I remember the first time that it happened. I was 14 years old, sitting at a Big Boy restaurant with my dad and some close friends. All of a sudden I couldn’t catch my breath, I reactively kicked my dad’s shin under the booth trying to regain my composure, trying to breathe. The dizziness swept over me and I was sure that this was it. I heard nothing but an ambulance siren in the distance and I feared they knew. They knew it was my time and they were coming for me. After what seemed an eternity but probably only a couple of minutes my breathing slowed, my body relaxed and I could focus again.

A panic attack. My first among hundreds to follow. Each time equally as petrifying. Each time I was sure that I was departing from this Earth, hovering over my body, unable to reach myself and get back in. Everybody assumes that they started after my mom died, but they began over a year before. These attacks resulted in my dad taking me to the Emergency Room at least a dozen times, sure I was having a heart attack, 15 years old, 16 years old constantly at the doctors having tests ran. EKGs of my heart, Cat Scans of my brain. To be told I was fine and that I needed to relax. But they didn’t understand how it felt, they didn’t understand the feeling of crawling out of my skin but feeling lightheaded, not being able to breathe, heart racing out of my chest, muscle twitches and uncontrollable shaking. Constantly pacing the floor at home back and forth trying to escape myself.

I started taking antidepressants early, and shortly after that I discovered alcohol. I didn’t know at first that I would like it so much, it just started as something to do with friends, but as soon as the drinking began, the blackouts began too. Anything that I feared doing while sober came to the surface during my blackouts. I would cut myself. I would blackout and find knives and cut through my skin as deep as I could in a drunken state, and after the adrenaline died down I would fall asleep. It progressively got worse. I remember waking up and feeling the sting as the effects of the liquor wore off, looking down at my legs into these gaping wounds knowing I would need stitches. I would hang my head in a walk of shame into my doctor’s office, the one who I had known since I was a little girl, and the one that knew my mom and her addiction now seeing me, hung over with self- inflicted wounds all down my legs. I would lay on that cold white table emotionless and numb as they injected the wounds and stitched me up. All better. Until next time.

The panic attacks started getting worse as I got older. The days after a night of drinking would bring about extreme panic as my body was trying to flush out the alcohol. My heart would pound as I felt myself sobering up. After some years of feeling this way I decided that I was finally done.

I couldn’t do it anymore, I couldn’t handle the panic, the cutting, the blacking out and I knew it was time to stop.

I quit the drinking in 2009, and I quit the cutting and several other bad habits that were morally against everything that I believed. I wish I could say that I “quit” the panic attacks too, but despite my efforts, they didn’t quit me.

They remained pretty calm the year following my drinking abstinence. I had a little more control over my life and my environment and I think that helped my brain relax a bit. At least until my baby.

I got pregnant 8 months into my sobriety. Things with my boyfriend got a little hectic and my anxiety started to stir a bit. The remainder of the pregnancy went fairly smooth but I went into a googling frenzy. I would look up ways people die during pregnancy and after delivery and freak myself out, I couldn’t handle having that worry in my head, haunting me every day, but I had no choice. I went into labor and I remember being petrified. I would stare at my monitors, watching cautiously for any changes in my vital signs, getting nervous when my heart rate would spike or oxygen would dip a little bit. Eventually my nurses turned the screen away from me and gave me something to relax. I gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby boy. I thought you were supposed to cry tears of joy after having a baby but I had nothing. I felt love for him but as the drugs were trying to leave my body my panic went sky high. All I could think about was what could go wrong, what after birth health issue will affect me, and I just couldn’t shake the fear of leaving my baby already. I was mentally paralyzed. I held my baby close, afraid to move, afraid I would collapse as soon as I got up and would leave this world. The nurses forced me to get up and use the bathroom but I felt so wobbly, so off balance after having a 7 pound human leave my belly. I couldn’t figure out how to regain stability. Nurses, social workers, psych’s, all came in to see me and make sure I was mentally fit. They started me on an antidepressant after being off of one for 9 months and released me into the world.

