I can recall the very moment everything changed. I remember it clearly as if a wire in my brain became unplugged. I was at a friend’s house and I sat down on the edge of the fireplace to settle in for another movie. Except this time was different. Though my body physically stopped moving when I sat down, my soul plummeted straight to hell. I knew physically where I was at, but inside I kept falling. I started sweating, I couldn’t breathe, I began to panic. I had never felt this before, but I knew deep in my heart something was terribly wrong. Fear gripped me and I suddenly realized that the movie had stopped and my friends were staring at me.
“What’s wrong,” asked one.
“It feels like somebody just died.” I replied
He asked, “Who? Who died?”
“Everybody! They’re all gone!”
Nobody had died. Nobody was in danger.
This was the first of many panic attacks.
It was 2002, panic (or anxiety) disorder wasn’t on the radar of many health professionals. I was 17. I was an athlete. I worked out everyday. I was competitive. I played in a punk band. I was straight-edge (no drugs or alcohol). I was top ten in my class academically. I was a smart and athletic kid.
But from that moment on. Life was different.
Everything would be fine one moment and the next moment that wire would unplug and my soul would drop out from under me. I became frantic like Peter Pan chasing after his shadow until my body physically gave way. The triggers were wild and inconsistent; a smell, a familiar object in a unfamiliar place, a memory, or a hallucination. None of them were associated with a reason. I’ve been lead out of stores unable to walk on my own because my vision became too blurred. I’ve been so afraid that I’ve blacked out. I’ve laid on couches paralyzed stiff for hours, so tensed up that I couldn’t form words with my tongue.
Each attack was terrifying and random. I had scholarships for soccer, I was accepted to several universities, and I had to turn them down because I was afraid to be more than 30 minutes away from my parents or girlfriend (now wife). I was drowning.
Concerned, my mom sent me to get help, but the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong!
My family Dr said “you’re young, in the best shape you’ll ever be in, go have lots of sex. It’s perfectly healthy and will take the edge off.” He also gave me a plastic baggie of Xanax with the instruction: “If you start having another episode, crush one of these and put it under your tongue.” If that wasn’t the worst advice I will ever receive in life I don’t know what is.
My first therapist wasn’t much better. She seemed determined to convince me I was gay as if my panic were associated with living a secret life. She prescribed a “ocean noises” CD and recommended sleeping naked, and while she didn’t agree with my family doctor on the sex “because that could hurt others,” she instead recommended porn and masturbation. Thanks for the addiction!
The church was as equally bad as the doctors. The youth minister said, “have faith, pray more, the bible says not to worry,” thanks man, I hadn’t thought of that while gasping for air! I had five swear words to my name, never tried drugs or alcohol, and had only kissed one girl, but yet the pastoral consensus was a lack of faith or obedience.
The panic attacks grew worse. I wanted to die. I wasn’t asking for a miracle, I just wanted to know what was going on inside my head! Why!? One day, while driving I had had enough. I spotted a deep ditch. I closed my eyes and floored it. That’s when I heard a voice say “wait.” Two of the wheels were already off the road when I opened my eyes and I reasoned with the voice “one week!”
The following Sunday at church, the minister preached from Philippians, “To live is Christ, but to die is gain.” It was a terrible sermon full of theological error, but that verse stuck with me. All I wanted to do was die at that point, death would have been better, but that verse said “to live.” I had the verse tattooed on my left wrist. Being right handed, I knew if I were to slit my wrist I would have read those words first.
Weeks later my mom found me a psychiatrist. I had blood work done and my serotonin levels came back low. I was officially diagnosed with anxiety disorder. My mom also did some family research and discovered that other family members had the same struggles. I was so relieved to have someone acknowledge my illness! I wasn’t crazy!
I was placed on medication and it took a while to find the right one. I gained 60 lbs in a matter of months. I started having brutal nightmares. I became robotic and emotionless. Oh, and the prescribed masturbation, yeah, not happening. It took 18 months to find the right one, Effexor and Zoloft where strikes, but Paxil was a home-run. A year later and free of attacks, my therapist and psychiatrist tapered off the dosage and I havn’t been on medication since. And yes, it was totally worth the side effects!
To celebrate the absence of panic attacks I had “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” from Psalm 139 tattooed on my right wrist. Every time I read those words I’m reminded that God created me and loves me the way I am. I see God as the loving mother fearful for her wonderful child’s safety willing to stop at nothing to find a solution and restore wellness.
To this day, at the age of 32, with the tremendous amount of stress that comes with raising a family, I have yet to have another panic attack like those at the height of my illness. There is hope, and I hope you are encouraged to hear me say that these memories, though painful, are distant ones. And the medicine, though trial-ridden, does work.
Jason is a husband and father of three boys. By trade a design engineer, by passion a preacher speaking at many parachurch organizations in and around Flint MI. He is also co-host of Not Your Pastor’s Podcast in effort vocalize opinions and speak honestly toward issues pastors can’t.