Don’t Panic- An Essay I Wrote in College

I wrote the below essay six years ago, as an assignment for a college writing class. I chose to share my experience with the class in this way because I feel that transparency is healing, as it is the only way we can connect with others who have been through similar things. Then, not only do we help ourselves, but we help others as well. I share it here today with the same intention.

I lay in my bed at 12:30 on a Monday afternoon in February, heart pounding, body shaking, stomach turning, dizzy. Every breath I took became more and more difficult. I felt like I was choking on air. My mind was cloudy and dense, thoughts flowing like mud, but I tried to weigh my options, fight or surrender. I began to cry, my tears an expression of fear, frustration, and dismay.

I can’t take this anymore! My hand inched toward the phone.

If I got out of bed now, I could still catch the bus to make my 12:50 Spanish class on North Campus. If I stayed here and garnered the courage to pick up the phone, I would end up skipping Spanish again, something I never would have done a year ago, but I could be done with all of this, and I could be done with it now.

I thought of the previous class period: after trudging up the stairs to the third floor end-of-the-hall classroom in Comenius, I quietly slipped into a desk off to the side. And then that choking feeling started again. I tried to breathe deeply, but the familiar tingling feeling crept into my fingers, and I began to feel lightheaded. My heart began to pound, faster and faster, and I could hear its heavy beating. My stomach churned, and I began to shake and fidget and sweat profusely. Time began to slow down as I tried to concentrate on something, anything, other than my body, but I felt as if I wasn’t even a part of the outside world anymore, drawn inside myself, every little sensation feeling one thousand times larger than it actually was. I wanted so badly to leave the classroom to return to my bed. I felt safe there.

And then, I was jerked violently out of my alternate reality by the sound of Profesora Mesa’s voice:

“¿Señorita Lang, qué te gusta en la fín de semana?” What do you like to do during the weekend?

“A me gusta tocar la música.” I like to play music. As soon as the statement escaped my mouth, I recognized that it was grammatically incorrect. It was “a mi me gusta.” I knew that. Immediately embarrassed by my Spanish faux pas, I re­entered my alternate reality. Class had only started ten minutes ago, but it felt like two hours. I had no idea how I was going to survive until 2 PM.

12:40, still lying in bed, stuck with that all too familiar image, I chose to stay and admit defeat, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. I sat up, wiped my cheek, picked up the phone, and dialed home. I chose to do it now because I knew my roommate wouldn’t be back for at least two hours, and I needed to be alone.

“Hello,” my Mom answered.

“Mom,” I sputtered out, tears flowing even faster, “I think I’ve been having panic attacks.”

“Are you sure? How do you know?”

I had self-diagnosed myself back in October, with the help of WebMD. I was trying to survive the panic attacks on my own, without counseling or medication. To allow myself to become medicated was to surrender. I had read about some people who were successful at handling them this way, and I figured that all I needed was a strong will to cope. After all, I had been experiencing symptoms since my sophomore year of high school and had been coping just fine. It had never limited my scholastic achievement or participation in extracurricular activities. However, at that point, I was only experiencing a handful of anxiety attacks a day, typically only during certain times of day or certain classes. Now, in my freshman year of college, there was no limit to how many I had, when they would occur, or how long they would last. The anxiety in between attacks was unbearable, not knowing when the next one would strike or where I would be, or what would happen to me. Some days it was so bad that I could barely swallow. It was so bad that I lost the “freshmen fifteen” instead of gaining it.

I spent my classes counting down until the end of the day, and my free time counting down until the frequent weekends I would visit home. Then I would cry my eyes out on the car ride back to school. This was no way to live, and I knew that if I didn’t do something to take control of my life soon, it would only get worse.

My mom made me a doctor’s appointment for that coming Thursday, thankfully possible due to a lack of classes until the afternoon on that day. My Dad came up and got me that Wednesday night, and as we drove away from Bethlehem, he said,

“Your mother wanted me to pick you up today so we could talk.”

“About what,” I inquired, puzzled.

Then, my father proceeded to confess to me everything I had never known about him before: he had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and depression when he was my age. He had been where I had been, and knew how I felt. He was taking 40 mg of Paxil every day to manage his condition because counseling and other treatments didn’t work for him.

It all made sense now: the condition was genetic. It was biological. As against medicine as I was, I knew I would have to give in because my ailments were related to my brain chemistry, and not to anything in my environment. And for once, I was okay with that.

For some reason, there’s an awful taboo that surrounds mental illness in America. If you have a mental disorder such as panic disorder like I had, bipolar disorder, or depression, you’re often labeled as being weak, crazy, dangerous, unable, or at fault in some other way. Many think that mental disorders aren’t “real” diseases even though they too are often genetic. None of these accusations are true. For this reason, more than half of young people with mental disorders won’t own up to it or get help, and therefore close themselves off, and leave themselves feeling alone. As a result, a very high percentage of the untreated resort to drugs, alcohol, or suicide. However, more than one in four people have mental disorders, meaning that no singular sufferer ever needs to feel alone, and no one ever needs to resort to such drastic measures.

I struggled for months until I finally let myself see a doctor because of these fears and taboos, and also the idea that maybe I could tackle this myself. And yet, this surrender didn’t leave me with a feeling of weakness. Sure, the month of February 2007 was the hardest month of my life, as I had to battle the worsening anxiety for a couple of weeks until the Paxil began to take effect.

However, I singlehandedly prevented myself from becoming a shut-in or a college dropout. I singlehandedly gave myself the chance to follow through with my dreams. I was able to empower myself and alter the course of my life through one phone call. I know plenty of mentally healthy people who have never felt that kind of empowerment.

Now, here I am sitting in my dorm room, almost exactly three years after I was officially diagnosed with panic disorder. And I am far stronger than I have ever been before.


Of Worries and Tic Tacs

I’ve been reading through the book The Worry Trick by David A. Carbonell. I recommend this book for anyone who experiences generalized anxiety. The author explains that for some people with anxiety issues, some of the cognitive restructuring methods from CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) aren’t helpful. He offered some alternative methods to beat anxiety and worry.

He suggests an exercise early in the book to help the reader become mindful of their worries. Every time one catches themselves in the act of worrying, they should take out a pack of tic tacs or mints, which they are to carry with them, and eat one.

The exercise isn’t meant to do anything other than to help you pay attention to when you are worrying. It’s simple, but I’m finding it to be very effective. It’s a small action, but just enough to disrupt the pattern of worrying. See, whenever I find myself thinking “what if,” the next thought that now comes into my mind is, “that’s another tic tac!” And then I don’t engage in the runaway train of worrisome thoughts. It’s interrupted right then and there. It’s so much easier to catch the runaway train right when it starts to run away, rather than to stop it once it’s been running awhile!

I started doing this at noon on September 11, and I’ll be doing this for one week. On day 6, I’ve been through more tic tac boxes than I thought I would go through. I’m halfway through my fourth.  There are 38 tic tacs in a regular sized pack. That means I’ve been through 133 worry tic tacs. (And, this is under the assumption that I’ve been cognizant of every anxious thought I’ve had over the course of the week, which is unlikely.)

The first step towards changing anxious thoughts is noticing them. Once I catch myself thinking the words “what if,” now that I am more aware of it, I try to replace the second part of the sentence with something else. A favorite way to do this is to play “what if God was one of us?” in my head. (Other songs with “what if” work just as well!)