I’VE typed countless drafts for this blog post — each one trying to artfully describe what I have experienced these last couple months. You know, without being too dramatic, without describing too many personal details (people don’t really want to hear those, of course), and as concise as possible for my readers’ convenience. But in the end, all I can do is be honest.
I don’t really need to write a blog post updating people on my life. I don’t need to feel validated, or even understood. In fact, this is a story I prefer to tell in person, so that you can hear my voice and see my face, to know the reality of my circumstances, to see that I believe that I say. But I want to tell this story to the general population of whoever will read, if only because there are many other people who will identify, but who never speak of their struggle because it is so misunderstood. I want to free you — whoever you are. To speak and be heard, to be understood and prayed for. To be loved well where you are.
There are other reasons I write this post, but let me first tell you my story.
If you don’t know me personally or haven’t talked to me for a while, let me fill you in. I graduated last May with my Bachelors in art history, just as confused about the next chapter in life as the rest of my peers. But I had been given a plan, one that I still feel deep in my bones that God directed me to, and I obeyed.
I wasn’t entirely excited about more school, but I hoped that this degree would eventually help me to get better jobs within non profit arts organizations. Visual Culture. I wasn’t even sure what exactly you studied in the program, except that it was culture, it was in the art department, and I had a full ride.
When I walked in for the first meeting on the day before classes, my bitterness at doing more school melted away as I was filled with joy and eager anticipation. I could hardly stop smiling because I was back in art school! Although that level of excitement didn’t last, the confirmations still kept coming. My roommates were amazing. I found community right away. I got a part-time job. I liked the town where I lived. I was good at what I studied. I felt immense purpose even though I struggled with the concept of higher education and theorizing everything. I learned all kinds of things about obedience and diligence. My joy was often immeasurable, I felt so much blessing and favor from the Lord. I was where I was supposed to be.
Over Christmas break, the stress from final term papers barely subsided. I just couldn’t relax. I brushed it off — I have dealt with anxiety in spurts for years. Nothing some deep breathing and yoga couldn’t fix. I started back second semester and all was well for the first few weeks.
But then the end of January brought the first panic attack, and the life I’d built the past semester began to come crashing down. Brick by brick.
Panic attacks are characterized by a sense of fear involuntarily and unexpectedly overtaking your whole body. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain, one that tricks your body into thinking there is imminent mortal danger. In other words, your brain thinks that you are going to die.
I had never experienced this before, and we didn’t know it was panic attacks at first. Like the article I linked states, the sensations that come with panic attacks are very different than what we normally experience as stress. It feels as if your whole world is hostile, and even though on a cognitive level you know the fear is irrational. It is impossible to convince yourself of the truth. This is called derealization. During a panic attack, my whole GI system would flip out. Sometimes I would throw up. I felt nauseous and couldn’t eat for hours, and when I did, I could only eat bland foods. My whole body was a mess. In the aftermath of a panic attack, I still wasn’t able to eat or function normally. To say that panic attacks are disruptive and debilitating is an understatement. Your mind is a powerful, powerful organ.
I would have a panic attack every few days, and the fear seemed to be worse when I was away from my family. This fear of being alone or far from family was a foreign concept to independent me, with my unquenchable wanderlust and big dreams. The fear of doing normal things was also strange, me with the performing and auditioning background, who forced herself out of her comfort zone continuously over the years. Thankfully I have a family who loves me and takes on my problems as their own, who will do anything for me. Thankfully I have a stepmom who is a trained nurse, who will stop at nothing to see me get better. I am truly blessed.
After two weeks of confusion, going home, checking my blood sugar, trying to figure out what was happening to me, and trying to decide what to do about grad school, I had to face the fact that there was no possibility of continuing this semester without the proper tools to cope with this condition that came and swooped in out of nowhere.
Monday morning I was back at school with my dad, filling out forms to withdraw from my classes. I felt peace about the decision, and I began to feel better in general. I decided to stay in Illinois to try and continue to be involved in ministry, to keep being around people. For two weeks I didn’t have a panic attack. I didn’t feel normal, but I was hopeful. I was dealing with the reality of having no job and no school, the way my life had gone, what it had become. Trying to get more involved in church, hoping that could lead to opportunities.
