2018 sucked. It was honestly the hardest year of my life and I’ve gone back and forth with whether or not to share this with y’all because I strive so hard to keep this space positive. Heck, some of my closest friends didn’t even know the extent of my struggle and even worse, many people still don’t believe that mental health problems are legitimate. To be honest, I had absolutely no idea how debilitating they are until I was in the thick of it myself. But to keep the most all-encompassing part of my life over the last year a secret from you because of my own insecurities about it seemed dishonest. And nothing made me feel better than opening up about it to friends and realizing that some of the strongest people I know are going through the same thing. So here goes…
I developed panic disorder last January and spent the year fighting with all of my might to overcome it. In its early stages, when I was still struggling to understand it, I honestly felt as though I had slipped into agoraphobia. What I had originally thought was a disorder reserved only for the weak is surprisingly indiscriminate.
If you know me personally, you know that I’m so outgoing that I’ll talk to a wall. And I’m fearless. I’ve been skydiving twice, hung my feet out of a helicopter, and even moved to Charlotte after college not knowing a soul to pursue my dream of working in NASCAR. I have always prided myself on my fierce independence and positive sense of self. I didn’t think anything could rattle me… until this.
Before we get into it all, I want to preface this with the obvious – I’m not a doctor. These are my own personal experiences and this disorder is different for everyone. Consult a psychologist or your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms.
Jeremy and I booked a Caribbean cruise leaving from Puerto Rico at the beginning of 2018. I had been on a number of cruises, including one in the Mediterranean only six months earlier, but for some reason I didn’t have the same excitement as I have previously had for a vacation. The night before our flight, my legs were shaking uncontrollably. I knew something was off, but I blamed it on being cold.
I was fine on the flight and the cab ride to the cruise terminal. We’d booked a dinner at an Italian restaurant upon boarding and that’s when more symptoms set in. I had lost my appetite; so much so that the smell of the food made me nauseous. I blamed the stomach ache on what we’d eaten the night before, but things only escalated from there.
I woke up the next morning feeling like I needed to throw up. I couldn’t catch my breath and my heart was racing. On the off chance that the pounding subsided, I was so exhausted that I would pass out for hours. This living hell persisted for a couple of days before we made the decision to visit the ship’s doctor. After running a few standard tests, the doctor found that I was not only dehydrated, but my heart rate was sky high. He hooked me up to fluids and gave me an EKG. The fluids helped, the EKG didn’t show anything irregular, and he gave me a Valium to sleep off whatever it was that was causing the sickness.
After a couple more days in bed, I felt better enough to actually disembark the ship and explore the gorgeous Caribbean islands that I had been missing. I felt far from myself, but after a few rum punches I was able to enjoy the day. Unfortunately, the flight home presented even more symptoms. Standing in the security line, I began to loose feeling in my fingertips. My mind raced. And your mind can jump to some really dark conclusions if you let it.
Upon arriving in Atlanta, I hijacked my mom’s doctor’s appointment. I knew something was wrong and I needed to speak with a professional. I hoped that he would tell me I had a virus and prescribe me some medicine and everything would be better. But after listing my symptoms, he shot it to me straight: I had severe anxiety.
Back home in South Carolina, I found myself wanting to remain at home. I threw myself into household chores to distract myself and much preferred when Jeremy was home to keep me company. I later learned that all of these feelings are common for anxiety sufferers. But with the NASCAR season looming in early February, I knew I was going to need to muster all of my courage to head a few states away from home for the week to Daytona.
In Florida, away from my daily routine, I was overcome with the disorder. I avoided social situations, fun nights out, even Disney World! But nothing was as triggering as standing on the grid for the national anthem pre-race. As I saw the cameraman approaching, my symptoms ramped up. I knew that his footage would be broadcast live on national television. My internal dialogue was less patriotism and more about not passing out on TV. When it was over, I was exhausted. Combined with the stress of the race, I slept the whole seven-hour car ride home.
