Reflection: Plagued By Panic


Scene 1:

    Slipping down the icy, cracked sidewalk, I cling to my best friends’ hands, for warmth and support. This particular January day was odd, weather-wise, reaching over 40 degrees during the day and dipping well below freezing as soon as darkness hit, causing ice build up everywhere. The smell of smoke slowly fills my nose and lungs, a smell I have come to know well, and despise.


    As we round the corner, onto my short street,  my eyes shift down, watching my boot clad feet and intentionally avoiding the scene in front of me. I know exactly what is coming. Yet, I want to evade this new reality for as long as possible. My best friend, beside me, audibly gasps, squeezing my icy hand in hers. Working up the courage as we near, I steal small glances at my best friends’ faces, gauging their reactions; it wasn’t good. I have to face this. I have no choice. Lifting my gaze, I find my childhood home ashy and still ablaze from the morning fire, despite it being nearly 6pm. This is my new reality.


    We had lost everything from this freak house fire: clothes, furniture, odds and ends, and, particularly heartbreaking, my three cats, two dogs, and two birds. My world was completely intact that morning, as I returned to the ninth grade after Christmas break. Yet, I returned home to nothing besides a destroyed home and a shattered family.


Scene 2:

    Sitting on my bed in my light purple bedroom of the house my family was renting, my thoughts begin to race. “You are completely alone. You have no one. No one cares,” my thoughts echo. My heart beat steadily increasing to a point of pain. Oxygen enters my lungs in short, rapid intakes of air. I can not breathe. Trembling and crying, I lay down on my bed, as this new, but now familiar, experience occurs. For a full fifteen minutes, I shake and hyperventilate, all alone. Plagued with the fear that I was dying, I google my symptoms, only to find out I had experienced a textbook case of a panic attack.


Scene 3:

    The tall, grey brick buildings of Binghamton University surround me, as the midmorning sun shines down on the mob of students moving from the large lecture hall. Wind rushes through my brunette curls, as well as through the newly fallen, crunchy leaves. Catching snippets of random conversations from my fellow students, I focus on the sound of feet slapping the pavement all around me. Suddenly, the whole scene before me blurs, as my breath catches in my chest. With the world around me seemingly spinning and whirling, my nails dig into my palm, knowing with dread what will soon occur: a panic attack. 


    I pick up my pace, lengthening my stride, refusing for this to happen in such a public place. My heart beat, loud and in my ears, races a million miles per hour as tears threaten to escape from my glassy eyes. I can feel people beginning to stare. “Almost there,” I tell myself in a whispered, jagged breath, pushing with a grunt on the heavy door of the bleak staircase. Now, in complete panic mode, true adrenaline fills my veins, taking the dirty stairs two at a time. Flinging the wooden door of my small, white dorm room open, my nose fills with the familiar scent of brown sugar. Gasping, I immediately fall on to my bed, now descending completely into panic, immobilizing me for hours.



    Like many sufferers, my anxiety had a very obvious catalyst: my house fire. To say I was sad during this time is a complete understatement, but being the big sister, I felt as if I had to suppress those feelings and act strong for my family. Only now do I realize how large of a mistake I had made by not letting myself hurt, and heal. Originally, my anxiety typically manifested in nervousness: driving, test taking, or ordering food. Thinking nothing of it, I lived my day to day life, occasionally just being nervous. 


    Yet, as I went through high school, my anxiety did nothing but increase in severity. It would come and go in, what I would consider, waves. Some days, I would be perfectly fine, dealing with whatever life would throw at me. These days would make me feel as if my anxiety wasn’t really severe enough to tell anyone or to seek help, especially since I could go days without feeling anxious. Other days, I would feel like I was drowning in my own thoughts, overwhelming me. I simply could not stop thinking, and those thoughts would make me extremely anxious. I was overwhelmed with the fear of being overwhelmed, in school, in work, in my social life. This feeling was absolutely crippling. Yet, I pushed these feelings aside, staying “strong,” as I started college this past fall.


