I don’t remember picking up the phone to call my sister. Not that it mattered anyway, we were never not in contact. I lived in Washington, D.C. and had been since I moved there for college in 2005. My sister spent her college years in Manhattan and had been there ever since. I treated the two cities as if they were right next to each other. But it was becoming increasingly clear that they weren’t.
I collapsed on my bed in the huge studio where I lived on my own and could barely catch my breath. I was crying so hard that I couldn’t get words out. All I knew was that if I didn’t get whatever this feeling was out of me, somehow, I was going to pass out. Once I calmed down, my sister simply said, “Paula, something is not right. Maybe it’s time we think about medicine or something to help.”
No, no, no, no. No. I’m ok. No, please don’t tell Mom I got upset. No, I think everything is okay. I am just going to go to sleep. No, I’m not hungry. Yes, I will call you in the morning.
Six months later, I landed myself in the emergency room.
This is the timeline as best as I remember experiencing it. As I continue to get stronger and grow out of the deepest part of my General Anxiety Disorder, my hindsight is 20/20.
ER visit #1 –I had a minor allergic reaction to something I ate. This had happened before, and treating myself with benadryl and water had always worked. I even had an epi-pen that I carried with me at all times because after multiple doctor’s appointments, no one could figure out what the allergy was.
Writing this, I can feel my body mimicking the feeling I have gotten when a physical allergic reaction is happening.
This is when I learned I talk a big game but couldn’t walk the walk. I couldn’t give myself the epi-pen. Instead, I booked it to the ER. By myself. It was confirmed that I was having an allergic reaction. I begged the doctor, “Please tell me I am not crazy. Please tell me something real is happening my body.” His answer? What’s happening to you is real. You’re having an anxiety attack.
Oh, an anxiety attack. It’s probably because I am stressed. I am not a person who has anxiety attacks. I can handle this. If I ignore it, it will go away.
I slept it off, walked back through campus to get a coffee and put myself to bed. I was back at work and in class the next morning.
ER visit #2 –I wasn’t eating. I was constantly afraid of another allergic reaction. Constantly afraid of leaving work or the office because then I would be alone. This wasn’t a rational thought – even though I lived by myself in an apartment, I did not live by myself in D.C. I can’t say enough about the friends turned family that lived in The District with me. We were the lucky ones. That close knit, 23-people-strong, post-college group of weirdos who stayed in the same area up until just recently.
Hindsight time? Fear of another allergic reaction turned anxiety attack? That’s what my therapist taught me is a trigger. That irrational thought? A symptom of GAD.
I had been prescribed an anti-anxiety medication, and I took it for the first time on this particular day. The next thing I remember was that I was in my boss lady Anne’s office with the door closed. She was wonderfully and patiently talking me through what was the beginning stage of another anxiety attack.
Anne became much more than my work supervisor. Our professional relationship developed simultaneously with our friendship. I don’t want to make this sound as if it was easy – it was by no means easy. It was a difficult year. Yet, Anne always found the time to be there for me. My undergraduate institution did not have Greek life, and it was always something that I felt as if I had missed out on. I imagine this is what it would have been like. Getting to choose a friend, a sister, a champion. Anne was my safe person in DC.
This was the first time I experienced “the cycle” of general anxiety disorder. That circle that is crystal clear now. You have an attack. You’re afraid of the next time an attack is going to happen. You have an attack because you are so scared. Anxiety is the fear of fear itself.
A few hours later I had, to date, the most massive attack I have ever experienced.
I couldn’t get my parents or aunts or uncles on the phone. My entire family was, unfortunately, together at a wake. I finally got through to my oldest cousin and sister. I stayed on the phone with them as I walked to the emergency room, giving them my location every few minutes just in case I passed out.
I made it to the ER. One of my best friends showed up a few minutes later (See what I am saying about family? My sister had called her). No questions asked, she and I sat in the ER waiting room for about an hour. By the time I saw the doctor, it had passed.
Two more of my best girlfriends had joined by then and took me home to tuck me in. They waited to leave my apartment until I had fallen asleep. Before I did, I called my mom and finally asked for help.
She was on the train and at my door before I woke up that morning.
For the next five months my Mom moved in with me. Yes, I was a few months shy of 27 and my mom moved in with me. I am not ashamed or embarrassed. My mom is an amazing woman and nurse, and it was a time spent together I cherish. Do I wish it had been under different circumstance? Sure. But it happened. And it allowed me to enjoy my last semester of graduate school, fellowship and time in D.C.
My Mom and my Dad made the decision and sacrifice to support me in this huge way. I am still in awe that I am fortunate enough to have a family that rallied around me like that.
GAD is confusing. And I am the one experiencing it! But when I saw my mother at my door that morning, I realized I wasn’t in this alone. She was experiencing it with me. My sister? She had been experiencing it with me long before I was able to articulate it or acknowledge it myself. As my best friend, how could she not have?
My advice to you? Find your own equation of what works. Maybe it’s medication, therapy, or a combination of both. General Anxiety Disorder is not an equation where 1 + 1 has to equal 2. Look for the way those in your life can (and will!) love and support you. Do not try to push them to understand or empathize because they won’t necessarily be able to. Instead, be open. While vulnerability can be difficult when you are suffering with GAD (and any mental illness), it is worth the try. My dad and my brother taught me this lesson.
I am happy to report that for me, my equation worked and is working. I have moved back to New York City with my family, am putting my master’s degree to good use at a new job, am in a healthy relationship with a partner who is curious and supportive of my well being, and couldn’t be happier to be so close to my siblings and family.
I acknowledge that I have GAD, I accept it, and I am living my life. And that? That is stronger than any illness.
This is part of our yearly #SACommits series on mental health in Student Affairs. This May, we are exploring what mental illness looks like using different forms of expression – photos, drawings, videos, writing, etc. We hope to create better understanding of what it is like to live with mental illness, in an effort to stomp out stigma. Each week will have a theme -Throughout the lifespan, With Loved Ones, At Work, With Myself. For more information, see the intro post by Kristen Abell. Check out the other posts in this series too! You can also join the conversation by using our unique #SACommits Selfies print outs.