Mental Health Awareness Month: Breaking Through the Stigma
According to National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five people will be affected by a mental illness in their lifetime.
The room was dark, freezing, and spinning. I had this feeling as if I was going to faint, while trying to gasp for air. I was dripping in sweat as if I had just run the NYC Marathon. The worst part was it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest, suffocating me. My ex-boyfriend was incredibly scared and confused. I shouted, “call 911 or bring me some Xanax asap!” This, my friends, is what a severe panic attack feels like. What caused this? I was in the middle of a large lawsuit from a car accident I was in and this television show was showing a deposition for a lawsuit. I immediately became weak and entered a full panic attack breakdown. The racing thoughts of my lawsuit, mixed with the television show is what is known as a “trigger.”
Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I feel sharing my story is important. According to National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five people will be affected by a mental illness in their lifetime. Most of the time, mental illness is invisible. I smile through the racing anxiety-driven thoughts daily. Am I not good enough? Am I not skinny enough? Do I deserve this mental state? The list goes on.
I was diagnosed at 18 with severe Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety. I will never forget that day. I worked at Nordstrom and the store manager was paging someone in HR on the loudspeaker. I became nauseous, started shaking and sweating, and started to cry. I ran to the back stock room where a fellow employee followed me. I couldn’t breathe and I was unsure of what was happening. She held my hand and said to me, “honey, you are having a panic attack. You need to go to the doctor, now.” Panic attack? I had no idea what this even meant. I felt ashamed, embarrassed and like I was going crazy.
After confirmation from my doctor, I was given a medication prescription. I felt like an utter and crazy failure. I hid this from everyone. I didn’t want anyone to know I was on medication, in fear of being mocked. Back in 2002, no one talked about mental health, let alone that it was “ok to not be okay.”
Fast forward to 2017, this was the first time I felt okay in my entire adult life to let people know I suffered from anxiety. The first response from a coworker was, “WHAT?! YOU’RE TOO OUTGOING TO HAVE ANXIETY!” The other coworker snapped, “there is no way…” Again, it took me back to being ashamed, but somehow I got the words out: “THIS IS HOW I COPE.” They both were taken aback and apologized. I felt empowered and like I could stand-up for my mental health with no ramifications. Coping is a very common trait for someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder. You may have heard “smiling through depression,” for those who suffer from depression. My coping with anxiety is being extremely extroverted and energetic. This lets me suppress the thoughts going through my head and appear “normal.”
I finally came out about my illness to my family in 2017. I thought I would be mocked or judged and unfortunately, I was by one of my brothers. My parents said they would pray for me and were sorry that I didn’t feel comfortable talking to them. It was very freeing to be open with my parents because they began to share stores with me about their personal suffering with panic attacks as well. It began to be a family affair, so much so that my brother who mocked me was just diagnosed in early 2019 with severe panic disorder. He has since apologized and said, “I don’t wish this upon anyone and I am so sorry for ever mocking you or anyone else.” Hearing that brought tears to my eyes. Now that he is going through the same terrifying struggles that come with panic attacks, I can and will be there for him. I don’t want anyone to ever feel alone like I did.
Now, I live my life almost free of panic attacks except when I have a lot on my plate and feel completely hopeless. It still happens, even with medication. I’ve accepted I’m human, I’m not perfect –– but I’m not ashamed. I have a great support system behind me and I am loved. Don’t ever be afraid to reach out for help, sometimes just a conversation can help. If you don’t have anyone else, please contact me. As an advocate for Mental Health Awareness, I want to be there for you or anyone else. I hope my story empowers you to reach out.
If you, or someone you love is suffering, know it will get better for both of you. We have our good days and we have our bad days. While you may not be the one suffering, remember to be patient. We didn’t choose to live like this, we just want to be “normal” and function like everyone else. Let’s continue to #BreakTheStigma and open doors to normalize mental health. Please check out the Anxiety and Depress Association of America website for helpful resources.