I Am Not My Illness
I was drowning. Water was filling my lungs, and I couldn’t breathe. The world seemed to dance around me, but I only saw it through my blurry vision blocked by water. I was gasping, sputtering, coughing; I was trying everything that I could think of to keep breathing. My hands were groggily grasping at nothing, and I couldn’t determine if my movements were slow or fast. Nothing made sense to me, and my thoughts weren’t the most coherent either. I could’ve sworn that the tingling in my limbs was from the cold water, but I know it couldn’t be. I hadn’t been swimming before I fell. I had been thinking, so I couldn’t be drowning, could I?
No, I wasn’t drowning at all. Instead, I was in the midst of my first panic attack. I can’t tell you what exactly brought it on, but I know that it was the most terrifying experience of my life. I was eighteen, just starting out at college, and I didn’t even know that I had a panic disorder, or an anxiety disorder. My new friends rushed into the room after I had found a way to call them, and they discovered me on the floor, shaking, crying, coughing, and rambling on about how I didn’t know what was happening to me.
Breathing was a challenge for the next twenty minutes, and even after that, I still couldn’t calm down the shaking. How could this have happened to me? The question seemed to plague me for days after the first incident. I still didn’t know exactly what had happened, and I didn’t want to find out because I was scared of what the answer would be. I chose to ignore it, which wasn’t the smartest idea. Time after time, these attacks would come on, and every time I tried to write it off as nothing.
I tried, but I failed. How could I ignore something that made me feel like I was dying? They made me feel like I was suffocating, and I was out of control of myself. I didn’t want to get it checked out because I was worried about the stigma that people would place on me. However, I knew I had to choose. I had to choose which fear I would face, and which one would be the best. Did I want to keep facing the fear and worry I felt during panic attacks? No, because I always felt like I was dying, and I couldn’t breathe. That was a way worse feeling than letting a stigma rule my life. But what would this do to a girl who was just beginning her college career?
I’ll tell you…
It taught me that people with panic disorders and anxiety disorders are like me. It’s not their fault that they are faced with fears that others consider irrational. It’s not their fault that they can’t control it. I don’t like having to face days with the feeling of an underlying panic attack, or even the feeling of the anxiety every time I have to talk to someone I don’t know. But, I will say, being diagnosed with these two disorders taught me something about myself and others like me. I am stronger than what people think. We are stronger than what people think. We deal with internal challenges that no one else can see.
The stigma still hurts. It has taken me over a year to get over what others think and say about panic and anxiety disorders. Yes, they are considered Mental Illnesses, but I will not allow others to put me down because of them. I am a person, and I just happen to struggle with irrational fears that are very rational to me.
I can’t name how many times I’ve heard people tell me to just “calm down” or to just “look at reality” or even that “your fear is irrational, and you need to get over it.” This has all just happened in the last year and a half, and I know that facing the rest of my life with these disorders will not be easy if I’m already tired of hearing these common phrases. However, I have learned that people without these disorders cannot fully understand the issues I face daily. They have no idea how the past, present, and future all play into my “irrational” fears.
I’ve learned that to beat the stigma, I have to fight the stigma. I’ve done just that. I have done everything I can to show those that look down at me because of my mental illnesses that I am not defined by my mental health. No one who struggles with a mental illness should feel that they are less than those who don’t, because, in my opinion, we are the ones who are stronger. We are the ones who have learned what it feels like to live with a label on our head, and we have to learn how to not be defined by it.
I still struggle with my panic and anxiety disorders, but I have learned to not let them define me. When people hear that I have these disorders, they still try to place that stigma on me. I choose to show them that I am not my illness. Sometimes it works; other times it doesn’t. I have had people tell me that I cannot do things because of these disorders, and I have chosen to prove them wrong. I was told that I would never be able to finish my degree in college because of my mental health. I was told that because I have anxiety, I cannot help other people. I was told that my panic disorder would scare other people off, and I would lose my friends because of it. None of that is true. I can say that with full confidence because I am not my mental illness. I am a young woman who is determined to prove herself to those who don’t understand her.
I’m Jaclynn Rumenapp, a 20 year old college student who was diagnosed with a panic disorder and an anxiety disorder when I was eighteen. I want to show others how I overcame being defined by my disorders, and I want others to know that they are not alone in fighting the stigma that comes with Mental Illness.