If I could describe the last four years of my life in one word it would be storms. There were storms ranging from some short-lived scattered showers to severe storms that threatened to obliterate everything in its path. My storms did not come with a loud alert message from my cell phone warning me of the upcoming inclement weather. It was not that simple. I had to brave out the storms of my life, and my mental health without warning. I always felt hopeless during my bad storms. However, through all my experiences I have learned that even in the ugliest of weather, the sun will always shine. Sometimes you just need to find it.
My storms showed up in the form of panic attacks, and began when I was in the fourth grade. I was watching a movie, and with a flash I had an overwhelming feeling as though I was about to die, or something bad was about to happen to me. It was very hard for a nine-year-old to process the thoughts that were speeding through my mind. My only resolution at the time was to sleep. Throughout middle and high school, I learned new techniques to cope with my continuing scattered showers. I reached a point, during my senior year where most days were sunny and bright. However, I had no idea I was about to come face to face with a monsoon of challenges, and what felt like a never-ending wave of destruction.
On May 4, 2013, I went to a movie with my family. During the preview I started feeling anxious, as though I could not breathe at all. I told my mom, and she assured me it was just a normal panic attack. I did not believe her. This was different-something was wrong. This was not the light and scattered thunderstorms that I was used to-this was my tornado. Then came the running in circles around the movie theater lobby, gasping for air, and noticing those who were staring nervously. I left the movie, and sat in the car with my Dad hoping it would make me feel better. I could not calm down. I felt like I could not breathe, and as though my mind was slipping into chaos. The storm had reached a level I felt I was incapable of handling. This day was the first time I have ever had to go to the emergency room. I thought it was an isolated incident, but it was just the beginning.
I then spent the next sixth months suffering from something called PANDAS, a disorder that causes severe panic and OCD beyond comprehension. It was a disorder that lead me to spend my last three weeks of high school in the counseling office. I was not myself. No one knew what was wrong with me. I would have multiple earth-shattering panic attacks every day for several months. I felt hopeless and lost. I was positive I would never get better.
I thought I could brave out the storm by taking shelter in a new location, college. However, the storm was too powerful to withstand, I had to evacuate. I went to the hospital three times in a matter of a week, and it was not until I signed myself into inpatient that my parents realized I wasn’t just having my normal panic attacks. I medically withdrew from my first semester of college. I went on antibiotics, vitamins, and was put in intensive exposure response/cognitive behavioral therapy. Reaching out for help, and finding a therapist played a key role in my recovery. I was traumatized by what I went through. I worked, went to intensive therapy, continuously walked around my college campus, and exposed myself to whatever I was most afraid of. It paid off, I was ready to go back to school. My first real semester of college in the spring of 2014 turned out well. I was thrilled all my therapy and work over the last few months had paid off.
I was starting to see the sun again. However, the next fall semester is when the next storm hit. I was having panic attacks multiple times a week, and occasionally going to the emergency room. However, I stayed in therapy and braved out the storm. It was the day after moving back for the spring semester that I realized I needed more help again due to the overwhelming anxiety I was experiencing. I called up my parents, and told them I was coming home for another semester to regain the sunshine I had felt I had lost.
When I got home, I was not in a good place. My panic attacks had left me feeling incapable of driving, and unable to leave the house at times. I felt as though I was never going to attain the recovery I so desperately wanted. Looking back, I firmly believe I was meant to be home that semester. During my time at home I was reconnected with someone who would teach me to find the sunshine in the gloomiest of weather. She was my next-door neighbor. I had known her my whole life, and always saw her as an older sister.
We spent the next several months working to build my courage by driving to various locations. I was expanding my comfort zone to the point where I could make the hour drive from my house to my college campus. She became my best friend. I still see her as my miracle. However, I also realized it was my ability to admit I needed help, the work I put in when I was with her, and my work with therapy that made it possible.
That August of 2015 I was ready to return to college. I could drive, and most of my panic had subsided. When another storm hit, I knew how to keep pushing through it. I had the confidence I never thought I would feel again. I had a new apartment, great roommates, I was on top of the world. Little did I know another storm was just beyond my horizon. Two weeks into the fall semester, I received a call that my best friend, the person who helped me face my biggest fear had committed suicide. My universe shattered right in front of me that morning. That was my strongest storm.
As you can imagine that was not an easy semester. The grief caused some of the panic attacks to come back. The experience was devastating, and I questioned if I could continue a normal life let alone my academic endeavors. However, I found the strength through therapy and medication to not give up. I continued working with my therapists, doctors, and psychiatrist to help me cope and to reach a point where I would thrive again. I could not have made it through the treacherous weather without the help of my therapists, family, and friends. Most importantly, I could not have made it through without hard work, and the vast amount of help from those around me.
It has been a year-and-a-half since my friend passed away, and exactly four years since the P.A.N.D.A.S started, and I am happy to say I have one year left until I graduate, and I am thriving. I still have challenging episodes of panic and OCD. However, with the help of my therapist, and skills that I have learned, I have been doing well to say the least. If I learned anything from my storms, both large and small, it is by asking for help, change in weather is possible. I learned even when things seem hopeless, and you believe the clouds will never part, you can always find the true sunshine within yourself. The sunshine was never missing in any of the storms, it just took some work to find it. I have learned to keep chasing the sunshine because just because you may not see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Stay tuned for Part II: PANDAS Interview!
By: Kelsey Rood, Anxiety In Teens Contributor