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."
story: Getting a Grip on Panic
Outside link: Information
on panic disorder from the American Psychological Association