation when you can’t get it to stop. That’s why I’ve called 911 twice over the years because when you’re heart skips like that, you feel like you’re having a heart attack! I also started binge eating at night because it made me feel better.
Have you shared your struggles with family and friends? If yes, what have their reactions been? Are they supportive, or do they wish to keep your struggles hidden?
Yes, sort of. Like I said previously, I think the majority of my family is just too busy to care. Like, if I ended up in a psych ward for attempted suicide, I think then they would care. But, I don’t think they have any idea how crippling and life altering anxiety/depression can be. So they’re sort of supportive I guess. My husband has been the most understanding and supportive – probably because he lives with it everyday! I know I can rely on him to listen.
What inspires you to stay hopeful through this experience? Or how do you find hope during this experience?
That email from that student of mine – the one that said I saved her life. That gives me hope and purpose. It also gave me a reason which I think I desperately needed.
If you could travel back in time and visit yourself just before or just after recognizing there was something amiss, what would you tell yourself?
Be patient with yourself. Stop googling your symptoms everyday. Accept death as part of life. Get back on that road and drive, drive, drive!
If you met someone else going through a similar experience as yourself, what advice and words of courage would you give them?
Take that vitamin D! We’re almost all deficient. Also, imagine your anxiety is this stupid character and INVITE them into your life. If you start panicking, DO NOT RESIST the feelings of anxiety. It’s important because it’s what causes panic attacks. Also know that it is something you will most likely have for the rest of your life, but you can go for a long, long, long time without it interfering with your life. If it has significantly interfered with your life, call a doctor or mental health professional and get help.
Is there any final part of your story or thoughts of encouragement you wish to share with the readers?
Anxiety is real. It physically hurts. I almost developed agoraphobia due to my driving anxiety. I used to drive all the time with not a single worry and loved it! Those days are starting to come back. Tell yourself “I love myself” in the mirror. Be patient with yourself. Cry. Find things to do that help you to get lost in yourself like reading or an art project. And stop googling symptoms.
Thank you for sharing! Your life really does have so much purpose.
Continuing The Conversation
The final question I asked as part of this interview was whether she was willing to connect with others about her story. She agreed and said that she would be willing to talk with those interested over email. To continue to protect her privacy though, I will not disclose her email in this post. If you are interested in connecting with her, please send your request to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will forward your message to her directly.
Feel free to continue the conversation on mental and emotional health in the comments below. But please understand that your comments are being moderated and will be deleted if they are hurtful, hateful, or inappropriate in any way. This is a safe space to share your story about mental and emotional health and disabilities. Please do what you can to keep it as such.
A Note For Readers
If the story shared by this teacher has inspired you to share your own story, please click here to be taken to the introductory post where you will learn where the inspiration for this blog series came from as well as how to participate.