I was six years old when I realized something was wrong with me.
There had been signs before then, of course, which I had dismissed as being part of my temperament. Even at four years old I remember feeling sad, anxious, and uncomfortable. Back then, my anxiety manifested itself in a less harmful way. I frequently had headaches and stomachaches—not to mention a strange and intense fear of leaving the house or becoming separated from my mom. But when I was six, my anxiety became violent. Every night (and, more rarely, during the day) I had trouble breathing, heart palpitations, and a sudden, inescapable feeling of dread. At first, I tried to seek help. I had no way to explain these attacks, so I told my family that I became “scared” during the night. My mom was compassionate, thinking I had nightmares, and let me sleep with her. But my dad and stepmom were not. My worst attacks happened when I stayed at their house. I would call out for help and try waking them, but they began locking their bedroom door. The next day I was berated for being so childish. In time, I learned to keep my mouth shut. Their complete disregard made me feel that I had to hide my suffering from everyone.
And I did. I hid my panic and anxiety for seven years.
At first I developed several obsessive, odd rituals that I thought might protect me from the attacks. If I knocked twenty-seven times on the refrigerator, for example, and then touched my nose, I would be safe from my anxiety for the rest of the day. It took me a long time to outgrow these superstitions. Eventually I realized that the method wasn’t working and changed tactics. I came up with my own set of coping skills, which ranged from savagely scribbling in and tearing up notebooks to picking off my own skin.
Everyone in my family knew I had anxiety. But they didn’t know its true scope and severity. I put extreme amounts of effort into concealing my panic from everyone. And it worked.
Until one day it didn’t.
The day after my thirteenth birthday party, I had an attack so awful that it could not be hidden. My heartbeat skyrocketed to 300 beats per minute; it was pounding so hard that the table was actually shaking. I had never seen anything like it before (or since) that day. I remember collapsing onto the couch, trembling, and being hooked up to oxygen. But I don’t remember how I got into the ambulance, or even who called 911.
I was kept overnight at the hospital for observation. All of the doctors found my case extremely frustrating, as none of them could place what was wrong. They ran several tests and gave me an EKG, all of which indicated that I was physically healthy. The doctors capitulated and discharged me with a recommendation that I see a cardiologist.
The cardiologist, too, said that I was in good health.
Getting the help I needed seemed hopeless. I felt stupid for revealing this point of vulnerability to people, especially when I had worked so hard to hide it. My family seemed happy to pretend the hospital visit had never happened, and so was I. I returned to keeping my anxiety a secret.
After that my attacks proved much more difficult to hide. They occurred with alarming frequency in broad daylight and even in social situations. The latter were especially agonizing because I had to put extra effort into appearing normal and continuing to talk as though nothing was bothering me. I felt very limited by my anxiety. It forced me to live in constant fear and dictated what I could and could not do.
My situation continued to worsen until one day I asked to be admitted to the local mental hospital.
I felt that I needed to be hospitalized or I would do something drastic. I wanted to be rid of my anxiety so badly that I considered suicide a viable option.
So, having turned fourteen just two weeks before, I was placed in MeadowWood Behavioral Health.
I quickly made friends with nearly everyone in the unit. They struggled with a wealth of problems, but the most prevalent issue among patients was anxiety. However, the doctor I was assigned to was not nearly as understanding as the patients were. She accused me of making things up and “living in a fantasy world.” This being said, I was given a hasty diagnosis of borderline schizophrenia.
By the time I was discharged from the hospital, she had settled on a more acceptable diagnosis: panic disorder. She made no effort to explain the disorder, though, and so I was left just as confused as before.
I was hospitalized once more that year. This time I went to Rosenblum, which served as a school and recovery program. I was encouraged me to talk openly and honestly about my feelings with both the other patients and the counselors. For me, Rosenblum was a life-changing experience, and a pivotal point in the journey of understanding my mental illness. I had a strong support system there. I even took a few “classes” on how to manage my anxiety. These sessions were held in the dark and led by an instructor I couldn’t see; he coached me on breathing exercises, muscle relaxation techniques, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
I was discharged from Rosenblum with a new acceptance of myself and a toolkit of good coping skills. I started high school shortly after my discharge and set about the slow process of raising my grades.
For me, “recovery” wasn’t just one event; it’s an ongoing process that I still work at today. My disorder constantly manifests as new fears and phobias, and I am always experiencing new symptoms. But I’m tentatively starting to hope for a good future, which I feel for the first time is within my reach.
Aleah lives in Delaware, where she spends most of her time volunteering, writing, and trying to educate about mental illness.