On the very first day of my very first internship, I was 20 minutes late. I stood a few blocks away from the downtown New York City office, breathing heavily, tears streaming down my face. Riding the 6 train from 77th Street to Canal Street, I had been completely fine. But now, I was having a panic attack.
I've prepared myself for this. It's just an internship. It will be fine, I kept telling myself.
But as soon as I stepped on the platform and started walking, my heart began to feel as though it was beating out of my chest, and breathing became difficult. I was trying to take big breaths, but it felt like I was breathing through a straw. Dizziness overcame me. My mouth began to salivate, and I felt like I was going to be sick. Nothing around me had even changed -- there was no trigger. I wasn't in danger. Everything was fine around me. And everyone seemed to be, too. I should have felt fine. But that's not the way anxiety works.
I had been in this situation before. I had experienced dozens of panic attacks throughout my life -- that's just what living with anxiety (or more specifically, generalized anxiety disorder) is like. It didn't matter where I was, who I was with, or what I was doing. Once I felt it creeping up, there was no way back. But how do you possibly explain that to your new boss on your first day at a fashion magazine? You can't. What I had been afraid of for weeks was actually happening. And it felt like I had only myself to blame.
What kind of 22-year-old adult cries outside of her office and physically can't walk in? What kind of 22-year-old adult has to call her mom to calm her down? I worked hard for this internship, and now I'm just going to fuck it all up because I can't make myself go inside, I thought. Why can't I grow up and just get it over with?
That's the kind of dialogue that happens in my head daily -- and I know I'm not alone. Anxiety disorders -- such as generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and phobias -- are the most common mental illnesses in the U.S., and they affect twice as many women as men. They also tend to be more common among people under the age of 35.
I can remember when I started having these feelings of overwhelming dread. I was 10 years old, and every time I had to spend long periods of time without my mom, the anxiety would start. I didn't know what it was, and I couldn't explain it. My sister would have to hold my hand in bed in order for me to fall asleep.
I spent days at the school nurse's office, telling them I felt "sick," when really, the thought of staying in my classroom made me want to burst into tears. But why? Other kids in my class seemed to love it. What was wrong with me?
Me, at age 3, and my sisters -- who have been a support system since day one. I'm the one hardcore cheesing.
Throughout the years, I've had so many panic attacks, I can't even count them. But a few stick out in particular.
When I was 17, my grandfather lived with us after we learned he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. When my grandfather was going through chemotherapy and living in our house, I felt so anxious and trapped. I avoided him. I avoided my dying grandfather. And when he passed away, after seven months of chemo, I felt a sense of relief. My anxiety had been so consuming at 17 years old that my first reaction was to view his death as a breath of fresh air. I still stay up regretting this. But it was an episode of ongoing anxiety I couldn't control.
And after that, I can't tell you how many nights I spent in college, wide awake, afraid that I'd fall into a panic attack in the middle of the night, be unable to recover, and be trapped in it for months.
My sophomore year of college, my panic attacks heightened, and I missed so many classes that I almost had to re-do my semester. My mom would pick me up from my dorm and take me home, where I'd roll up in a ball and let the fear consume me. I lost my appetite along with my desire to succeed. I slept all day and stayed up all night.
I began to wonder if it would be easier on my family, my friends, and everyone around me if I weren't alive anymore. If they didn't have this burden. If I didn't have to call my mother every day, or text my sisters whenever I felt like I was on the brink of an attack.
And wouldn't it be easier on me, too?
Why waste this money on my education, when I couldn't physically go to class? Why waste time and effort on me?
That's when I knew I needed help. When I revealed these thoughts to my boyfriend at the time, he made the appointment for me. I started talking to a therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital, who helped me take baby steps. I felt pathetic. It took a few sessions before I could even get words out instead of spending the entire one-hour session in tears.
She recommended medication, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), and warned me that the side effects were weight gain, low libido, and more rarely, suicidal thoughts. Suicidal thoughts? But that's exactly what I was trying to get away from.
It was a tough decision: There were days I felt like I couldn't get out of bed, and the idea of taking a pill that might fix this was attractive. And I knew that psychiatric medications can be literally life-saving for some.
At the time, though, I wasn't really equipped to do a lot of research (that just made me more anxious), and I worried about those side effects. But, it turns out the risk of suicidal thoughts related to SSRIs has been way overblown; it is only statistically significant in children and adolescents and even then, the risk appears to be very small, as Refinery29 has reported. Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to continue with talk therapy alone for a bit longer and see where that would take me. This way, maybe I could sidestep the risk of side effects completely and still get better.
For me, this approach worked. After a long summer of meeting with my therapist, I felt like I was strong enough to go into the fall semester of my junior year. It was rocky, but manageable. I felt like I had the footing to get myself through. And when it came time for graduation, I felt it was my biggest accomplishment. Only a few months before, I had doubted I could finish even a semester -- and here I was, finally receiving my diploma. My next step seemed like the most daunting of all: starting my real life.
I had always wanted to move to New York, but often doubted my strength to be able to do it. Any New Yorker can tell you: This place is a zoo. It's loud, it's aggressive, it's fast-paced, and it's in your face. But what I wanted was clear. I moved to New York in December of 2013, this time for good. Almost three years later, I'm 25 and working an actual, big-girl job at a media company.
But I still go through waves of anxiety. Almost every day.
My attacks now are on a smaller scale, and they don't seem to be immediate threats, but they're very much there. Sometimes, I'm hit with fear over riding the subway. Even though I ride it every single day. But again, sometimes the attack has no trigger. It just comes. And I accept that. So I call an Uber (which, by the way, I set aside money for each month in case this happens).
I know my body, and I listen to it. Fortunately, I work at a place where my boss and the community understand how living with anxiety can be. When I feel like I need to stay home and work from home, I do it. Not everybody gets this privilege, and for that, I'm forever grateful.
I'm always surprised at how I'm able to live a "normal" life, and I constantly question when it will all fall apart. And sometimes I wish that, instead of having to head home at midnight when I'm out with my friends, I would be able to stick the night out and "just let loose."
I wish I could. It's incredibly lonely having anxiety. Though millions of other people suffer through it, it feels like you're completely alone when it's happening to you. Even when nothing is wrong, and I'm actually having a great time, it can sneak up on me. Like when I'm on the dance floor, a drink in my hand, friends surrounding me. I feel it, and I have to escape. How do you explain that to your friends?
Over the years, I've gotten better at it. I try to surround myself with people who understand my anxiety and forgive -- no -- encourage my getting the help that I need. For so long, I was so afraid to talk about my anxiety with my friends. I felt humiliated. I'm supposed to be an adult who can handle adult things. I shouldn't feel like I have to call my mother at 25 years old. But sometimes, I really just do.
And that's okay.
Now that I'm getting a little older, things like marriage and having children are coming closer. Am I going to find a partner who's going to love me despite this? And how can I possibly have a child without completely fucking him or her up? I can't bear to pass on to someone what I'm feeling now.
I'm learning to accept that anxiety is a part of me. It ebbs and it flows, and sometimes, it's stronger than the happiness I'm feeling and my dreams of building my career. Sometimes, it's even stronger than my will to live. It's a constant battle -- not just every day, but every second -- to actively tell myself that fighting through it is worth it. I'm not at a place where I feel completely strong every day, and it's not (yet) a happy ending. But it's the truth.
Refinery29 is teaming up with Black Girls Smile Inc. in honor of Minority Mental Health Month to encourage women everywhere to lead their most mentally healthy lives. Because there is no health without mental health. Prioritize yours.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
By: Eliza Florendo