In the last few years, whenever I tried to talk about my experiences with an anxiety disorder, I ran into the same problem. I couldn’t describe myself as having an anxiety disorder because I’d gone months without having a panic attack. And I couldn’t say I used to have an anxiety disorder because I still felt its effects.
Trying to find the right tense was more than just a matter of semantics. For many years, having an anxiety disorder shaped nearly every bit of my life -- where I went, who I went with, how long I stayed. I do not believe that anxiety disorder can be flipped off like a switch and, accordingly, simply using present or past tense did not accurately reflect how I was feeling. The body has an unbelievable capacity to remember pain, and my body was not ready to forget what I had been through.
It was only about a year ago that I settled on saying, “I am in recovery from anxiety disorder.”
I was diagnosed with panic disorder a few months into my freshman year of college. My first attacks were scattered and seemingly without pattern. But it wasn’t long before the attacks picked up speed and I was having several a day. I often felt nervous, not in control of my body, convinced that I was going to die. As the frequency of attacks increased, it became difficult to do normal things such as go to class, the dining hall or parties.
It was textbook panic disorder. Only I didn’t know that. I thought I had gone crazy and that all the things I hoped for in my life -- that my parents hoped for -- were gone.
I am thankful that I possess two qualities: being forthcoming about my feelings and being proactive about my health. I believe these are a big part of the reason that I was able to ask for help. And getting help was surprisingly easy.
One fall afternoon, I went to my college’s counseling center and asked for an appointment. Within days, I was seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist and was on medication.
That was more than 10 years ago. Since then, I have seen more than half a dozen therapists and taken as many medications. I have gone months without panic attacks and medication. I have also “relapsed” and nearly checked myself into a hospital.
I have been to yoga and meditation classes, swung tennis rackets at pillows, practiced the art of breathing, tried hypnosis and herbal remedies. And slowly, I’ve begun to do things that once seemed impossible -- going to crowded concerts or sitting with relative ease in a packed lecture hall.
People want to know why I’m better. They want to know the formula. This is not a simple question with a simple answer. For sure, hormonal changes, growing older, moving out of my parents’ house and becoming more confident and secure with myself have all aided my recovery. The only thing I can say with certainty is that my commitment to therapy and my willingness to try new medications have made the most difference.
Samantha Schutz is a children’s book editor in New York City and the author of “I Don’t Want to Be Crazy,” a book about her experiences. You can visit her at www.samanthaschutz.net.