Ashley Nessman, 23, of Hamburg, New Jersey, was diagnosed with a panic disorder in 2009 after years of misdiagnosis and unsuccessful attempts at treatment. This is her story.
I have struggled with anxiety and depression since I was 13.
I remember one day I was left home alone, and being alone is one of my biggest triggers. I started just sweating and hyperventilating and ruminating. I went somewhere else; I was out of touch with reality completely. I felt almost crazy trying to explain to my parents what I was feeling, and I don’t think they could make sense of it either. Their first reaction was just to take me to a pediatrician. He wanted to just give me medication, but my mom said absolutely not.
We looked into therapists and alternative forms of treatment. I've been to just about every type of therapy you can think of. A Christian counselor, who tried to relate everything to the Bible and would put his hands on me and pray almost as if he was performing an exorcism. When that didn't work, I tried a new psychologist who would hook me up to monitors and all types of machines and make me practice breathing exercises. As you can imagine, that didn't quite help either. We found another therapist in town, who I swear was just like the ones you see in old movies. I lay on a couch as he showed me images of blobs, and I had to tell him the first word that came to my mind. He also gave me numerous personality tests and tried to diagnose me with bipolar disorder. I was never actually told what was going on with my body, what was happening. I think that's why most of my treatment was trial and error. By this time I was ready to give up, and I would have if it wasn't for the panic attack that changed my life.
I had recently moved to a new area and started a new school. I had the stressors of being the new kid, and the curriculum was so different from what I had learned at my other school. The school I transfered to was very small, everybody knew each other's business.
I was preparing for my English mid-term as a junior in high school. The teacher had just placed the exam on my desk, I went to start writing my name, when suddenly I went numb. I felt paralyzed. I was sweating profusely, I started to tremble and shiver uncontrollably, my face turned red, I felt light-headed, and I ending up slipping out of my desk down to the floor. I was still conscious, but I couldn't make words. The students evacuated the classroom and the nurse was rushed into the room. After a few minutes (that felt like an eternity) I was able to catch my breath and come down from the panic attack. I was referred to a psychiatrist, and that's when I had the realization that this was real, depression and anxiety were trying to take over my life.
I became determined to seek out a correct diagnoses and do whatever it took to get better. After numerous sessions, it was determined that the root of my anxiety and depression stemmed from monophobia, the fear of being alone and other stressors. I was officially diagnosed in 2009 with a panic disorder.
I was scared to receive the diagnosis. I was humiliated. People don’t take mental illness seriously. But at the same time, I was relieved, because there was something I could do to fix it. With mental illness, our black and blues are on the inside. I think that’s why people don’t see it. If you see someone with a broken leg, you know that there’s something wrong with them. All my life I feel like my struggles were kind of brushed under the rug because, well, "You look fine, so go back to work."
Between seeing a therapist regularly and a long few years of trial and error with combinations of medications I finally found a happy medium and developed cognitive skills to help me live a normal life with anxiety. It's not something you just take a pill and it goes away. You have to manage it. I think it's 80 percent cognitive skills and 20 percent medication. I had to accept that there are things you can't change. There were smaller panic attacks here and there and severe side effects from the medications, but I managed, and I am so glad that I never gave up. I think a lot of it is knowing your triggers and understanding the hows and whys. It helped that I had a very strong support system along the way. There were times that I thought I would never be independent, but in the long run, these episodes have only helped me grow.
A lot of people have not experienced mental illness, so they don’t know how to react, they don’t know how to handle it. I explained in my own words to the best of my ability to my parents what was going on in my head, but no one else has a history of mental illness in my family, so they didn’t know how to handle it. It’s not that they don’t want to help me, they just don’t know how. But to me, with some people, it can come off as ignorant.
I've learned that as someone with a mental illness, there’s no such thing as being selfish, it’s called self-care. I tell people in my support system that i’m human and I have needs, and if those needs aren't met, I'm not going to be well. They need to be aware of what I'm feeling, what my trigger signs are. There are support groups strictly for families of someone with a mental illness, so don’t just sit there and hold their hand and say, "You’ll be OK," but be proactive as to how and what you can do.
It's a scary thing, but anxiety and depression are a lot more common than people think. There’s nothing wrong with mental illness. There is stuff out there to help, you just gotta get on the horse and do it. It’s so much easier said than done -- I recently attended an outpatient program because I felt like I was starting to relapse. It takes a while to figure that out. I'm still figuring out stuff about myself.
As told to Sarah Klein. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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