I can still remember in vivid detail the first time I experienced a panic attack. I was in 8th grade.
I was sitting in English class. My best friend at the time was sitting to my left, one seat back. The creative assignment we had just been given by our teacher was to write about the “person we hated the most.” Seriously. That was an assignment given by a middle school English teacher. Looking back, it was really a bullying 101 assignment. I mean, what kind of teacher encourages that? But hey, she was my teacher and this was our assignment.
I remember looking over my shoulder to my best friend to whisper to her my choice of targets (I’m am deeply sorry, Jennifer, for any malice thought I had towards you). But there was something in my friend’s expression that seemed off. And at that moment, I just knew.
After school that day, I slipped back into the English classroom and went to the file cabinet where we kept our writing notebooks. I opened it and quickly found the royal blue spiral that belonged to my friend. As soon as I read the first sentence, my heart began to beat faster than I had ever felt. On and on, I read words of hate, mockery, and judgment. Pretty much anything that a young girl deems off-limits was touched. My weight was shamed. My face was ridiculed. The things I enjoyed were made fun of. And at the end of the paper, the one who I believed was my very best friend wrote in her bubbly cursive handwriting, “I hate her and always have. I just feel sorry for her so that’s why I keep her around.”
I put the notebook back into the old grey filing cabinet, listened for the click of the drawer, and began to walk out of the room. Before I made it to the door, my breath was so shallow I was certain I was going to die on the spot. And thus began a life of anxiety.
I don’t really talk about my anxiety much. I might mention it casually if anxiety is brought up but for the most part, I keep it pretty much under lock and key. Even writing this now has my heart fluttering a bit faster than I like. It’s very difficult to talk about even though it is very common. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. Anxiety disorders affect 25.1% of children between 13 and 18 years old. (ADAA, 2019). My bet is that you know of someone… or several someones … who has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or is suffering silently from one. So, I think it’s time we talked. I mean really talked.
I think my anxiety actually started when I was much younger. I had the privilege or burden (whichever way you want to look at it) of having my father as my elementary school principal. I really didn’t mind the authority he had because, honestly, I was a good girl. But not everyone fits into the category of “well-behaved.” And those less mannered children sometimes found their way into my dad’s office for discipline. Unfortunately, their anger was often let out in ways that did impact me. I can tell you that finding my dad’s name laced with profanity on the elementary school playground was never easy. I can remember feeling this sense of fear because I knew there were kids who didn’t like him. And as I people-pleaser, I couldn’t comprehend that fact without feeling what I thought was fear. In actuality it was anxiety. Overhearing teachers talk about him in ways that were … colorful … shaped me and my sense of safety. So in my little mind, I thought if I tried harder for those teachers and if I were perfect around those kids then they would definitely see my dad as the greatest guy ever. But they didn’t so I felt like I’d fallen short.
During that middle school year, I suffered tremendously. All self-esteem left me. I worried constantly about what I looked like or what I said. I often wondered when I walked up to a group of kids if they were going to make fun of me the moment I walked away. I thought seriously of suicide because all seemed lost. I was so lonely and so fearful. And yet I buried the true source of my pain. I never told my friend that I knew what she wrote.
Several weeks later, we had a new writing assignment. This one asked us to write about something that made us sad or upset. So I “confessed” to what I had done. Once my teacher read my assignment, she was beside herself. In all fairness to her, I think it was the eye-opening moment she needed to realize the “hate” assignment was not healthy for pre-teens with changing bodies, hormones, and attitudes. She asked me multiple times if I was okay. I lied and said I was. To my knowledge, she’s never assigned that writing activity again. (Silver lining!)
I would love to say that high school was better but it really wasn’t. I just learned to hide my anxiety better. I struggled to fit in. I was smart. I was involved in so many things. Looking back, the places where I felt most at ease were the activities where I could step away from being me. Theater, the school mascot, the newspaper staff. All these things allowed me to hide my face… hide my eyes… so that others couldn’t see the fear, the desperate need for acceptance, the anxiety that took me to shallow breaths and trembling hands.
I remember one incident that still rocks me to this day. I had been out of town with my family for the weekend. When I got home, a friend called me and told me she had something I needed to see. I think I was 16 at the time. I went to her house and she had four or five handmade signs. She had pulled them from my yard while I was gone. Someone had thought it would be great fun to put signs in front of my house with a degrading theme. As I read them, the room went a bit dark as I struggled to maintain consciousness.
When you look at my yearbooks, you would think you see a happy teenager. All the clubs and sports that I was involved in could not trump the amount of self-doubt and loathing that I had. I was the master of hiding it from others but the biggest failure of treating it. From high school to college to adulthood, this anxiety controlled my life and my successes. And it’s time I start owning it if I ever expect for it not to control me.
To be continued…
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depressive, obsessive-compulsive, and trauma-related disorders through education, practice, and research.
If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety or depression, please know you are not alone. Call your pastor, a counselor, a physician or mental health hotline for help.