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Panic City

When I think back on the worst moments of my illness, I think of bathroom floors. Sitting on them. Staring at them. Waiting for nausea to either pass or exit up my esophagus. It’s the place where I found myself on my knees, surrendering my stomach once again. Lingering during moments of recovery, I saw all the small, unsettling details: pubic hair and toenail clippings, tattered toilet paper, dead bugs, the fine layer of grime in the edges and corners no one ends up cleaning. Bathroom floors didn’t seem so gross or unwelcoming when I was in that state. In fact, they felt like comfortable friends. The faded linoleum was just as low and messy as I was, and the buzz in my brain was too distracted to care.

When I think back on the worst moments of my illness, I think of bathroom floors. Sitting on them. Staring at them. Waiting for nausea to either pass or exit up my esophagus. It’s the place where I found myself on my knees, surrendering my stomach once again. Lingering during moments of recovery, I saw all the small, unsettling details: pubic hair and toenail clippings, tattered toilet paper, dead bugs, the fine layer of grime in the edges and corners no one ends up cleaning. Bathroom floors didn’t seem so gross or unwelcoming when I was in that state. In fact, they felt like comfortable friends. The faded linoleum was just as low and messy as I was, and the buzz in my brain was too distracted to care.

The oldest of five in a Christian homeschooling family from Indiana, I grew up exuberant and happy like most children. I was creative and adventurous, but sensitive. And was considered mature for my age. At age 10, I started to feel sad after my family moved to a new city. And while I didn’t have the coping skills or language to understand what it was, I know now that I was experiencing a depression that continued to stew under the surface for the majority of my life. Pushed deep down and covered up tight. If I had not gotten involved in performing arts upon entering the ninth grade in public school, I’m not sure where I’d be. I remember feelings of anxiety during this time as I was adjusting from homeschool to public school. I hardly ate then. But the long rehearsals and late nights during those four years kept me preoccupied. Any open moments were quickly filled with a soccer season or volunteering at an art organization. I stayed busy as often as I could not only because I liked it, but because when I did not, the low, dark feelings would return.

As I grew up, my sensitive nerves subsided but the physical tension and agitation in my chest increased. This would be coupled with a worsening eating disorder that surfaced when I was nervous or severely anxious. Despite these ongoing symptoms, I fell in love with the stimulation and constant movement I found in college life. I was an ever-inspired, wide-eyed art student, captivated by everything I was learning, exposed to new worlds for the first time. I gave tours at the art museum, began doing and teaching yoga, studied abroad in Spain, spent summers in Chicago and San Diego, got a minor in theatre, sang with a choir, continued private voice lessons, and even had a very brief stint in a dance troupe.

This joyful, harried existence was only interrupted periodically in short spurts when I’d have a particularly bad bout of anxiety, and once, a severe depressive episode. But I didn’t know what to do about it, so I just kept moving. Unsure of what else to do with my life after college, I went straight to graduate school, moving to Illinois and quickly regaining my breakneck busy lifestyle.  My academic load and financial burden had increased, and I was trying to make new friends in a new city. Looking back, it’s no wonder I finally broke.

I know now that this is called derealization, which just means your mind is convinced of unrealities, and it’s pretty common amongst sufferers of various types of mental illness.

One evening during my second semester of grad school, I found myself sitting on the beige carpeted floor in the small space between the desk and the bed in my apartment, staring at the floor, paralyzed. That day feels blurry like a dream that only barely remains in my memory. It’s hard to describe the sensation of going crazy, but that’s how it seemed. I wasn’t sure how I would ever move from that spot or how life would continue in general. I felt more helpless than I knew was possible. That was the beginning of a long and convoluted journey for me, during which my entire sense of self and my bearings in the world were stripped down and reconstructed.

Panic symptoms look different for each person. It doesn’t always look like what you would think. In actuality, lots of people, myself included, experience panic in a more internalized way like physical symptoms that mimic other illnesses. Panic attacks are also different from anxiety attacks.

In an ABC News interview with Dr. Cathy Frank, she stated that “[during] an anxiety attack, people may feel fearful, apprehensive, may feel their heart racing or feel short of breath, but it’s very short-lived, and when the stressor goes away, so does the anxiety attack. Panic, on the other hand, doesn’t come in reaction to a stressor. It’s unprovoked and unpredictable.”

Prior to that first panic attack in my grad school apartment in 2015, I’d had anxiety attacks, but not panic attacks. Since then I’ve had some time to learn about my body, my symptoms, and other factors that make it more likely for me to have an attack. During my worst panic attacks, I experienced gastrointestinal distress. That’s just a fancy way to say I felt like my stomach was trying to simultaneously evacuate at both ends as if I had a virus. At its worst, my body would go cold and I would shake and throw up uncontrollably. The entire world felt surreal and I had the overwhelming sense that nothing good existed anywhere. I know now that this is called derealization, which just means your mind is convinced of unrealities.

During those three to nine months I’ve come to call Panic City, all was upside-down and directionless. I had to quit grad school and move home against my will. The people around me didn’t seem to know what to do to help or support me, any more than I knew how to help myself. I continued to have panic attacks accompanied by a sustained undercurrent of depression. I tried different therapists, tried a medication that made me feel worse, forced myself to eat, and yes, found myself on the bathroom floor more times than I could count.  I developed a mild case of agoraphobia and was wildly averse to being left alone. It was like all of the uncomfortable emotions I’d pushed down for my entire life were springing out, a fountain of sadness and pain I couldn’t control no matter how hard I tried. Being alone meant I was less easily distracted from that surge, and being in public amongst strangers meant being embarrassed by my dysfunction. However, I think that that ugly, empty time of my life was the best thing that could have happened to me because I learned to sit with my pain. I learned how to make my lower emotions into a friend.

It’s almost laughable how easily I can type that last line now, when my journey to healing was so convoluted and agonizing.

But for me, making space to courageously sit with my emotions and symptoms exactly as they are has been a life-altering practice.

Four years later, I’m able to function normally. I’m on medication and have a diagnosis that helps me to understand illness. I’m actually grateful for this illness that affects my everyday life. I didn’t successfully move to an actual new city when I graduated college, but my time spent trapped in Panic City taught me so much about life and growth that I might as well have.

My first great therapist taught me many things, but most important was this: everything in your body works together. It took me a while to stop isolating my mental state from my physical health. This is why I recommend “First, We Make the Beast Beautiful” by Sarah Wilson. You’ll learn that allowing the beast of mental illness to exist within you isn’t giving up, or accepting defeat. It’s making friends with the bathroom floor. It’s subversive, unexpected. It’s turning that which you hate the most into something that you allow to exist, which is taking back your power.

Today my life is still not perfect or pristine, but I am now somehow able to coexist with heartbreaking messiness, and that has been the biggest, most surprising of gifts. There are still some situations that can cause me to have a panic attack or exist in a sensitized state for a few days. But I’m not where I was before, and because I’ve learned to listen to my body and have made peace with my darkness, I know I’ll never be there again.

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