I saw my first psychiatrist at age 12. During that time, I wasn’t sleeping because of the fear that someone was going to break into my family’s house and shoot us. For years, I would sneak into my mom and dad’s room and silently climb onto the foot of their bed, careful not to bump into their feet. If they were to wake up, I would get sent back to my room, where I would lay shaking, staring out my window, waiting for a car to pull into the driveway and for a man to emerge with a gun. The fear was completely irrational. We lived on a safe street in a safe town, and had a functioning security system. But no matter how many times my parents reiterated this to me, I was still certain my family and I were going to die.
My mom drove me downtown to see the psychiatrist. I explained to him what I was feeling, but I had no idea why it was happening or where it was coming from. The only thing I remember from the session is a quick animation the doctor played of a brain undergoing a fight-or-flight situation. It really helped having a visual of what was happening inside my head, and it was that animation that triggered my curiosity about the brain. It became my reason for pursuing neuroscience in college, and the reason I want to become a clinical neuropsychologist.
My fears of bad guys and guns have progressed over the years, and have developed into a fun little generalized anxiety disorder. For the most part, I can function completely normally with the anxiety, and have figured out ways to maneuver around it. Still, there are some things I haven’t discovered solutions to yet. The biggest issues are the paranoia and distractibility. In every single room or place I enter, whether it’s somewhere new, or somewhere I go every day, I assess it to find the nearest exit, just in case something were to happen. I don’t like sitting with my back to the door. I evaluate every person that passes me. I have trouble enjoying myself at public events, and have a hard time focusing at the movies. It’s exhausting always being on guard and I feel absolutely drained at the end of a day. Obviously, this has all been heightened recently with the nationwide shootings and attacks, but I have been like this for as long as I can remember. I’ve developed horrible migraines that make me feel like I’m drunk. I can’t sleep in my childhood house alone. I cry almost every time I have to get on a plane. I sleep horribly. Most of my dreams are unbelievably vivid, gory, disturbing nightmares that cause me to wake up multiple times throughout the night. I’ve grinded my teeth so far down they have become completely different shapes and sizes. Sometimes my heart rate speeds up for no apparent reason at all, and I stress that something is wrong with me medically, which makes my heart pound even more to a point where I feel like I could pass out. This is all just some stuff I’m trying to figure out how to cope with.
In college, I took many psychology classes for my neuroscience major. One common theme throughout these classes was the idea that past experiences really influence who someone becomes. During this time, I started to think about where my anxiety stems from, and why I am so afraid of death. As I reflected on my past, the answer became apparent.
When I was 6, I found out my mom was pregnant with triplet boys. After the initial disappointment about the whole three brothers, zero sisters thing, I was so excited that I was going to finally have siblings. On December 9th, Mark, Francis, and Edward were born three months prematurely with serious complications. Hours after being born, Edward died. Three days later, my aunt sat me down to tell me that Francis had passed. At 1 pound, 4 ounces, Mark was moved into the NICU where he stayed for months. During that time, my mom seemed to live at the hospital. Every day after school, my dad and I would drive to visit them. We were unable to touch Mark, but I would stare at him in his incubator and draw him pictures for the nurse to hang up. When he was finally able to come home, he remained hooked up to an oxygen tank, and his monitor would beep all day and all night to let us know he was still breathing. For the first years of his life, it felt as if we were calling 911 weekly, either because he had stopped breathing, or because he was having one of those awful seizures where your eyes roll back and your body becomes limp. There were so many nights I was pulled from bed and thrown into the front seat of an ambulance, where I sat and wondered if this would be the night I would end up an only child again.
Thankfully, Mark grew healthier, and my baby sister was born two years later. Memories of Mark’s frightening first few years were replaced with incredibly sweet ones of him as a toddler giggling and playing with Ellrose. I honestly often forget what it was like those first couple of years, and I think that’s why I’ve had such a difficult time attributing my anxiety to it. I know it must have affected me in a way that didn’t make sense to me at the time, but that I’m making more sense of now.
