I remember being in the car, and suddenly feeling like I couldn’t get out.
The entire world was crushing me. My skin was tingling, and a deep sense of nausea had settled itself into my belly. I was sure I was going to vomit. Every minute turn of my head made the sick, horrified feelings all the worse. I wanted to escape. I wanted to pass out and not wake up until I felt better. I wanted to die.
I had come into Ottawa with my brother and his son. We were bound for Monkey Around, a play center for children, and weekly treat for all of us. We arrived, parked, and prepared to get out. But I couldn’t.
A sense of panic had been creeping up on me since breakfast, and now I was overcome. I was immobilized, terrified, and certain that it would never end.
I had to go to the bathroom, but that seemed implausible. I was babbling, telling my brother that I couldn’t move, that I was so scared, so scared… he tried to coax me out. It was hard for both of us. I talked to myself out loud, because my mental messages weren’t enough. I told myself that Mike was trying to help me, that everything was alright, that I could trust him and he knew what I was going through and wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me (virtually every member of my family has had the unfortunate opportunity to experience the terror of anxiety and panic disorders firsthand). I took his hand and let him lead me out of the car.
The baby was asleep in the car seat. We walked to a small patch of grass less than fifteen feet away, so that Mike could watch the car while he tried to calm me down. He told me to take off my socks and shoes and walk. I did as he said, and after only a few steps, screamed. Walking wasn’t helping. It was making it worse.
There was a tree nearby. Mike took me over to it and told me to put my hands against the bark, and focus on sensations; the rough bark against my hands, the grass between my toes, the sound of traffic whizzing by, and his soothing voice. He reminded me that these things were real.
The other things, the signals that my brain was sending to me—the feeling of imminent danger, the tingly hot flashes shooting up my spine, the certainty that I would soon vomit, or even die—those were all just tricks that my brain was playing on me.
I thought about what was real for a long while, and once I was calm enough, Mike took the diaper bag from the car and let me punch it to burn off the excess energy (panic attacks occur when the fight-or-flight response has been triggered; since I wasn’t in any condition to do laps around the car, this seemed like the next best option).
My nephew woke up and laughed as he watched me hitting his diaper bag. It took a long time, but slowly I inched back towards a feeling of…not quite normalcy, but certainly a lower degree of terror. We went into the building. I went to the bathroom. That helped a bit too. I didn’t feel completely better, and wouldn’t for a number of days, but I could move now, and talk without babbling or screaming, and think rationally. For now, that was enough.
It’s hard to be strong when your brain is convinced you’re in mortal peril. It’s hard to be brave when you have no idea why you’re feeling the way you feel. But this is the reality for people with mental conditions, and it’s something that needs to be dealt with and overcome virtually every day of the week.
I feel like this is something that a lot of people don’t get. We live in a society that at least tries to be sensitive towards people with mental health problems, but we’re still failing miserably, and a lot of that is because we really don’t understand them. I grew up with two brothers with often crippling anxiety disorders, and I suffer from the same, but I still don’t understand it. It comes in too many different forms, can be displayed through too many different symptoms. It constantly changes—not just from person to person, either. I’ve experienced anxiety in at least five different ways, and everytime it changes, I need to find new coping mechanisms.
I know a decent amount about anxiety and depression, because they both affect my life directly. But ask me about schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, or bipolar disorder, and chances are I’m going to draw a blank. And you know what? I really hate that. I wish I knew more, and I try to learn, but it’s sometimes difficult to wade through all the misinformation and find the truth.
I’ve learned a few things. I know that schizophrenia is not just one mental illness, but several working in tandem. I know that diagnoses of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often get mixed up, especially in females. But the truth that we as a country need to face is that we’re truly and hopelessly ignorant, and that has to stop.
Part of it is the movies. Look at how mentally ill people are depicted there; they’re usually either dangerous or victimized. Therapy is Freudian and often useless. Pills are bad and make you foggy. And these things aren’t entirely untrue. The pill thing, for example: first of all, there’s no mental condition that pills can completely fix. Pills and therapy are tools to help you cope, and they make it a lot easier (I speak from personal experience), but you’re still going to have a condition, and you’re still going to have bad periods. Sometimes, you’re going to need some extra help.
Second of all, sometimes the pills do make you sick. I’ve heard that schizophrenia medication is really hard to deal with, and can sometimes make you feel worse. Heck, I’ve known people suffering from anxiety or depression that have trouble getting their medication right; one of them has even been hospitalized for it. My brothers and I, on the other hand, metabolized the first type of medication we were prescribed very well, and found that it helped enormously. You have to remember that these problems can crop up with any medication. If you have a serious heart condition, and the first pills you take make you ill, does that mean you shouldn’t take medication to treat the condition at all? Of course not. You work it out with your doctor, and keep working until you feel better.
There have been people in my life who think I should eventually wean myself off the meds I’m on, and others still who think I shouldn’t be on them at all. I’ve had to explain a number of times that this medication is correcting a chemical imbalance in my brain, and that if I stopped taking it I would go back to suffering from constant, extreme anxiety and at least one bad panic attack every day; that’s how I was before the meds.
Therapy isn’t useless either; it’s not all about analyzing dreams and talking about who you want to have sex with. By in large, it’s about figuring out coping mechanisms to deal with your condition, whatever it may be, and learning not to be ashamed. It takes a lot of the stigma off and teaches you how to be a healthier person overall. It’s extremely comforting to be able to speak openly about how you’re feeling and what you’re going through without feeling guilty about it. A therapists’ job is to make you feel normal, comfortable, and to teach you how to handle your problems. My therapist and I focus on decreasing my stress, and I find that enormously helpful.
What we need to do more than anything else is to increase our awareness about mental illness. It’s scary enough to have to go through it; feeling alone and misunderstood makes it all the worse.
Tabitha Di Giacomo
Tabitha Di Giacomo is a budding freelance writer, just getting started in her career. She has been published by Cracked.com and The Mainstreeter Newspaper, and suffers from anxiety and depression.