Repeat: I am anxiety. I am paranoia. I am fear. I am pain. I am lost.
These were the thoughts that whirled through my mind during my first panic attack as a 22-year old UCLA student. I woke up, opened my eyes, and instantly it began. I would experience throwing up, passing out, having an extremely high heart rate, feeling like my insides were being rung out to dry, ringing in my ears, and sheer panic. My body reacted as if there was someone holding a gun to my head and I couldn’t stop it.
Ten minutes later I was in the ER, medicated, and evaluated. “It’s your first panic attack”, they told me. Panic? Attack? But I had just woken up, I had nothing to panic about. That was the first morning of 41 consecutive mornings to come, where I would wake up and the cycle would begin. I had never been so scared in my life.
I dropped out of UCLA and headed home for treatment. It was the hardest and most necessary decision I could ever make. The panic attacks continued every morning – and one week later I had lost almost 10 pounds (I would eventually get down to 98 lbs at 5’8). I was debilitated to my bed with the occasional walks for fresh air (they only lasted about 1-2 minutes; I was so weak). I became so depressed BECAUSE I knew in less than 24 hours, the cycle would begin, the panic would continue, and no one knew why.
I began treatment with medication and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). I was lucky. The first medication I tried worked. It was Paxil, an antidepressant, which is mainly prescribed for extreme anxiety and anxiety-induced depression. At the CBT Program, I had to retrain my body to eat again. I had to retrain my body to breathe again. I had to retrain my body to fall asleep and wake up again. I had to be reminded when to drink a glass of water. I felt like a child. I remember the first time I finished a slice of bread – the first one in over 6 weeks. I cried because it was such an achievement.
After 8 weeks of treatment, the attacks slowly began to stop. I learned to not fight my anxiety; to not try to suppress a panic attack. The sooner you accept it and work with it – the sooner it will pass. I never did figure out what triggered my disorder (I believe it is genetic). Eventually, I regained 25 pounds, re-enrolled at UCLA, and graduated early to begin a successful career in PR.
Five years later, I cannot remember the last time I had a panic attack. I have no plans to taper off the medication for fear of it coming back (update as of 2019 – the slow taper has begun). The experience truly changed me. I was a successful model and student, with a promising future in the fast pace world of Hollywood. My priorities changed. I lost many friends who came to visit me and couldn’t understand what I was going through. I cannot blame them, because not even I knew. I still remember my dad sleeping next to me for three months because he was scared to not be there in the morning when my attacks would cycle in. My cousins, aunts, and uncles all visited me. I am cursed, but I am even more blessed. I appreciate the small things in life, like having the energy to go to the grocery store without passing out or waking up feeling refreshed and read to conquer the day.
For those of you who roll their eyes at the thought of someone feeling “anxious” – know that anxiety IS real and it can paralyze you. I hope this story is relatable to those of you who have been temporarily debilitated by an anxiety disorder. I want you to know that there is hope – you are not alone. Do not be afraid of the stigma that comes along with any mental illness – speak up and share your story! Get medicated if you must. We share our struggles and successes from physical diseases, but when it comes to mental health, the fear of embarrassment hinders any opportunity for inspiration, community, and hope.
Repeat, I am not anxiety. I am strong. I am brave. I am loved. I am found.