I had my first panic attack at a sleepaway camp the summer going into 8th grade. It was a completely normal day, and then out of nowhere, I had this horrible feeling something was wrong with my family. I told my counselor I needed to call home and check on them. She told me due to camp policy, campers were not allowed to use the phone. I begged, but she still said no, and I spiraled into my first attack. I had no idea what was happening except that my vision had gone completely fuzzy and I was unable to move. I was terrified and sobbing. The counselor finally told me I could use the phone, but since it was against policy, I would have to leave camp. I called my mom, who assured me the rest of the family was fine, and came to pick me up. I went and spoke with a psychiatrist again shortly after that.
I’ve had a few more full-blown attacks since then. One my sophomore year of highschool when I developed severe stress over my verbally abusive and mentally unstable varsity lacrosse coach. One my freshman year of college when I got too high. One my sophomore year, the morning after a guy pushed me down his front steps at 2AM and left me to freeze in his yard. A few my junior spring. One my senior spring. They are terrifying. I know exactly when they’re coming. My vision starts to go. My entire body tingles and then goes numb, starting with my upper lip and fingers. I can’t hear anything. My body starts uncontrollably shaking. I feel as if I’m dying. Each and every time I think that there’s no way I’m going to not die. And then I’m fine. Totally wiped out, but fine.
There are methods I use that help prevent the panic from developing into an attack. One psychiatrist had me read a book on the powerful effects of deep breathing. Initially, I was totally skeptical about it. But now, it is a skill I utilize every single day. Another method that has helped is medication. When my dad was diagnosed with a rare form of stage 4 lung cancer the April of my junior year, my PCP prescribed beta blockers to help stop the panic attacks before they happened. Anytime I got caught up in my own thoughts, and began to feel dizzy or panicky, I popped a pill and was usually able to calm down. That spring was really challenging, and I still find it extremely difficult to leave home. The time when we got back to school from winter break my senior year was the only time I experienced depressive symptoms. I thought I was going to have to go home. I wanted to go be with my dad. I met with a school counselor a couple times but it didn’t do much. What helped me was turning to God. I went to the chapel every day and prayed. Within a week, I felt lighter, happier, and myself again. I continued to go throughout the semester, and it got me through some really difficult times. I still pray often. While spirituality may not be the answer for everyone, it is important to figure out what works and doesn’t work for yourself.
The biggest thing that has helped is just having a clear sense of what works for me, and what doesn’t. Being overheated makes me panicky, so I know to stay inside on hot days. Coffee on an empty stomach? Fuck no. Big cities? Nah. Boston has been great, but will I go to grad school here? Definitely not. I’ll be in the mountains somewhere. But there are so many things that work for me. Being surrounded by nature, specifically in the mountains or on the water. Making deep, personal connections with people. Big Moose. Being alone when I need it. Going for a run. Peebs. Ice cream. Laughing. These are all instant fixes. If I start to feel panicky? Take a beta blocker, do some deep breathing and carry on my merry way.
I also have learned that being open to trying new strategies is super important. Some things may work, some may not. I have tried multiple meditation apps. Who has the focus for those? Talk therapy doesn’t do much for me because I have a difficult time articulating how I’m feeling. It’s why I often don’t open up about how I feel, because I don’t know how to explain it correctly. While talking about it hasn’t helped much, it has really helped writing it down like this. I encourage you to write down what you are feeling just to be able to collect your thoughts in a way that makes sense for you, and a way that may help make sense to others. Also, after reading about how yoga has helped Nikki and so many others, I am making an effort to really try it. I’ve been going a bunch this past week and am totally loving it. I’m looking forward to seeing where it may take me.
I have been so incredibly blessed with a family that I am obsessed with and the most amazing friends from all areas of my life. I am confident that without them I would be much worse off, and I’m so thankful that I’m not. The best advice I can give to anyone struggling is to find people that work for you. Find activities and places and objects that work for you. Find out what isn’t working for you and stop doing it. Spend time getting to know yourself, be honest about how you feel, and really nail down what pushes you to keep going. Try and do these things and I promise you, things will get better. And don’t forget to eat a lot of ice cream.
Written by Lilly Hanlon