My Mental Illness

Her racing heart and shortness of breath came out of nowhere and sent her into a panic. “MOM! HELP ME” She yelled; her mom panicking as well packed her up and rushed her to the doctor.  When they arrived the tall man in the white coat listened to her lungs and heart then sat down to interview her about her condition. Her heart racing as if it wanted to escape from her chest, she began to cry, wondering what is going to happen to her? The man in the white coat said to the fragile 18 year old girl, who would have sworn was having a heart attack, that she should “take a breath…. actually breath into a brown paper bag it will help you calm down. There is nothing I can do for you right now, but here is a card and phone number of a psychiatrist over in building C. Call the desk and set up a time to see him.” 

She starred at the card on the way home….”Psychiatrist.” She thought: “What did the doctor mean I should see a psychiatrist? Why? I couldn’t breath. He didn’t even care, he told me to breath into a bag, what kind of doctor does that?” As her heart rate slowed down, she brushed away her tears and took a deep breath. She looked out the window, her mom was silent, the drive home was quiet; "I won’t see a psychiatrist" she thought, "it’s all better now." 

That girl was me. It was the summer after high school. I was 18 years old and was accepted to college, in just a short month I would be moving away from home, from everything I knew. At 18 years old I thought I knew it all but at the same time I knew nothing. Let’s rewind a few months. Like many young girls after their first heartbreak, I was sad. But unlike many girls, I was on edge; feelings of panic would come out of nowhere and take over my entire body. Out of anger toward the doctor who told me to breath into a paper bag, I never did and have not to this day.  It felt like my life changed as soon as I graduated high school, my world was falling down on me. I was broken, the comfort I had known for years was gone and I felt alone…. but I had hope, I was also excited to move far away from the place that brought me into panic, or so I thought that it was the only place that brought me into panic. 

I was not formally diagnosed with anxiety until after college. I knew little to nothing about mental health illnesses before nursing school, it wasn’t until my closest friend came out and said to me “You’re having a panic attack, I know what they are and I will help you.” It was before an important exam during a study session; feelings of panic came over me. I couldn’t breath; my heart was racing and began to cry, anticipating the worst in a non-threatening situation. Anxiety before a final is very normal for most people but one thing that set those with anxiety disorder apart is “persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening.”  

The more time I spent around my nursing school friends and the more I learned about mental health, I self-diagnosed myself with anxiety. I was too proud to see a doctor; I blame that on the bad experience I had in the past. Talking openly about anxiety was helpful to me, having friends to relate to and textbooks that gave me facts and percentages was reassuring. 40 million adults in the USA have anxiety, 60% of them are women and most develop symptoms before the age of 21. I believe that talking about mental health makes people uneasy; people are quick to tag you as “crazy.” I believe that God’s plan for me is to be exactly where I am. I work with a patient population where it is very rare not to see a mental illness. I work with some of the most amazing nurses where many of them also have anxiety and are open about it. Now, I have a huge support system and I have found ways that help me during periods of severe anxiety. 

After doing more research on anxiety itself I began to think about how and why I have anxiety. Genetics and Stress, what I have found, are the leading causes of anxiety. Stress; I remember when people used to say to me “How are you stressed? You’re young, you have no responsibilities.” I blame this on being the oldest child of a single mom and feeling like I had to take care of my family. Ever since I can remember I have always been the high strung and hyper one in my family of three. I always stress out about the small things, not only stress out but I also begin to sweat, my heart races, I get angry and sometimes it leads me into panic.  My mom never put me in this position; she would never in a million years want me to feel this way. I just do. One time when my family and I were on vacation in Florida our house was robbed. When we returned home I felt that I was in a constant state of paranoia and panic. Every person I saw in the street I wondered if they were the one that robbed our home. I would dwell on the situation and I would read so much into it, it drove me crazy.  Why am I like this? Why do I read into things so much? Why can’t I just calm down and move on like normal people do? Why do I always need to be the one to fix everything? Questions I asked myself a lot and still do. 

