I had my first anxiety attack when I was nine years old. I still remember the tears falling down my cheeks as my third-grade teacher tried to calm me down so I could take the state standardized test that was waiting for me inside. Eventually, I would, and neither I nor my teacher would tell my parents about the incident.
As a child, I didn’t know this type of behavior was abnormal. I thought gut-wrenching nausea before such mundane tasks as tests, birthday parties, and going out to eat with my family was the status quo. So I was frustrated when I couldn’t communicate how I continued to feel over the course of the next six years of my life. I learned to hide my symptoms as best I could to avoid straining my relationships, especially with my family (who has always been very supportive but were not well-equipped to help me at the time).
By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I started to think an average life was possible for me, as I grew my circle of friends and started participating in more after school activities. But at my junior year orientation I suffered my first real panic attack, which left me so shaken I could not walk into school on the first day of the year. As frustrating and devastating as it was, it was also the most pivotal moment in my life. I finally had the courage to ask for professional help. Six years after that first anxiety attack, I got my official diagnosis: Generalized Anxiety Disorder. While some diagnoses feel like cages, mine set me free; I finally felt as if I had been validated, that my symptoms weren’t all in my metaphorical head but rather in my actual brain.
I spent almost two months on home study where I consumed myself with the simple goal of getting better. During the day I worked on homework and in the afternoon I had therapy (specifically CBT), psychiatry appointments, or I tried to expand my comfort zone by going to events. I would sit in front of the computer for hours researching psychology and neurochemistry, as well as learning from others on public forums about mental illness. I made an ambitious goal of getting back to school before the end of the first quarter, and with a lot of hard work and a wide support system I was able to succeed.
Fast forward five years later, and I am living a wonderfully average life. I am in my fourth and final year at UC Santa Barbara with a possibility of going to grad school, I work part-time, and I’m active in several clubs. I hang out with my friends at least twice a week. I went from taking Xanax five days a week to taking it on special occasions, and I rarely think about my anxiety except for taking my medication once daily to keep it in check. I have been able to help others by sharing my experience, whether it’s been friends who don’t know how to get treatment or a stranger at a bus stop who experienced her first panic attack. I hope that doing so here will encourage people to seek the help they need, enlighten loved ones that don’t understand what this process is like, or maybe show a light at the end of the tunnel for those who are still struggling and can’t imagine living vibrantly with an anxiety disorder.
Written by Emily Williams