I filled out this survey about my experience with mental illness, and this is what I wrote about anxiety.
I am living with both anxiety disorder and panic disorder. The anxiety is sometimes worse, sometimes not so bad, but it never, ever goes away. It’s always there, like a grinding feeling. It’s an icy weight in my gut. Sometimes it’s like spikes trying to force their way out of my spine. I get stuck in thought spirals that I cannot climb out of for days.
I cannot fully enjoy my life because I cannot stop obsessing about my health. Every pain is internal bleeding; every bump or bruise or headache or sour stomach is cancer. I don’t go outside much, even on “good” days. I worry about going to the store because I might have a heart attack away from home, but nobody will find me in time to save me. I don’t drive often because I might crash and have my foot severed by a crack in the wheel well. I am terrified every day to say goodbye to my spouse because I don’t want him to come home to find my corpse.
Nothing triggered this; I am fully aware of how irrational it is. I was completely fine until it just … started, one day last year. I have always been very healthy other than IBS, which is a cakewalk in the grand scheme of diseases. This came out of nowhere, and now it won’t leave.
My panic attacks are the same - they are rarely triggered by anything, nor are they ever about anything. They’re purely physical, but socially damning. My blood pressure skyrockets and I hear my blood rushing in my ears. I get horrible crawling, burning prickles all over, and my hands go numb or cold. Sometimes I go almost blind, but I am always very dizzy and disoriented. I can’t breathe or swallow. I can’t form a complete sentence. I get sharp pains in my chest and I have palpitations. Those were very scary at first because I thought I was having cardiovascular problems, but all it is is my brain misreading some signals and going into a flight response.
When I have a panic attack, I just wait til it goes away. It always does, usually after about ten minutes. It happens when I am out in public sometimes - the most recent time was when I was shopping for pastas at Wegmans, which is something that makes me very happy. I was very happy before it happened, in fact. All I could do - all I can ever do - is sit down, close my eyes, and let it pass.
It makes people nervous when I do that and they pull their children away. I have had to stop caring about that, though. I have no choice. People don’t want to understand, but I need to live my life and if I keep caring what other people think I will never leave the house or get anything done. I shouldn’t have to make that choice, but that’s the way it is. My brain screws up how it reads some signals, responds how it’s wired to, and that’s what I have to deal with.
Though, you know, if I’d had an asthma attack or a seizure, people would have come running to help. A panic attack just scares everyone around me, because it’s all in the head - right?
Mental illness is physical. It’s messed up body chemistry or a misreading of neurological signals, just like epilepsy or diabetes or anemia. Please remember this and have compassion.