You’re probably wondering where I am now? What do I do for my anxiety? How do I live with it? How was I diagnosed? 

I was diagnosed, formally, when I went in to see my doctor because I couldn’t sleep and was clenching my jaw so hard at night that the inside of my cheeks would bleed. I associated all of this with stress. I was a brand new nurse, rotating between day and night shift on a very busy floor. The doctor I saw interviewed me,; she was very accepting. She handed me two questionnaires to fill out; one was to “test” for depression and the other was to “test” for anxiety. You may have guessed…. I scored positive on the anxiety “test.” My doctor wrote me a prescription medication to help me sleep, it was a benzodiazepine (a class of psychoactive drugs), I took the very low dose that night and felt like a zombie the next day. That was the last time I took anything prescription for my anxiety. This is my choice and I am not saying that it is right for everyone. 

Currently, what helps me is deep breathing, reaching out, building a support system and taking my vitamins. In nursing school we had a semester long class on mental illness; the instructor was amazing, she was completely different than any other teacher I have ever had. She taught us how to deep breathe, she taught us how to shut off “monkey brain,” and how to find the center and focus on one thing at a time. As she put it; " monkey mind is the persistent internal chatter that sucks my energy into an ever-twirling tornado of erroneous thoughts and painful feelings, and keeps me from the here and now. A simple antidote is to make my breath slower, deeper, more regular and quiet. That simple act moves me from lower brain to cerebral cortex, and from the dreaded past or future to the perfect present. Breathing is a gift. In this era of evidence based practice it has been proven beyond a shadow of doubt that breathing is essential to life. We may as well do it fully, and joyously!". 

This is what works for me: When you’re having “monkey brain” aka severe anxiety leading to panic, close your eyes (no matter where you are, except if you’re driving — pull over!) picture a black wall, completely shut out all of the thoughts in your brain and don’t let them back in. As you stare at this black wall, take 1 really deep breath until you can feel the air in your stomach, hold the breath for 10 counts and exhale very slowly through your mouth. Do this 10 times (or more if monkey brain keeps fighting you). Eventually your mind should clear and your heart rate will slow down. This is my method, this is not a prescription or anything formal, it is what I do and what works for me.

That teacher and my classmates probably don’t know this, but this was a game changer for me. I was and still am very close to this instructor and she never once said it but I think she could feel and see my struggles. She never once judged me and never once told me to calm down. I have learned to deal with my anxiety and I can tell when it is coming on strong. I have days where I completely forget I have anxiety, and I have days where I just cry. Every day I tell myself that I need to let go of the things that I cannot change, God has a plan and that everything happens for a reason.  Some days my thoughts are clouded and I let my anxiety take over, this is when I call my best friends; they understand me, they know what to say and do for me. 

The best thing I have done for myself is talk about it. When I say it out loud it reminds me that I have control and it can’t pull me down. Tom said to me the other day “I can never tell when you’re feeling anxious” he said that he only knows when I tell him. When I am having severe anxiety, I feel like people can see it, feel it, and hear it but that is not always the case. Tom knows how to bring me back down to earth. 

Today I woke up with a headache and a sore jaw; these two things mean that my subconscious got the best of me. Do you know how anxious I am that you are reading this and that I let you in? This is so raw; this is not something you see in my beautiful Instagram photo or my smiling Facebook profile picture. I have my battles and I fight them every day. What I suggest is that you find yourself a support system, whether it is your teacher, best friend, fiancé or new Instagram friend. The moment I stopped denying my illness, the moment I opened up, and the moment I started to talk about it is when I freed myself. I am not cured, but I know how to live with it. Does this mean that I’ll never have a panic attack again? No. Does this mean that I am wondering what you’re thinking and I am slightly panicking because I just told you something really deep? Yes. Is this a threat to me? No, because I am sitting behind a computer screen and so are you. As I take a deep breath I remind myself that this will not hurt me, but that I hope it will help someone else. Maybe you. 





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