You know that quote, the one about greatness? “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” It’s from the Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night and, even though I’ve heard it a hundred times in speeches and read it a thousand more times on various social media platforms, I never really felt like it applied to me. I’m still not sure my story is “great”, but I do believe it’s significant, and it was most certainly thrust upon me — I did not choose it.
I’ve had terrible, debilitating anxiety for most of my life. I’m 27 now. I had my first full-blown can’t-eat-can’t-sleep-feels-like-dying panic attack when I was 12. For those who have been lucky enough never to experience a panic attack, I will try to explain what they feel like (to me). They almost always happen suddenly. It feels like a switch flips and I can no longer breathe. My whole body shakes, my teeth chatter, I cry. I cry HARD. I hyperventilate and dry heave (sometimes I actually vomit, usually in less-than-ideal spots). It’s like my body is so overwhelmed with emotions and pure adrenaline that it is going to explode and, in turn, kill me. And the most frustrating part is that I don’t always know why it’s happening. I always try to pinpoint a trigger because it seems like knowing the cause of the attack should slow it down, but even when I think I’ve figured it out, that knowledge doesn’t stop what’s happening in my body.
I’ve been in and out of therapy consistently since I was 14. My first therapist was the one who diagnosed me with panic disorder. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are very preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. I’ve learned lots and lots of coping techniques (some of which have evolved as I’ve aged, some I still use today), talked endlessly about potential triggers, and have been prescribed daily and emergency medications. My treatment has been very successful overall, but I still struggle with anxiety. It affects my life in many ways, some of which I only recently realized. It’s had a profound impact on my romantic relationships, my decisions on where to go to school, where to live, who to talk to, what to do for fun, etc. I have worked tirelessly not to allow my disorder to control my life, and I’ve overcome many obstacles and grown tremendously from it. BUT, I am not one of those people who is thankful for the struggle, if we’re being honest.
What I AM thankful for is the community that I have found/built/gained by speaking openly about my panic disorder. When I first started having panic attacks, I didn’t talk to anyone other than my family and doctor about it. I felt crazy. I felt like I was really sick and I didn’t want people to know. I started to open up about it a bit more as I got older and found my core group of friends. But, it wasn’t until the fall of 2017 that I finally said, “Screw it. I need to talk about this, not only for myself, but for anyone else who is struggling with a mental illness and feels self-conscious about it.” I was on an Amtrak train to meet up with my family because I’d been having panic attacks for 48 hours and was desperate to be with them in a place where I’d felt so safe and happy as a child (a beach town in Rhode Island where we vacationed for my whole life). I’d taken off work because I was so physically ill from the relentless anxiety and all the brutal physical symptoms it caused. After throwing up in the bathroom on the train (#glam) I went back to my seat, picked up my phone, opened Facebook, and created a group. I called it com•mun•ity. I didn’t think about the name, it just seemed natural because that was what I wanted to create: a community of people who were willing to share their stories, read other people’s stories with open minds, and offer support and comfort. I invited about 75 people at first. I posted updates about what I was experiencing over the course of the next few days and the support I received was truly moving. I knew my friends and family would jump right in but so many other people stepped in to offer words of encouragement and share their own struggles, too. The group has doubled in size since its creation and I am always so glad when people post in it. I don’t like to read that people are having a tough time, but I love that they feel they can come to the group’s page and talk about it openly and get advice, kind words, and empathy.
So, when I say “greatness” was “thrust” upon me, I mean that my panic disorder led to the creation of a beautiful, safe place for people to talk about mental health, a subject that has been stigmatized for FAR too long. Making this group was my first step in becoming an advocate for mental health. I talk about it more openly, not only online but face-to-face. I try to remind people that you don’t have to have a diagnosed mental illness/disorder to get mental health support. What we think and feel has everything to do with what happens in our bodies, it’s all connected. So, in order to be truly well, we need to care for our minds the way we do our bodies — that’s what I’ve learned in my 20ish years of living with anxiety. I hope that what I’ve shared strikes a chord with at least one person out there and shows them that it’s not just “okay” to ask for help, it’s GOOD. Most people WANT to help others, we just need to give them the chance.