Trigger warning: this article contains content about suicidal thoughts, depression, and panic attacks.
National Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-8255 / Ayuda en Español 1-888-628-9454
The air around me smelled like pencil eraser dust and too many people. Closest row to the door, fourth seat back. Right above the metal circle in the tile that covers four electrical outlets. Smudged marks and red dry erase stains mingled on the whiteboard. I was behind a desk with a basket so I put my feet on it. I slouched under a strip of fluorescents and sat an arm’s length from the classroom trash can. This is where I had my first panic attack.
Psychology intrigued me more than ever that year. Like all other high school juniors, I was exploring different career interests, but that wasn’t the reason I took the class. My own brain was throwing me curve balls and I was obsessing.
All I knew at the time was how I felt.
There was a heavy wet blanket draped around my head, suffocating any and all thoughts of a future. It remained situated over me even on Christmas, on the beach, while eating my favorite food, seeing my friends, and visiting with my family. This weight carried to my shoulders, trickled down my back and slid between my thighs. The water seeped into my nose, my ears, my mouth, and as though I were invisible, I was drowning while everyone around me could breathe. My eyes were glazed in saltwater, tears burning through my skin, a scalding knife piercing a peach. Blood pooled at the bottom of my feet, anchoring me at the depth of a chasmic gap in a luxuriant forest of every fear I had ever felt down in the essence of my core.
Each second of
each minute of
each moment of
each hour of
each day of
each week of
each month of
each year that
I drowned was a lifetime.
The blanket crushed my every sensation until even my primal last defense —a will to live— went quiet. Under the dense, caliginous, disgusting gushy drip I felt. . . nothing.
Before I knew it, rational thoughts about life and death were just as rare as those about fairy dust and Neverland. I didn’t want to grow up. I didn’t plan on making it past 17.
I could nestle bad thoughts in my mind long enough to get through the day. Like Russian dolls, each time I tried to push something deeper I found out there was another layer that went further than I could’ve ever believed. When I wasn’t numb I was discovering new, troubling things about myself each day and I didn’t like it.
We focused on the mental illness chapter in our textbook for a couple of weeks. We covered all the bases and were given basic definitions and effects of each illness. The day my teacher spoke about depression was the first time I’d confronted my symptoms with a diagnosable name. It was the first time I’d considered that the emotions I felt daily were real, and though not tangible they were very much affecting my daily life.
Learning directly from a teacher and textbook about the causes and symptoms of these illnesses finally left me no room to question the legitimacy of the emotions I was feeling. I was suddenly validated, but I hadn’t asked to be.
Everyone experiences panic attacks differently and it’s important to know your own symptoms so that you can take the correct measures to ensure you aren’t in a position to harm yourself or others. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America lays out the common symptoms so you can educate yourself on what to expect if you feel an attack coming.
My very first warning sign is a floating feeling like I’m not in my body and something else has taken over. For me, a panic attack is sinister in its silence and slithers behind like a poisonous snake that bites hard. Venom spreads like lightning, coating my body in a paralyzing sweat. My heart beats too fast for comfort, getting up to a running pace even when I’m sitting perfectly still. My hands shake. My legs feel like they’re made of lead. The world around me blurs into colors and shapes. Noise disappears. Breathing is the most difficult, and looking in a mirror will only send me further down the rabbit hole of existential crises.
As one can imagine, experiencing these symptoms for the very first time in my too-warm, too-crowded high school classroom was, well, nightmarish.
Now, years later as I’ve healed, nurtured, and matured into a healthier mind I realized my first panic attack taught me something that I needed to learn. The physical effects of panic solidified that my depression and all of the arduous damage it had caused within me was real.
Though I didn’t tell anyone about my depression until over a year later, I had finally accepted my own poor mental health as something I should deal with in seriousness. Admitting to myself that something was wrong was the hardest step. Harder than asking for help, harder than telling my parents, even harder than going to my first therapy appointment.
Getting professional attention for my mental illness has helped me more than I thought was possible. I went into therapy with an open mind, knowing that I didn’t really have another choice but to try and get better. I committed myself wholeheartedly to therapy, the “homework” my therapist assigned and celebrating the progress I made week-to-week.
When I started therapy I’d often leave feeling worse than I came, but I took that as a sign of the process. Working through the gnarled center of unhealthy habits and thoughts to change them is the only way to move on from them. And to be honest, I don’t know where’d I’d be right now if I hadn’t taken the leap to start improving. (Big shoutout to my therapist Monica who I’ve now been seeing for over three years.)
I haven’t kept track of the number of panic attacks I’ve had, but I can say they’re far more spaced out than they were at the beginning of my mental health journey. With therapy, medication, self-appreciation, and a supporting group of loved ones I’ve quite literally become a changed person.
The downs of life are now coupled with the ups too, and though it can be challenging, I’m grateful for my life experiences with mental illness. It’s made me more empathetic to others and shown me the strength and resilience I’ve always had inside.