Today marks 3 years. 3 years ago I had my last day of therapy; 3 years ago I stopped taking drugs to make me sleep; 3 years ago I stopped feeling like there was something wrong with me; 3 years go I started embracing life rather than being afraid of it.
I remember the first time I was faced with anxiety, I was 14. I was in my art class and it suddenly got really hot in the room, it was like all the sounds got louder, there was people everywhere, too many people for such a small room. Then my heart rate increased…my hands were cold…I was cold but hot and sweating at the same time. I couldn’t breathe. I started crying.
I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Since that day, every time I went in that room my heart would start beating faster and I would get scared the same thing would happen again. It usually did. My teacher thought it was just an excuse to leave class so my attempts to leave the room were useless.
First year of sixth form started (10th grade in Portugal), I was 15 at the time. I was excited about being a sixth form student, I had great friends, great family. Everything was fine. Then anxiety came back. I started feeling anxious about going to places where there was a lot of people. It started by being the school’s cafe during break and the girls’ toilets. The school’s corridors were also added to my list of ‘places to avoid’ as they had no windows and were considerably narrow for the amount of students.
Anxiety started controlling my life. I would stay in lesson for a few more minutes to wait for people to leave the corridors, I would ask my friend to go to the cafe to grab me food because I couldn’t go in, I wouldn’t go to the toilet during break. My life became structured around my anxiety, but at the time I didn’t even notice…in my mind it made sense to avoid things that made me uncomfortable.
One day, it was too loud, too many people, too hot. I couldn’t breathe again. My heart was going crazy. I freaked out. I didn’t know what was happening but I knew something was wrong. I don’t remember it vividly, I just remember feeling scared, I wanted to run away. I cried, I was shaking, I couldn’t move. I was in pain, not physical pain…just pain. That day changed my life. That was what I call my first “panic attack”.
It was hard to tell my mum about this. It was hard to talk about something I didn’t understand. I thought it was my fault, I was being stupid…I mean…why did I start crying in the middle of class?! I felt ridiculous, I felt scared, but mostly, I felt ashamed. I don’t remember much of my life after that that day. The following 6 or 7 months are sort of a blur in my mind. I started having “panic attacks” almost everyday.
I remember my first psychiatric appointment. I remember waiting in the waiting room looking at the fish tanks – they are supposed to calm you down. I remember thinking: “I am officially mentally ill”. The doctor was really nice, I explained everything that had happened and he prescribed me some tablets. Now I felt officially crazy! The tablets were suppose to calm me down and help me sleep. I had to take them in the morning, after lunch and at night. Nothing changed…the “panic attacks” were still there. I just felt tired all the time, exhausted from all the anxiety and the tablets.
We went back and he prescribed me more tablets. My stomach started getting really sensitive from all the tablets, every time I ate I felt sick, so I had to add another tablet to protect my stomach to my list. My bedside table was now full of medications, I remember looking at them before falling asleep. I hated them. I hated what I was doing to myself…I felt like my mind was destroying me. I started hating myself and what I was.
I don’t remember living at this point. I stopped doing the things I loved. I stopped talking to pretty much all my friends. I was rarely in school. I stopped listening to music, reading. I just remember having baths, being in my room and sleeping.
I then had my first session with a psychologist. We spoke for an hour and for the next month I used to see her 3 times a week. I had some great days where I would really like therapy and see a bright future in front of me. However, there were also ‘not so good days’. I would often feel hopeless. My lowest point was when I said to myself: “This is who I am”. I believed that being anxious, depressed and having “panic attacks” defined me. I believed that some people in this world were meant to be happy and others were…mentally ill. I isolated myself, but at the same time, I hated being with myself. I hated listening to the voices inside my head. I hated my life. I hated the situation I was in. I thought I was the cause of all my suffering and therefore I deserved it. I felt like there was no point in life…what’s the point in life if I can’t even leave the house?
Slowly things got better. I was more educated about anxiety. Even though I still had “panic attacks” and they were still an awful experience, I was able to understand what was happening in my body and how I could control it. It took a lot of practice…I had a list of places that caused me anxiety, from being in a car to going to the cinema or the supermarket. I had to go to all those places and confront my anxiety, confront my fears and trust my body. I would get nervous, cry…and then be fine. Overtime, this process of confronting my anxiety gave me confidence. I felt stronger than my anxiety. I could control my breathing, I was able to go wherever I wanted knowing that even though I might feel anxious, I can trust myself to stop it. I understood that anxiety wasn’t who I was but just something I had.
Anxiety stopped controlling my life. I no longer had to plan my day according to my anxiety. I was feeling excited about the future. I started doing the things I loved again. It was exciting to go to the cinema again! To go out with my friends, to be able to just walk out and go to my friend’s house.
This period of my life was something I was ashamed for a long time. I didn’t talk about it with most of my friends and family. It was very painful for me to think about the things I felt and what I experienced. Remembering the pain I felt, how scared I was…. I don’t think I will ever forget how it feels to have a “panic attack”. But I will also never forget how it feels to overcome anxiety and to be able to live my life again!
This was, believe or not, a short version of my story. I decided to share it because I am proud of it. I am proud of who I am today because of what I had to go through in the past. I decided to share it because I am not ashamed anymore. I am not ashamed that I had a mental illness. I decided to share it because it is okay. It is okay to share your story, your vulnerabilities, it is okay to not be okay…nowadays, most people aren’t.
Thank you so much for reading! Lots of love,