I first started having panic attacks as an adolescent. They’d show up like unwelcome visitors, talk, prey and drain, then often go just as quickly as they came leaving only the sinking feeling that they’d be back. When I say panic attacks, I don’t mean I had moments of some heart racing. I mean I had moments when I was drowning in overwhelm and disorientation. Like treading water in the middle of the ocean on a pitch black night with no known boat or land in sight, all of my senses were impacted and there was no immediate way to get reprieve. I felt unsteady, unsure and unable to trust my perceptions. Sometimes the panic attacks only plagued me for the night. Once they stayed with me daily for an entire year.
For me, they often came on without a warning. It is a feeling like your car is stuck on the tracks about to be demolished by an oncoming train, but you rolled out in the nick of time, taking deep breaths while having gut punches of panic as it raced by your head. Only there is no train, just Tuesday, just nothing. It just happens. And when it happens enough, you can’t feel anything good, only fear, only dread, waiting for the next shock of panic to hit your exhausted body.
In the beginning, I did not want to tell others what I was experiencing, fearing that their concern or lack thereof would only exacerbate mine, validating my fears that there was something deeply wrong with me. When I was finally able and willing to start articulating what was happening, I felt like I wasn’t quite as alone while struggling for air. For me, staying in spaces where mental health can be openly discussed, continues to be a vastly important part in taking care of my own health.
While it hasn’t all been a straight shot up, I was and continue to be fortunate enough to be able to get the support and resources I have needed. Through therapy, medicine, and strategies that work for me, I have been able to stay in a much more manageable space. I cannot express enough the importance and impact of these resources. Not only did I need access to them, I needed support and encouragement to use them. I had resistance, thinking that I didn’t want to have to “rely” on those supports. I didn’t want to be perceived as weak or unable.
For me, the reprieve came after I had the realization that when someone is drowning in the middle of the ocean, they take the life raft. They don’t resist, worrying about their future ability to swim just because they need the raft in that circumstance. If you find yourself treading and fatiguing with nowhere for rest, there is no use wasting precious energy questioning your comparative strength. You are not weak, you are human, battling true, even if often invisible, elements.
For me, my mental health continues to be something I have to be incredibly intentional about. I do not avoid the ocean of life. I want to soak up every piece of beauty that it has to offer. First though, I had to get to the solid ground, rest and learn new strategies (and repeat this as needed, which has been more times than I can count). Now I have an understanding of how to be mindful of the tides, the undertow, the conditions which require more awareness from me in regards to my personal capacity and my surroundings. Sometimes I can just swim, other times I need to make sure I know where my lifeguards and flotation devices are.
I am not ashamed I have had these experiences. They have helped me connect to others in a way not previously possible. If you don’t struggle with mental health issues, I am truly glad for you and I hope you never do. I also hope you are willing to believe that there are others in a fight for their life even when you can’t see it. With hindsight only made possible by the journey I have had, I can now say experiencing agony of mental health struggles and being privileged enough to live more days on the other side, has given me the perspective that some of the absolute best days only came on the other side of a chasm, a rest of a life I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to. If you do struggle, I already feel more connected to you.
Don’t stay quiet.
Signal for help.
Take the life raft.
Let’s get you to shore.
We need you.