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Life With Anxiety – What My First Panic Attack Taught Me

Don’t Panic.

Jane the Virgin is one of my favorite Netflix series, mostly because I find Jane’s character so relatable. Jane is a planner, an over-analyzer, a crier, and a writer. She gets me. So, naturally, when a recent episode aired talking about Jane struggling with panic attacks, it was just another reason to find her character relatable.

It’s May right now, and that means a few things. A.) I just finished enjoying Cinco de Mayo. B.) it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, something we’re taking seriously at BrooklynButtah. C.) The season finale of Jane the Virgin airs in a few weeks. And D.) It’s been about a year since my last panic attack.

This isn’t something I talk about a lot, not even out of shame or embarrassment, but kind of out of fear of speaking them up. I’m writing this with one hand and knocking on wood with the other, hoping acknowledging them and activating them aren’t the same thing.

Even when I wear my counselor cape during the day, I have a hypocritical habit of not talking about my problems until I’ve solved them. For me, anxiety is a little different. Though it is a puzzle, I’m not sure it’s realistic to expect it to be solved in the long-term. So I won’t be sharing tried and true tips to keep you calm. Instead, I’ll be transparent about what I was going through so that you may know what to look out for.

Mental health can affect any and everyone, so even if you aren’t suffering, this may help you help a friend.

I Panicked.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I went to school, went to school again, landed the job, loathed the job. I mean, second month, panic attack. Not what I expected it to be, didn’t feel I could make it what I wanted it to be. How millennial of me, I guess.

I was drowning in work that just didn’t stop coming in, and I didn’t know where to start because I didn’t know what to do, and people kept knocking on my door for something they needed, so I couldn’t even begin to start. I hated my job, but I couldn’t tell anyone that. No one wanted to hear me complain. Beside, I had a degree in this, so this was all I could do, right?

I didn’t have any other options. This was all I’d ever know from now on. And I couldn’t quit. I had just signed my contract. But forget that, I had just signed my lease. Bills wouldn’t wait. And neither would my boss and the endless list of things I couldn’t finish or start. And one day I just couldn’t breathe. I could not catch my breath, and I didn’t have time to stop and try catch my breath. Because I had work to do. I had to do it all and do it well.

Just writing this, my chest is starting to hurt. Like I ran a marathon with no training. Like my brain and body couldn’t keep up with each other. It was awful. And it was different. I’m used to having slight test anxiety – I had to test for my driver’s license three times, y’all – but this was new. I was gasping and gasping and not getting any air. I still don’t know how panic attacks end. Some part of me must refocus onto some part of reality that reels me back in and roots me, even though it feels like I can’t stand up straight. Somehow my breathing become normal again, and I blow out the little bit of air I have, wipe my tears, and get back to work.

Now, a year removed, I see all my lapses in judgement. My anxiety rarely involves logic. It is strictly black or white thinking; they are no exceptions, no options, no grey area. It focuses on the past and the future, but not the present. What I’ve done or what I have to do, what I’ve said or what I need to say. Not what I can actually control.

Then and Now

Isolated vs. Integrated

Then: My anxiety affected way too much of my life. I would go to work, have a panic attack, and come home and never leave my couch. So I didn’t say anything. Declined most invites. I knew they would ask me about my new job, and I knew I would be honest and tell them everything. I hate it. Everyday I feel like a fraud. Sometimes I can’t even breathe. I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear that over dinner and drinks. I boxed myself in, at home and at work, and didn’t say anything.

Look out for the friend you never see anymore.

Now: A lot of the time we think separating ourselves from people will help us most, when really we should think about letting people know what they’re going through. I felt like the biggest fraud, counseling all day but not able to deal with my own stuff. I’m naturally an introvert, but when I feel it would be nice to switch things and let people both over my place and inside my head, I do just that. And it’s truly helpful. Everything doesn’t have to experienced alone.

Perfect vs. Person

Then: Death to perfectionism. Really. I think it’s a huge part of what made me anxious my first year on the job. Not only did I feel I couldn’t perform; I felt I couldn’t perform well. And for me, the perfectionist, the people-pleaser, that was the equivalent of telling me every Target worldwide was going out of sale. I just couldn’t grasp the concept. Even though a good amount of the pressure I felt was indeed placed on my shoulders, a lot of it I put on myself.

Look out for the friend who does it all yet never feels like it’s enough.

Now: That first year at work was the perfect crash course to getting over myself, getting things wrong, and giving myself the grace to make mistakes. I’m a human-damn-being, which means I can guarantee a few missteps. I steer clear of anything or anyone that encourages my perfectionist mindset.

Stuck vs. Searching

Then: Even when I did tell people I hated my job – leaving out the part about the panic attacks – most of the feedback I got involved staying in the position. I personally couldn’t think outside the box enough to see what else I could be doing.

Look out for the friend who thinks in absolutes. Black or white thinking: no in-betweens. I thought long and hard about it, and still came back to work for a second year.

Now: Honey. HONEY. I am not the hugest fan of second chances. It takes very little time for me to know what is and isn’t for me. And, because I know this ain’t it, I’m looking for what is. And dare someone to give me their two cents about it.

It’s May. Jane’s parents are in love again and planning their wedding. I’m pushing my resume to anyone with a salary and a job description. And it’s been a year since the weirdest, quarter-life-crisiest time of my life. It took Jane 90 therapy sessions to feel confident enough to handle her anxiety on her own, and it still briefly crept back up and surprised her. Mental health issues may happen. The important thing to do is find ways to heal and deal with them.

I don’t doubt that I’ll experience anxiety again, but at least I know I can conquer it.

All I ask is that we be aware. Check on people. Check in on yourself. And challenge your own thinking. Even if this isn’t happening to you, it’s happening to someone. Maybe even someone you know.

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