It was an all too familiar feeling. Almost nine years separated the two incidences, but the feelings were the same. The feelings of shame, fear, and heartbreak were all to present. Although this time, I was certain that I was actually losing my cool, losing my mind, and worst of all losing my life.
The windows didn’t have bars this time, just a sheer cover to prevent you from seeing the outside world. You could tell whether the sun was shining or not and if you grabbed a chair or stood on your bed you could see the parking lot of the building. That’s about all you got. The chances of someone actually letting you get to that point so you could see something was rare. We were watched around the clock. The nurses, the doctor’s, the counselors, the caseworkers. There were eyes everywhere, even when you slept. The night shift came in to your room every seven minutes to check your status. When you struggle to get sleep in the comfort of your own home and wake up most nights to a panic episode and full on sweat, this was not an ideal setting for rest.
I had been in the same clothes for 48 hours at this point. My eyes were bloodshot and swollen. I had already been put in a full body restraint with both my wrists locked together and then again locked to a strap around my waist. For a person struggling with constant anxiety and panic disorder, having to put my wrists out, only to be bound, was the ultimate low. I winced every time she closed a lock. That is the closest I’d ever been to handcuffs or the cops for that matter, and all I felt was guilt. I wasn’t just struggling now. I had become a problem. I was watching my worst nightmare come true. My 27 year long battle with depression, anxiety and panic attacks had made me a villain who is unworthy and unlovable and I deserved to be taken away.
It wasn’t my first time in a psychiatric facility. When I was a junior in high school my anxiety and addiction to self-harm as a way to cope had turned for the worse. I couldn’t keep up with the demands of being what I thought was the perfect daughter, sister, student, and athlete. I didn’t want to do any of it any more, and I had every intention of making sure the pressure, the anxiety, and the fear of failure was going to end through suffocation and a lot of pills. This never happened of course, thankfully due to my nosy Mother.
But ten days in an adolescent psych ward is an eye opening experience. In the next nine years that had passed I was still trying to understand all that I had been through in those ten days as a sixteen-year-old kid. I was there for an in depth and round the clock treatment plan that would stabilize me and get the meds figured out. Little did I know that I would be immersed and exposed to other kids that had been physically and sexually abused, neglected, addicted to drugs, bullied and unable to control bouts of sheer anger. None of that was me. Although those ten days were a blessing in disguise and allowed me to get emotionally stable and start a med routine that kept me afloat for some time, it was hard to wrap my head around the experience. I had a functional and loving family. I never got a grade below a B and I was a highly competitive and Division I bound athlete. For a girl that had everything she needed and the capabilities to reach her highest goals it was hard to fathom “why I needed help with my mental health?”
My life moved on, I went to college, I became Division I athlete, a Division I coach and a capable and competent young woman. The path wasn’t what I had always dreamed of, and I fell short of many accomplishments I hoped to achieve, but for the most part, I excelled. I dated people here and there and I moved away from home like everyone tells you to do. I paid my rent, opened a savings account, and was never once late to work. Yet I had spent countless hours over the last 9 years picturing those other kids I was with, replaying their stories, replaying the treatment and all the therapy sessions we did.
At the age of 27, I was still not over the hump. I was still taking anti depressants and anti anxiety meds, going to therapy once sometimes twice a week. I “sifted through my shit”, I read books, and did my journaling. There was no reason for me to still be in bad shape. To still have my every waking moment ruled by anxiety and panic. Yet, here I was, a successful, driven, ambitious woman, nine years later, and right back in the same place.
It had been five months at this point. The panic attacks had started in late September and not subsided. I never knew when they would come but I knew I had at least one in me per week. If I was out in public and I felt one coming you could be sure I found shelter and I found it fast. Towards the end of February I was terrified to leave my own house, sometimes my own bed, simply paralyzed by anxiety and the fear of going in to a full on panic attack at any moment. It starts with my negative self-talk. This gets my heart racing, my breath picks up, the shaking become uncontrollable. Sometimes I get nauseous, I dry heave, I throw up, and sometimes I’m so paralyzed by my fear I end up on the floor in a curled up ball unable to move. At least three nights out of the week they would wake me up. I would leap out of bed with a racing heartbeat and then have to change my pajamas because they were drenched in sweat. I never knew how long it would take for my body to calm down and to gain relief. What I did know is that it would take me at least two days to recover and that was if I didn’t have another attack within those two days, which often times, I did. How many days could I waste being controlled by my panic?
Week after week I was watching myself deteriorate in all ways. I had moved my life to a new city for work and in hopes that a fresh new start was exactly what my soul needed. I found a new therapist that I loved and was seeing twice a week, along with a new psychiatrist that had most recently altered my medication. The on going panic attacks never subsided. My anxiety increased and it didn’t help that I had recently played my cards at what I thought was love, only to be deceived. Before I knew it, it was a cold night in February, I was mid panic attack, driving myself to a crisis management center and knocking down the door for help. I needed the pounding in my chest and the chaos in my head to stop or I was positive in that moment that I was going to die.
