This is not easy for me to write, and I want to first say that I am not writing it in order to receive any kind of sympathy or pity, nor do I expect any. But I think it is very important for people with mental illness to discuss it. To bring it out in the open. Talking about it helps prevent the illness from festering and morphing into something even scarier in your mind. It also lets people know that they are not alone, and it is so easy to feel alone when dealing with this.
I have struggled with anxiety and panic attacks for as long as I can remember, but I have only really begun to face it in the last year and a half. Before that, I never, ever spoke about it. In my mind, if I didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t a real thing. It was just nerves. It was just something that I had to deal with. Bringing it outside of my own mind would make it real. It would make it an illness.
Right before my senior year of college, it got to a point where I couldn’t ignore it anymore. My attacks were worse than ever, and I knew it was time to face this thing that I had been pushing away for my entire life. It was by far the scariest thing I have done, but it was necessary and inevitable.
So, in order to help you understand what this sort of illness is like, I wanted to break down for you just a few things I feel people should know about anxiety and panic:
1. People with anxiety are excellent at hiding it.
I had been having major panic attacks for 15 years without attracting the attention of a single person. Not because my friends and family are negligent, but because we have to become experts at concealing it: It just becomes a part of life. Daily mantras include: “How am I going to get through this event/meal/class?” and “Ok, here’s what I have to do to make it through this.” These are just a few of the things that constantly run through the mind of a person with anxiety.
2. It is difficult for people with panic attacks to return to places where they have had an attack.
My senior year of college, I was having panic attacks every single day, almost all day long. This made life extremely difficult and daunting, because I was forced to return to the same buildings and classrooms constantly. Once a person has had an attack in a certain location, it is highly likely that they will have another one when they go back. It’s a vicious cycle that can make everyday tasks nearly impossible.
3. Panic attacks feel like you are dying.
I have had a lot of people ask what exactly a panic attack feels like, and this is the best description I can give you. Plain and simple: it feels like dying. The physical signs of panic can manifest themselves differently in each person, but that underlying characteristic is always the same. It is as terrifying as it sounds.
4. Mental illness is fluid.
It is ever-changing. There is no definite solution. It is different for everyone. No one is ever “cured” of it. It will always be there. You could be having a really great few months, but you never know when it is going to come back at full force. For me, my anxiety is not triggered by particularly stressful events in my life. It is totally random, which makes it entirely impossible to predict.
5. Anxiety often affects eating habits.
It is for this reason (and many others) why I give the following instruction: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever comment on a person’s eating habits. You have no idea what a person is struggling with, may it be an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, etc. Pointing it out to them will make them feel 1000% worse and probably even ashamed of their situation. Just don’t do it. Ever. Your friend’s bizarre and erratic eating habits are not a reason for you to put them on the spot; it may actually be a sign of real distress. Talk to them privately if you are concerned or alarmed.
6. Mental illness is traumatic.
Memories of panic attacks or particularly anxious times can be traumatizing. They stick with you, especially because you are the only one who experienced it, and therefore, the only one who can remember it. Even if you got through it and are doing well, those memories don’t just fade.
This is extremely difficult and scary for me to publish. But, like I said, I feel it is necessary. I want to spread awareness about an illness that is so incredibly isolating. I want people to feel less alone. I want those who don’t struggle with mental illness to better understand what their friends or family are going through, because I guarantee you, you know someone who struggles with this.
I also want to send a sincere thank you to my friends and family who have helped me through some of my lowest times. I don’t know what I would have done without you all, really. Thank you for trying to understand, for being there, and for loving me.
A few months back, I lost a childhood friend who had long been struggling with similar issues. In an attempt to reach out after some concerning Facebook posts of hers, I told her that I could relate to what she was going through. I told her that my mantra had become, “Just keep going.” With this type of illness, it is too easy to focus on the mountain of possible struggles in front of you. What I have learned is that you have to keep going. You can’t focus on the negative. You just can’t, or you won’t survive. You have to get up, get dressed, and focus on the task ahead of you. You have to believe that you can handle whatever life may throw at you.
My friend, unfortunately, lost her battle. My hope in writing this is that others will be inspired to find their strength, and know that they are never, ever alone. You are a warrior and your illness is just another thing to be conquered. You have to believe that.
Catherine Santino is a writer and performer living in the NYC area. She started writing because she has a lot of things to say, and you won’t find her sugar-coating any of them. Her interests include strongly worded letters, chocolate-based desserts, and wearing the same outfit in multiple Facebook photos. You can read more on her blog at fullmentalnudity.wordpress.com.