In the late 1970’s, there was a six-year-old girl who was afraid of everything. From going down slides to walking down stairs to taking an escalator to approaching dogs, life scared her and fed into her perpetual sense of unease.
Then one day, while sitting in a restaurant somewhere in the southwestern United States, this six-year-old’s tooth became loose. Not only did unease fill her body, but her heart started beating fast, she began to hyperventilate and her appetite ceased to exist.
Throughout the summer, panic came over her body before almost every meal and, often, out of nowhere. Life for this little girl changes from her semi-anxious state to deep fear and her yearning to leave her own body.
As time went on, this little girl had no idea how to articulate her panic to her family. “My stomach hurts,” she would say to her parents. “I don’t feel like eating tonight.” Her parents became more and more concerned as her tiny little frame continued to shrink. While she was able to eat small portions, her weight dropped. Doctors could only medicate the symptoms – usually some type of green liquid stomach medication. Eventually, her sleep was affected as well, waking up as early as 4:30 or 5 a.m. with the dry heaves and trembling body.
Panic and anxiety attacks were her norm. She never knew how to relax herself. She didn’t know how to escape this inner turmoil. But even though her body was ridden with panic and anxiety, she missed a total of a half a day of school from her illness. She knew how to live with anxiety and panic disorders.
For many years, no one ever knew about this…
This is my story.
Granted, it’s been well over 30 years since my first attack. I’ve learned how to live and function as needed with these disorders. Yet, life has not been easy. I never knew how to articulate myself to my family, and I often lived in a state of deep discomfort. It’s taken many baby steps to do the small tasks many people have no problem to undertake.
As I like to say: one small step for a human is a giant leap for my kind.
I’ve been fortunate to have been able to adapt to my mental health issues. Panic and anxiety do not hamper my job, but my relationship with these mental health issues continues to be a lifelong journey.
In my case, I’m blessed. It rarely, if ever, holds me back. I suppose having to live with these conditions as a small child afforded me the opportunity to adapt. Granted, I still have problems driving over huge bridges (like the Sunshine Skyway in Florida). Unlike most of you reading this, I must take baby steps in order to feel comfortable undertaking certain activities. Yes, this makes me quirky, but aren’t we all?
I never plan on riding a roller coaster. Thinking about skydiving makes my palms sweat. But these are activities that I never have to do. While I have minimal problems flying domestically, taking a flight over to Europe may require me to learn how to relax myself on the eight to ten hour flight. I still plan on taking this trip because my desire to live a full life in the face of these struggles is my goal and my hope.
Even though I’ve faced these issues, I love to take on projects, and panic and anxiety have never held me back from much. I can lead organizations, speak in public and be successful in whatever I choose to achieve. I do think in accepting a lifestyle of baby steps and living a full life with panic and anxiety disorders has made me the person I am today. I have become a person of grace and understanding. I know that I am never defined by this one weakness. But just like everyone has one or two burdens to bear in their lives, this is mine.
Unfortunately, there are loved-ones of ours who have half-lives because of mental health issues. There are people who rarely leave their homes and are unable to work. How can we make our systemic health care issues more manageable for everyone?
Keeping our silence is isolating. I kept a small piece of Dramamine with me when I was in high school, just in case I felt a panic attack coming on. My friends never knew. Only a few in my family were aware of my struggle. The first time I admitted it to a friend, I was 19 years old. The first time I met someone else who had panic attacks as a child, I was 28 years old. It was an illuminating moment to realize that I was not the only person to struggle with childhood anxiety and panic. It also made me realize that this is an illness that needs more attention. I thank friends of mine who have gone public about their mental health issues. Their courage to tell their story is what leads me to write this post today.
There is huge amounts of shame talking about this. I’ll say it – I’m a total overachiever, and I care what others think. I never want to admit that I have any sort of life weakness. As I type this, I feel extremely vulnerable and am second-guessing this post. But this is no longer just about me…
Today I decided to end the silence to help young people struggling with these issues. Children should never have to struggle in silence. The stigma is decreasing, and more help is available than when I was a six-year-old child. Granted, I’m sure some people may be shocked to read my story. But I felt that my silence only continues to feed the childhood struggle with mental health issues.
At six-years-old, I wish that I could have articulated my struggle. I wish I could have told people the issues I faced. I wish that I could have been bolder throughout the years and become an advocate for childhood mental illness. Today, I feel like I’m taking the first step in this advocacy. Will you join me to stand up for the children who can’t articulate this struggle? If you are a parent or guardian of a child who exhibits symptoms of anxiety, how can you help your child name her or his issues?
Finally, I am grateful for the Biblical witness of Mary Magdalene. As a woman with seven demons, her life was not over. Jesus gave her the chance to be the first person to share the good news of the resurrection. No matter if was panic disorder, anxiety attacks, depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, Jesus still called her to be a leader in the early church. Likewise, there is a future for all people who struggle with any type of mental health issues, including panic and anxiety disorder. Let us find the peace and healing power of Christ to move forward, knowing that the Divine is with us as we take our baby steps.