I remember going home and just feeling odd. All of a sudden I’m just at my dad’s with my boyfriend and a baby, It felt like a “what now” moment. Like what am I supposed to do? I just knew I was scared, I would cry thinking of leaving my baby and would just sit on the couch for hours holding him. I was still so wobbly and off balance from losing my big belly and by holding him it made me feel centered again. My missing weight made up by having him in my arms.

My post-partum anxiety went into full swing. I would swear my breathing was off, probably something in my lung that was going to end me at any second, and I would stop what I was doing and drive myself to the hospital. They took caution considering I just had a baby and would run tests. They came back clear and I would leave feeling a sense of relief, short lived relief. This went on for a long time, even leaving in the early morning hours without saying a word to my boyfriend, only to get a call saying I didn’t leave any breast milk for the baby. I had heart monitors and more tests ran, giving me temporary peace until the next symptoms appeared. I was having a lot of PVCs after giving birth, which made me even more nervous, causing me to constantly be at the doctors. I felt completely out of control, afraid of my environment, as if I were just floating hovering over my body trying so hard to reach down and get back in.

Things got a little bit better, I started working and getting into the groove of life. We bought a house and got married, things were becoming stable. It took about a year and a half for me to get out of the post-partum anxiety stage but the overall fear and worry were still there. I tried holding onto some type of control by acquiring OCD symptom, not on purpose of course. It wasn’t the typical “washing your hands 100 times” kind of ocd but more like “touching a door knob 5 times or something bad will happen” type. It sucked.

Life went on and I had the same patterns, regular doctor visits, the occasional panic attack, and the random bouts of being mentally absent and depressed. Doused with worry but still going through the motions. My mind always on high alert.

Two and a half years after having my son I got pregnant again. This time trying, a little older, a little wiser. This time instead of cold turkey going off of my antidepressant I switched to a safer medication and went on a very low dose. I remained on this med throughout my pregnancy and was monitored closely. I felt guilty but I knew it was best, I had to do this not only for me but for this baby and for my family. The second pregnancy went much better, mentally wise. I still was worried but not as paralyzed by the fear. I knew the risks during my birth but it wasn’t crippling me as it had the first time. They handed me the baby and I felt joy. The meds helped calm the panic area of my brain and think more logically. I was still cautious of my health and would address my symptoms to doctors but I could function. I had to function. I now had two kids and couldn’t hide cozied up on the couch with my baby in fear. I wish I could say that I was cured.

We went on to doing life and going on vacations and being with family and friends and jobs and having a nice house and the whole deal, but it’s still there. That plaguing anxiety, the worry that stays on high alert. Sometimes making it hard to fully enjoy the moment because of the “What Ifs”. My heart rate will go sky high and I feel like I’m going to pass out. I shut the world out and stay stuck in my head trying so hard to talk myself back into reality. My fight or flight, as if a bear is going to chase me any second and I need to be ready, so anything small, any little symptom and BAM that part of my brain goes into full blown panic.

My brain is trying to work in new ways. I’m practicing so hard to just trust God. I know he is ultimately in control. I know that God knows what’s best and that we live in a broken world. I know his promises and I need my brain to catch up. It’s hard for me to internalize that I don’t live in the same environment as I did when I was a child but I want my brain to know when to be calm and when to panic. This takes time and a lot of practice.

I will probably always be on medication, and that is okay. I will go to therapy so that I can talk out my thoughts and get new perspective on things and that is okay too. I don’t wish anxiety or depression on anyone. It’s institutionalizing, but I believe that there is a solution, I believe that there is hope and I believe that there is healing. I need to take those thoughts captive and fight them with God’s truth. I refuse to believe that this is “just who I am”. I will not accept it, I will not invite it in to be a part of who I am. I am strong and capable and God did not give me a spirit of fear.

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