I booked a therapist appointment immediately. It was certainly a good first step, but I needed more. Throughout this past year, anxiety would sneak up on me without warning – driving down the road, getting my nails done, when I first wake up, standing in line, etc. The more I educated myself on anxiety, its grip lessened, but all I wanted was my old life back.
THE TURNING POINT
Fast forward one full year to January 2019. It was time for another cruise before the NASCAR season began and we decided on Hawaii. I had reservations about flying so far away for another cruise, but I had resolved not to avoid uncomfortable situations any longer. A week before the trip, our church did a series on prayer culminating in a week of daily targeted prayer sessions that members of the congregation could take part in. On Sunday, we were encouraged to write our requests down and leave them on the stage. As I was leaving for Hawaii in a week, I just asked God for the strength to overcome this disorder and to help heal me.
Little did I know that the trip was the light at the end of the tunnel. I woke the morning of our flight with the same sense of uneasiness. I was going to be facing my triggers at the highest level – security lines at the airport were longer than usual thanks to the government shutdown and once I was through TSA, I had a 10-hour flight to look forward to. But amazingly, my anxiety didn’t spike. I felt even more confident upon arriving in Hawaii and even more so after a couple days on the ship. This horrible scenario I had built up in my head just didn’t exist. It had just taken one major push for me to realize it. I had spent so much time avoiding what I perceived to be triggers instead of facing and overcoming them. The fear of a panic attack had kept me from partaking in a year’s worth of activities and unbeknownst to me, those activities could have helped.
Flash forward again to last week. My parents watch church online and told me the recent sermon was important for me to hear as it coincidentally centers around anxiety. The pastor interviews psychologists who break down why our generation is seeing a spike in anxiety and it put so much into perspective for me. With the introduction of social media, 24-hour news cycles, podcasts, YouTube, and more, we are constantly aware of every terrible thing happening in the world. Combine that with a near constant feed of your peers’ highlight reels and the subsequent loneliness that social media can cause – its a recipe for comparison, stress, and potential depression. It was everything I needed to hear and I immediately flashed back to that simple prayer request and how its impact was undeniable. You can listen to the sermon HERE (scroll down and click on ANXIETY) – it is a MUST-LISTEN.
THE WHY & THE HOW
I wanted to share my story because it was terrifying not understanding what was happening to my body. It’s tough to believe that so many of us literally feel like we’re dying and yet there’s still such a stigma around it. But I had been so silly to be embarrassed because more people in my life than not were struggling with the same thing. I can pinpoint major steps forward in this journey, but there were also little things along the way that helped pull me out of its grasp. Being open about what I was experiencing was beyond therapeutic.
Ridding myself of avoidance behaviors was another huge step. I had to face places, people, and experiences that I perceived to be triggering only to find out that taking trips, flying, going to concerts, standing in lines, etc. were not going to cause panic attacks. If I had gone on a cruise sooner, it might not have taken a whole year for me to move past this.
Finally, I had to cut myself a break. My doctor told me that women in their early thirties are who he sees the most about anxiety and panic disorders. There is a unique pressure on us that men or women of other ages might not understand. It had me examining my own life. In the year prior I had gotten married, moved states, changed careers, changed schedules, and began living with my husband for the first time. All the wedding planning and moving must have distracted me and it took a 10-day vacation for my mind to dump all the stress on me at once.
This all leads me to now. The NASCAR season kicked off and I knew I’d be facing the last of my triggers: being broadcast on national television for the national anthem. That little red light and a camera in my face had always caused shakiness, high heart rate, and me praying not to pass out on TV. But as the singer began and I saw the cameraman approaching, I felt at ease. Jeremy nudged me to let me know that not only were we broadcast on Fox Sports 1, but also on the Jumbotron at the racetrack. And as I looked up at myself on the screen, I realized that anxiety’s grip on my life was gone.
As I mentioned previously, I went to a therapist once last year and honestly, I wish I had gone more often. She explained to me that you are never fully cured of anxiety. Fight-or-flight is an innate animal instinct that serves to keep us alive. As such, there will be things that trigger it for the rest of my life. But with a year’s worth of education under my belt, I am feeling well equipped to kick its ass should it rear its ugly head.