Then I tried to add on a small nanny job, a teeny commitment to help me make some money so I could keep paying rent, and the night before I was supposed to start… I had another panic attack.
I was devastated. This time I really felt trapped. I couldn’t even babysit a couple hours a day without flipping out about it? Something had to be done. I was hesitant about medication but it was the next logical step. The very next day, with a call to my doctor, I had a prescription in hand. My hope was that the medication would begin to work within a week, I could get a job, and stay in Illinois. But that is not what happened.
Any possible side effect, I’m pretty sure I experienced. Acid reflux. Vomiting every morning. Lack of appetite. Worsened depression. Unbearable fear. Inability to sleep. By Thursday at 4am I was at the end of my rope. I called my mom to please pick me up so I could spend the next week at home. But when she arrived, she told me she was packing up my things, and I was moving home until I was better for real.
I have been home for three weeks now, and I am just getting up the courage to write my story. I’m happy to say I am actually feeling better, that the meds seem to be working as of these last couple weeks and I am feeling like myself again. But this doesn’t change the fact that my 2015 has been characterized by utter destruction, and I still have to wade through all of my questions. Why did God have me go to Illinois in the first place, if He was just going to pull me back home? Where do I go from here? What do I do with the knowledge that one can suddenly undergo uncontrollable and debilitating fear, that defies reason and leaves you oppressed by your own mind? (This is why people go to counseling, lol.)
But it also leaves me to deal with the fact that I am someone who has dealt with and may continue to deal with mental illness. Ohhh those two ugly words. No one wants to admit to the whole room, to the whole world, that they have been sick, but not just sick in their body… sick in their brain, where it is the most socially unacceptable to be sick. No one wants to admit that they did not finish grad school, this endeavor that people were so supportive of and proud of. Nothing but positive reactions and admiration when you tell people you are in grad school. Now when people ask what I’m doing, I have to make the choice to tell them a long, complicated and vulnerable story, or just tell them I’m taking a semester off and allow them to wonder at the mysterious reason why.
But overall, I have decided to tell people the truth, when they seem like they will hear it. I am not ashamed, because this is my life. I will not encourage the stigma of mental illness by hiding it away. This is what has happened, and although it feels like a failure in some ways, in most ways it was beyond my control. And panic attacks, anxiety, depression, any sort of mental illness, are so misunderstood. My desire is to educate people, especially the Body of Christ, on how to love people who are going through these struggles. These are not people who simply have less tolerance for stress, or are weaker in some way. In contrast, since all this started I have been confided in by others who deal with panic attacks, and they are some of the strongest and most inspiring people I know. By writing this I am not looking for pity, but instead being honest so that others can be honest, too. I have already discovered that far more people struggle with panic attacks than I ever imagined, and I want the world to know how to help and love the many, many people who may look and seem normal but live bravely each day, fighting an unseen illness.
So, to finish my story… I find myself here, 22 years old, starting from square one, picking up the pieces. I still don’t know why this happened to me, and I am going through counseling to figure it out. I have no job, no school, and no plan (yet). And it’s countercultural, but I’m going to take my time to sort things out. Maybe I’ll live at home for a while. I’m not really sure. But I know that God took me to grad school and Illinois, and then He took it away. And I didn’t expect that, but it’s okay. He will lead me on, and I am intrigued to see what He will do next.
I want to encourage you, if you are struggling with panic attacks or any other type of mental illness, you are not alone. This is not your whole life, and you will get past this.
If you are reading this and you’ve never experienced anything like this, if you can’t even imagine, please click on some of the hyperlinks I’ve added, and read the clinical assessments of the condition. The articles are not long. If you know someone who is dealing with panic attacks, the best thing you can do is love them well. Unconditionally and without judgement. Usually, all someone needs is for someone to be with them.
Lastly, I have learned so much about God’s character through this. I have learned about His healing and deliverance in a deeper way, about the power of the mind and the ways that we can learn to think rightly, and truer, deeper surrender. These are the lessons I want to share as I continue blogging — I want to declare the truths God is teaching me, because the enemy would love to see me disbelieve them. And hopefully, along the way, God will speak to you as well.
Thank you for reading my story. God loves you! No matter who you are. I hope you’ll keep reading as I explain further, in light of my experiences, why this is the most true thing in the universe.