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June 8, 2000
My Sky Is Falling
By Janet Miller

illustration: Carrie Cox

I used to call in sick and tell my boss I was suffering from an overwhelming sense of impending doom.

"Really?" he would say. "Well, that sounds just terrible, Janet." And then he would tell me to come in anyway.

It never worked. Actually, none of my excuses to stay at home really worked. During my early 20s -- a time when most young women experience the liberation of being on their own -- I felt no such freedom. I felt trapped and scared. After a while, I began to think it was normal to feel that way. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was one of an estimated 3 million people in our country suffering from panic disorder.

There were dozens of reasons for my anxiety, some physiological, some personal. As a freshman in college, I was dealing with difficult pressures: my mother recently had been diagnosed with breast cancer, I had moved from my small hometown to New York City, and my desire to succeed academically was combined with a strong ambition to become an actress.

Even as I began to lay the foundation for an exciting new life, I could sense that something was not stable. In New York, I began to experience intense feelings of terror and the inescapable feeling that something awful, even catastrophic, was about to happen. I feared sudden death, or that someone I loved was in danger. My heart raced unexpectedly. I was disoriented and couldn't breathe.

"It's stress," I told myself every day, trying to calm my fears about these attacks. A relaxing bath and a quiet evening alone -- that was all I needed. And because the fear was related to the unexpected and unknown, I told myself, then perhaps I should avoid dangerous situations altogether. Traveling in New York City can be dangerous, I thought, so I shouldn't really travel at all. And crowds -- yes, crowds can be dangerous too. The city is full of people, so I should probably just stay home. Home. Safety. No stress.

I could feel this fear stealing my passion, my spirit, and my soul. The loneliness and isolation from my withdrawal led to an all-consuming depression and increased my anxiety, creating a perpetual cycle of debilitation and despair. I was a bystander on the sidelines of life, watching as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months.

I created a scrapbook of lost opportunities and broken dreams: clips from class schedules for classes never taken, jobs never applied for. My memories of college include unpacking suitcases from trips I never made. I passed up a job with the first professional theater group I'd ever been asked to join; I missed the volunteer project that would have meant a cross-country sojourn to a Navajo reservation; I skipped my best friend's college graduation.

I lied repeatedly to relatives and friends about why I could not travel or spend holidays with them. The only thing worse than the humiliation of publicly backing out of these situations was the self-loathing that followed. I tortured myself for not being able control a problem that seemed indescribable and unfathomable to admit. Like many who are intimidated by the stigma and shame associated with mental disorders, I was reluctant to seek professional help. I considered myself an over-achieving person with academic goals and creative dreams. Not only that, I came from a loving and caring family. I had had birthday parties, pets, a swing set in the backyard -- is that a candidate for "crazy"?

By my senior year, the panic was suffocating me, despite my efforts to keep attending class and hold parts in campus plays. I was called to interview for an entry-level job at a prominent publishing house, and canceled it from the lobby when I couldn't handle the elevator ride to the 23rd floor of the Manhattan high-rise building.

Six months after graduation, I managed to complete an internship at ABC Television, and I got a job as the personal assistant to a female journalist I admired and respected. Then I suffered a complete nervous breakdown. Once again I had to give up opportunities and accomplishments, but there was a difference this time. When I returned to my hometown, I was hospitalized for a month and finally received the treatment and therapy I had needed for so long.

It seems ironic that it was in a hospital where I began to find freedom, to live a life without fear, to lead a life worth living. In the words of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet:

"Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. / And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. / And how else can it be? / The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."

Related links:

Rx.magazine feature story: Getting a Grip on Panic

Outside link: Information on panic disorder from the American Psychological Association