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Your Panic Attack Doesn't Care If You're Happy

Sometimes life with a mental illness can feel very all-or-nothing. We either have good days or bad ones. We are doing well or are completely incapacitated. And sometimes that's true, but most of the time it isn't. There's a gray area.
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Woman standing on beach and pressing her finger during sunset.
Woman standing on beach and pressing her finger during sunset.

A few weeks ago, my work was picked up by Huffington Post, and I was offered a really great job, on the same day. Yeah. It was pretty cool (read: awesome). I was surrounded by some of my very best friends when I got the news. I called my parents and cried lots of happy tears.

And then I had a giant panic attack. At a wedding.

Technically I had a panic attack on the back stoop of an Italian restaurant in Oakland, but whatever. It was the luncheon after a wedding, and I didn't get to eat my crème brulee because of it. (I also felt extremely rude for leaving early, but thought it would be ruder to hyperventilate while everyone else tried to finish their lasagna.) It was not my most dignified moment. Rocking back and forth and moaning, on a dingy set of stairs that smell like old mushrooms, is not a good look. I'm usually good at avoiding public panic attacks, but this one couldn't be helped.

Probably because I was having one of the best days of my life.

When big things happen, regardless of how great they are, my sympathetic nervous system kind of just goes "NOPE." I am set on edge. Sometimes I fall off the edge (see above: panic attack on gross stairs).

A lot of people think mental illness is something that strikes in times of misfortune, and while that is certainly true, my experience with mental illness has shown that the tricky little bastard is a lot less exclusive than that. It doesn't care if I'm having a great day. Sometimes it drops by because I'm having too great of a day.

I get overwhelmed.

I start to think about how whatever is making me feel so happy might end up falling through, or what if someone who is with me is silently judging my happiness and doesn't think I deserve it? What if I actually don't deserve it, and even if I do, is my life is going to be different? Am I going to have to change my routine and have more responsibilities and OH WOW I DIDN'T KNOW THIS ROOM COULD SPIN MAYBE I SHOULD SIT DOWN AND CRY.

Nobody talks about this part of having a mental illness, which is weird to me because it is so annoying. Everything will be going great. I'll be at a party or a wedding or Disneyland and BOOM. I get caught by surprise -- maybe not with Disneyland. Disneyland is objectively stressful, if you tell yourself otherwise you have internalized its pervasive consumer culture.

But the other stuff -- yeah. Existential dread is a bit unexpected.

And after annoying, it's disappointing. I don't want to experience something like a panic attack when great things are happening. I want those to be banished to the Mental Illness Corner and leave the rest of my life alone, thank you very much.

But like I said, mental illness isn't that exclusive. It doesn't care how your day is going. If it can show up, it will. And even better, it would like to stick around for as long as possible. It's that friend-of-a-friend who just won't leave your house party, even when everyone else has gone home.

Sometimes I am really great at kicking my anxiety out when it isn't welcome. Other times I'm a pushover. A lot of times it just smashes a window and starts going through my fridge before I have a chance to confront it.

That's what happened to me that day in Oakland. The party in my head got a little too wild and some lamps got smashed. It was embarrassing and inconvenient, but it didn't negate all of the great things that were happening around me. A lot of people read something I wrote. My friend was so beautiful in her wedding dress. The bread at the Italian restaurant was really good, and I didn't even throw it up.

Sometimes life with a mental illness can feel very all-or-nothing. We either have good days or bad ones. We are doing well or are completely incapacitated. And sometimes that's true, but most of the time it isn't. There's a gray area.

Most of life is made up of days that are neither great nor bad. Having a panic attack didn't ruin that day for me -- it just put it in the middle. I like days in the middle. I think they're pretty good, all things considered. They're more real, and they keep me on my toes. Unless I panic and pass out. Obviously.

I know I'll have more days like that, and that's fine by me. That sounds like a pretty nice life, including the parts of it spent on stinky stoops in restaurant parking lots.
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This story by Jenni Berrett first appeared at ravishly.com, an alternative news+culture women's website.

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