Living with a mental illness and various panic disorders is, to me, kind of like walking around with a heavy and noisy speaker on your shoulder. Blaring your personal, and often embarrassing, playlists for the world to hear, on shuffle, with you desperately trying but unable to find the mute button. You receive a bunch of unwanted attention from eye-rolling strangers, the song and tempo is often wildly inappropriate for the situation, and people don’t understand why you can’t just silence the damn thing.
In my experience, the scariest part of a panic attack is the feeling of disconnect from my own body and emotions. I find crying in public completely fucking horrifying, and when in the throes of an attack, the tears stream defiantly and uncontrollably, staining my cheeks with salty humiliation. Of course, this is peak material for further panic, and a voice inside my shattered mind insists that I’m going to be stuck in this wretched state forever, that there’s certainly no hope for me.
Sometimes, if I’m lucky, a little part of me remembers that I have in fact gotten through this before, several times actually, and in all likeliness I will get through it this time as well. But often the panic has already settled in too deeply, making itself at home inside my psyche, spreading its vitriol through my bloodstream and squeezing in between all my cells and fibers. My jaw will chatter, my hands will sweat and tremble, my legs will become too weak and feeble to hold my body up correctly. My breathing becomes shallow, uneven, lungs gasping for air through a sandpaper throat.
Experience has taught me that at that moment, I physically need someone else to help me escape from anxiety’s white-knuckled grip. I require a soothing presence and voice to remind me how to breathe properly and count it out, to circle the small of my back with a firm hand, to hold my shaky limbs until they eventually fall still.
At this point, the panic has manifested into an almost superhuman force, physical but invisible, too large and looming and malevolent for me to possibly defeat on my own. Attempting to fight it is like trying to hold back an entire ocean. Without an outside influence, someone who can wrench me from the crushing waves of panic, I would surely be engulfed.
This, in itself, fucking sucks, because it means not only allowing someone to witness me in all my gross vulnerability, but to also entrust them with helping me overcome it. In the midst of an attack, I desperately don’t want people around to see it, but I’m equally loathe to tackle it alone. It’s one in a series of many annoying catch 22’s that litter my life as a sufferer of anxiety and depression.
Having either one of those big bad’s is awful; copping both simultaneously is nearly unbearable. I discovered, after over a decade of being burdened with chronic depression, anxiety attacks, insomnia, and other various weird nocturnal disorders, that I actually had an underlying mental condition linking all these together. After a lengthy psychiatric evaluation I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which isn’t as scary as the name implies. It actually explained a lot of things. I began to see a pattern in the bouts of odd behavior exhibited throughout my life. It made me feel… validated. Crazy, but the treatable kind.
My ‘symptoms’ of BPD are textbook; difficulty in forming appropriate emotional responses, an absolute inability to deal with rejection, and a marked fear of abandonment. I had always attributed these traits or personality ‘flaws’ to the fact that my parents had divorced when I was still a baby, I barely saw my father during childhood, and I didn’t grow up in the most stable environment. While I’m sure that all had a lot to do with my feelings of abandonment, it’s still kind of gratifying to know that my personality disorder is responsible for my inability to deal with difficult situations and strong emotions.
I watched this Kristen Wiig movie the other day called ‘Welcome to me’, and while I didn’t really connect with her portrayal as a BPD sufferer, I did enjoy her quaint little summation on the condition, it was something like; ‘My whole life, people have struggled to understand my emotional responses. Sometimes a really bad thing will happen and it’s like I don’t have any feelings at all. But other times, something seemingly small will happen, and I have too many feelings and people don’t know how to handle them.’ In simplistic terms, this is the most accurate way to describe my emotional state- either not enough feelings, or far too many.
Throughout my life I’ve often been described as ‘cold’ and I generally don’t like to be touched, but when I deeply care about someone I become and clingy and overly tactile. I develop obsessions over people and ideas with irritating ease. Things can hold reverent importance to me, only to be discarded thoughtlessly once I quickly lose interest.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve been on a plethora of medication. I was warned that the combinations were hit and miss, and that everybody reacts to medications differently, so I should be prepared to try a few different types before finding the right fit. Luckily, I had success with the first treatment combo the psych recommended, and can happily say that I experience zero negative side-effects from anything I take. A lot of people say medication makes them numb, but for me, it just makes the negative thoughts and feelings easier to deal with. Besides, sometimes it’s preferable to be numb. One time I had a psychotic episode where I desperately wanted to tear all the skin off my body as I felt like it was suffocating me; given the choice of feeling those emotions fully or feeling nothing, I’ll choose nothing every fucking time, thank you.
In case you’re curious, my current daily drug intake looks something like this:
Morning: 1 X Lexapro 20mg (anti-depressant)
2x magnesium chelate (for muscle cramps- anxiety attacks usually leave me tightly knotted)
1 x Lamotrigine 40mg (epilepsy medication, helps prevents muscle smasms and shakes)
Afternoon: 1 x valium (only if required)
Night: 1 x Seroquel 100mg (anti-psychotic).
These 5 pills a day help me sleep, provide me with greater emotional stability, and assist in muscular control. All that means I am no longer at the mercy of my panicky mind and body; I am, for the most part, captain of my ship. My therapist helps me devise strategies to deal with situations that trigger anxiety, and my friends and family are happy to help me talk things through with them. Medication alone would not be enough; neither would therapy or my support network. All of these things weave together synergistically to create my own personal recipe for sanity.
I should mention that while I am an advocate of drug therapy for the treatment of mood and personality disorders such as mine, I get that it’s not for everyone. I’ve heard horror stories of people becoming obese, psychotic and even suicidal as a result of being incorrectly medicated. However, I also know for a fact that many people’s aversion to anti-depressants and the like are rooted in the belief ‘I don’t need to take a pill to make me happy’, and feel it is an irrefutable sign of weakness. My counter-argument to that is to compare depression to diabetes (stay with me); when the pancreas lacks the ability to produce insulin, we are required to manually generate and regulate that insulin, by intravenously adding it into our bloodstream, and strictly monitoring blood sugar levels. Would you dub someone as ‘weak’ for having a faulty pancreas and treating it accordingly? Didn’t fucking think so. Mental disorders are exactly the same; when the brain lacks the ability to produce certain chemicals, such as dopamine and oxytocin, we are required to stimulate those chemicals manually, in order to experience healthy brain function.
They say it takes a village to raise a child; similarly, it takes a whole support system to tackle mental illness. Anxiety and depression are like little terrorist attacks to your psyche, they’re your illness’s way of making itself known. It wants you to be afraid of it, to become further fractured, but, just as with ISIS, you must not give in to fear. You can rise up. You have allies and resources, in the form of therapy, medication, and lifestyle choices. You can fight back, and I promise, you can fucking win.