When I noticed that both the pounding and chaos had stopped I was two hours away from my home, and slowly, piece by piece, taking all of my clothing off. Full skin checks were a part of the “check in” process. As I turned my back to the nurses that scanned by body I could feel the tears running down by cheeks but I felt nothing in that moment. I know that I was tired, terrified, and dealing with what I call the all too familiar panic hangover. This hangover is by far worse than anything I have ever experienced from drinking too many beers the night before.
Once the body scan was complete I was able to redress myself and then taken back to the common room. I was one of about fifteen people in the room. Everyone there with a different story, a different set of problems, a different demon. Between breaths and trying not to absolutely lose control again in panic, I remember asking myself the infamous question “how did I get here, and why am I still struggling with this?” Two questions I couldn’t fully answer until I had spent my full six days in that facility.
Ill never forget the day I was released. I stood on a chair in the common room like I wasn’t supposed to look in to the parking lot. As I stood tall waiting to watch my ride pull in I suddenly got hit with an unexpected wave of light-headedness. I stepped down off the chair and the all too familiar dagger hit my chest, knocking the wind right out of me. I clenched my stomach, the first gag came out of nowhere and I ran to the bathroom. I couldn’t let anyone see me like this. I was supposed to be “cured” by now. But the sheer thought of going back to the real world after six days in that facility brought me to my knees. I curled up in to a ball in the bathroom and sucked in for air. Had six days in this hell not fixed me of my anxiety and panic? How could that be? I didn’t have the strength to make it another hour in this place but suddenly the thought of facing this beast out in the real world again was unbearable.
As I walked in to my parent’s house I could barely look at my mom. I could see it in her face that I looked like hell. I felt like hell. I had lost 10lbs in just over a week. I didn’t have 10lbs of me to lose in the first place. I hadn’t slept in six days. I had spent hours watching and listening to other people’s struggles in addition to wrapping my energy around my own.
I was out and safe. I was with people that loved me the most. And yet, for the next 4 days I couldn’t get by without having a complete breakdown. Just like I had at 16 years old, I replayed every waking moment of those six days in my head. The people, the smells, constantly being watched. I woke up every night in a full on panic attack, changed my pajamas, and crawled back in to count breaths or sing a song in my head to get me back to sleep. Four days of this in the safety of my own parents home went by before I had my light bulb moment.
It was somewhere in the light of that 5th day that I started to realize that the memories from both experiences would never leave me. The most recent stay would probably shake me to my core for several weeks to come. The reality is those two experiences would be with me until the day that I die. And when I finally allowed my broken self to hear this and feel this and accept this, I realized that those same two experiences did not have to continue to haunt me. The haunting, the shame, the disgust and fear that were tied to my mental health and my mental health journey had to end.
As I got out my journal and committed to the task of writing every single day, I was amazed at how much power, hope, and love my broken-self spit out. For 27 years it has “just been anxiety.” Everyone has anxiety and for the most part its supposed to help you. Most people look at you and say it’s just nerves and you’re “over thinking.” And trust me, I am 100% an over-thinker. But sometimes your brain and your body run with a story, a thought, or a fear all on their own. Self-talk, I’m finding can absolutely make or break you.
But the message isn’t in what anxiety can do or how bad it can get. This is by no means a fun or exciting story to tell, but one that I feel must be told. This has been a 27 year long journey to acknowledge and understand finally without fear or shame, this concept of mental health. And although I want this to be read and shared by everyone, my message and my passion comes from the heart of a woman who has spent the majority of her life in fear.
This message would be to the girls and women who are sisters, wives, mothers. The women who are remarkable athletes, students, and artists. The women who struggle to get by or maybe barely struggle at all. My message is that these beasts of the brain like anxiety and panic disorder are not and never will be who we are. They impact us in horrific ways that cultivate shame, silence, and struggle. They allow us to question our every move and tell ourselves that something is not right and that we are not enough.
We are enough. We are more than enough. We must believe that we are enough. To address the fears I opened with, we may loose our cool from time to time but what human doesn’t? The message is even if we lose our cool we are not losing our minds and we cannot afford to lose our lives.
The silence, the shame, the questioning must end. These false beliefs and detrimental feelings are robbing us of full and wonderful lives that wait for us. By no means is this easy. This will be a battle I fight every day of my life until I die. I know this, I accept this, and I am no longer afraid to acknowledge this.
The one thing we must refuse to do is stop fighting. Fight because you are enough. Fight to believe that you are enough. And when you don’t feel it, because there will be days you don’t, find that loving person who knows you are enough. Then tell them they are enough.
Now more than ever I fight for this and I hope this story encourages you to fight too.