    Fall of 2015 was easily one of the hardest times I have ever encountered. As I had just left home for the first time, my parents had just assumed I was homesick, but it was so much more. Panic attacks had plagued me weekly, as I tried to cope with my inner turmoil. A constant feeling of doom filled my chest, to the brim. I began going home every weekend, seeking comfort in the constants of my home life. I was just going through the motions at Binghamton University, not happy and not successful. At this point, one of the hardest decision I’ve ever made,  for my own sanity, was to transfer to TC3 for the Spring of 2016 semester, where I have sought out the help I so desperately needed. Thinking anxiety was a very personal problem, it took a long time to realize that I truly did need help. Yet, as I read C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination, my eyes have been opened up to see the bigger picture. My issue is simply not that of my own; our nation is being plagued by panic and other various mental illnesses.


    As C. Wright Mills states in The Sociological Imagination, “... people do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction,” meaning that people typically think of  their problems on a very personal level, without thinking of society as a whole and the historical circumstances that cause society to develop in the ways that it has (1959). I, for one, thought that my anxieties and troubles very personal and should be hidden. However, as I read the C. Wright Mills’ excerpt, I truly realized that the issues I faced as an adolescent, and still today, were more widely spread than I had originally thought.


    Simply put, a mental illness epidemic is occurring in our nation. Approximately one in five American citizens will end up being diagnosed with a mental illness in his or her lifetime, meaning that just about everyone knows someone with a mental disorder ("Mental Illness Is Prevalent in America"). Yet, seeking help is still a very stigmatized issue. With that said, I am only one of approximately 6.8 million adults in the United States diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. However, many more adults, I believe, have undiagnosed anxiety disorders, because of an ever growing stigma against those with a mental illness. An uncountable number of anxiety sufferers downplay these disorders, like I did, or are too ashamed to seek help. Admitting that I worried too much was overwhelmingly difficult, and I can only imagine that it is the same for others (“Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)”). Yet, still about 14.6% of the entire population suffers with some sort of anxiety ("Generalized Anxiety Disorder", 2015). 


    The daily struggles I go through with anxiety and stress are not mine alone, as Mills also would believe. Anxiety is said to be the most common mental disorder, currently, plaguing about 40 million American adults, affecting college students more than any other group (“Understanding the Facts"). The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests that all sufferers of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, in specific, struggle with “persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things,” like I do. (“Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)”). In addition, my symptoms of anxiety, like muscle tension, trouble sleeping, and overwhelming worry, more often than not, are some of the exact symptoms others deal with, too, making this truly a societal problem.


    My anxiety happened to be triggered by trauma and stress in adolescence, which is not as uncommon as one would believe. Generalized Anxiety Disorder typically does not manifest before adolescence. At age 14 and having experienced a world shattering event, I was a prime candidate for developing this disorder. As stated by the American Psychological Association, children who experience a house fire often, in fact, suffer from new anxiety and nightmares ("Recovering Emotionally After a Residential Fire”). Multiple children and adolescents deal with the same post-trauma anxieties as I do, since approximately 410,000 residential fires occur each year ("Residential Fires”).


    Society is quick to blame me for my own problems, simply telling me to calm down and to stop worrying, as if I have control over these things. Yet, as C. Wright Mills points out in The Sociological Imagination,“[w]hat we experience in various milieux … is often caused by structural changes”(1959). Understanding that anxiety is a societal issue is key to understanding one’s own pain, and is key to realizing that sufferers of anxiety cannot change their thinking patterns without help. Looking past one’s own problems, it can be seen that mental illness is plaguing our nation, despite efforts being made to destigmatize it, since only one third of anxiety sufferers seek treatment ("Generalized Anxiety Disorder", 2015). 


    Today, with the help and support of my parents and friends, I have been one of those lucky few to seek out help for this crippling anxiety, as I was recently diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Medication and counseling have helped to improve my mental state highly, but some days are still better than others, since those waves of anxiety still come. My illness has taken so much time, energy and effort from me in these past five years, making me lose friends, leave my dream school, and quit jobs. However, I am not my anxiety, despite having this illness shaping my life in multiple negative and positive ways.


    Since realizing that mental illness is as prevalent as it is, I have become a true advocate for those with mental illness, spreading awareness. In addition, seeing the bigger picture has helped me to voice my own struggles, hoping that no one has to fight alone. I have also learned telling signs and symptoms of those with anxiety, becoming a confidant for anyone in need. Mills would argue that my personal self-awareness and insight into the bigger picture of anxiety disorders and mental illness, in general, will allow me to impact the future of mental illness in this country, helping to destigmatize it, and I plan to do exactly that as a future social worker.

Tristen B.