I am sitting in my third grade classroom on a rainy day, as my favorite teacher is reading to the class. Everything is great. I have a wonderful family and wonderful friends. I am contentedly listening to Mrs. Thompson’s calming voice as she reads us a section of a chapter book. I love reading books and listening to stories. But the sudden quickening of my heart and blood rushing to my head and sheer panic that overcomes me causes me to blurt out to my horror “I need to use the bathroom!” I am a shy and well-mannered girl, so interrupting the class is out of the ordinary. I run out into the hallway, utterly embarrassed and confused and scared, and drink some water from the water fountain. “What is wrong with me? Am I sick? Am I dying? Am I going crazy?” These thoughts continuously cycle through my seven year old mind as I try hard to understand what had just happened to me. I manage to calm down and return to my seat in class, trying to remove this unpleasant memory from the depths of my subconscious. But I fail to do so because it happens again. And again. And again, for the next 12 years of my life.
Unbeknownst to me until a few years ago, those sudden moments of intense fear throughout my childhood and adolescence were panic attacks. Why was I unaware of what was going on with me? Why was I too afraid to tell my parents about these fear attacks? Why couldn’t I confide in my own friends?
Maybe I should inform you that I have always been a high achieving, driven Indian girl. Our culture is focused on education and success. Since I was young, I was always pushed to outperform my peers and set an example for my younger siblings. The idea of high achievement has been etched into my brain chemistry since I was little, and any traces of imperfection terrified me. Performing lower on exams were always my greatest disappointment, and I strived to get the highest grades I could, whatever the subject. My parents were almost always proud of me. Even when I didn’t meet my standards, they would show their disappointment but I knew deep down they still considered me their trophy child. They love me very much, and I felt afraid to tell them about my strange experiences for fear it would be a disappointment, or they would send me to a mental institution (yes, this was a legitimate irrational fear for me as well, I encountered many of these fears growing up due to generalized anxiety).
Until my ninth grade health class, I didn’t really understand that I may have suffered from panic attacks and anxiety. It wasn’t until I was having difficulty eating and paying attention in school that I finally confided in my parents. It was difficult at first because when I first told my mom, she could not accept it. When I told her that I was feeling very afraid and depressed, she told me I should stop acting “stupid” and be realistic. This made me feel very ashamed and guilty. Finally, I told my dad, a family physician, and thankfully he understood my fears and made me feel like I wasn’t alone. He also informed my mom that what I was experiencing is a legitimate illness and since then she has been my biggest supporter.
While I am actively managing my anxiety and panic attacks with techniques I found online and by exercising frequently, I still find it hard to feel at peace with myself and the world around me. I still feel afraid of being stigmatized and shunned. While society is slowly creating awareness of the prevalent mental health illnesses that pervade our globe, it doesn’t help that over 1 million people globally commit suicide each year (suicide.org). Here in the United States, our suicide rates have increased 2.4% in 2014, (US News) and while many cases are also due to complex socio-economical factors, societal pressure and expectations put upon us as we age exponentially heightens. By the time we are 18, we should be enrolled at a university, by the time we have graduated college we should land an amazing internship to eventually move up and make six figures, and by the time we are 27-30 we should be settled down and have children. This unspoken timeline of “success” is putting an overwhelming weight on the beautiful, unique lives that inhabit our perfection-driven society. My fear of being unsuccessful gives my anxiety the opportunity to wrap it’s tight fingers around it, painfully manifesting and growing within the inner workings of my beautiful mind. My fear of publicly displaying distress heightens my agoraphobia, making some days difficult to leave the protective covers of my bed.
This unspoken timeline of “success” is putting an overwhelming weight on the beautiful, unique lives that inhabit our perfection-driven society.
My fear of people labeling me as “crazy” prevents me from overcoming the idea that I am crazy. According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is the number one mental illness that affects 40 million adults aged 18 and older. What makes me wonder about this statistic is how many of these people experienced anxiety at a younger age, but were too afraid to report it? How many of these 40 million people went untreated before their anxiety felt so crippling they had to see the doctor? Something inside me tells me a lot of them. And yes, I admit I am one of those people who took years before telling her own parents. But that does not make it okay.
The earlier you tell someone, the better your quality of life will be. I learned this a little late, but I am also learning it is OKAY to have a mental illness, that people are there to support you, and that the awareness, while still small, is slowly evolving, but perhaps one day we can openly tell the person sitting in the bus seat next to us that we are feeling a little panicky and need the window open for some air.
I am also learning that I am not defined by my mental health, and wanting to lead a normal life is absurd. I can lead an incredible life with my willpower and strength I have used to combat the irrational stresses and attacks that have come my way all these years. We are powerful creatures with a powerful mind, and we must remember in the end that it is our anxiety-free thoughts that ultimately prevail.