I was always a nervous child but to me, that was normal. It stopped feeling normal at 25 when an unrelenting wave of panic attacks landed me in the local crisis center. Well-intentioned friends dragged me there, against my will, after I barricaded myself in the house—for weeks. Anxiety. Panic disorder. Agoraphobia. Those were the words hurled at me by the attending physician. Words I didn’t fully comprehend that were paired with prescriptions to treat anxiety, depression, and a recommendation to find a psychiatrist. Wow. This was definitely not something that was in my grand plan. Unfortunately, mental illness doesn’t care what our plans are because it shows up uninvited, unannounced, and takes the wheel.

Trying to manage the unwelcome changes that were taking place within me proved to be more than I could handle alone. I sought help in the form of therapists, psychiatrists, and medications. Still, I was riddled with paralyzing fear anytime I tried to leave the house. Things we take for granted like going to the gym, grocery store, restaurants, malls, out with friends and driving became impossible. My thoughts were a chaotic, fragmented, irrational labyrinth that I no longer knew how to navigate. Welcome to the jungle.

I came from a family where any conversations beyond superficial niceties were nonexistent. The overwhelming plethora of issues I was trying to manage was indescribable. Couple that with a family that didn’t know how to bridge the gap to address the elephant in the room, and that was my reality. Time would teach me that a perpetual lack of honest communication was part of what made everything beyond the front door feel so terrifying. In the meantime, my world was becoming smaller by the day, and I saw no light at the end of the tunnel.

In what is best described as an act of sheer desperation, my mother reached out to a family friend, who herself, survived on a steady stream of wine and sedatives. Although she was battling her own demons, she was the person who put me on the path to self-acceptance by way of an introduction to an astute psychiatrist.

I only met with the new psychiatrist for about thirty minutes, and he was able to clearly explain my issues. He summarized the situation and presented it as a nice, neat package. He also offered some much-needed words of wisdom. He suggested that part of the reason I was suffering from debilitating anxiety and panic attacks was my inability to embrace my authentic self. Up to this point, I had avoided telling anyone in my life that I was gay. I worked tirelessly to keep my life, relationships, and who I was, a secret. I’ve always believed that my family knew but for reasons that remain unknown to me, they chose to circumvent that discussion. Secrets burden the soul, and I had been carrying mine until it drove me to the point that ending my life was starting to feel like a viable option.

I heard the doctor’s suggestions, and I considered the validity of his insights. I knew he hit the nail on the head but it wasn’t a conversation I was prepared to have. And, it was beginning to feel like my secrets were growing exponentially. Not only was I afraid that people would find out I was gay but now, I had to hide that fact that I was battling mental illness. I spent the next three years housebound, unable to get past the end of my driveway without having someone accompany me. With the exception of my weekly therapy appointments, and the monthly psychiatrist visit, I was a prisoner of my house and head.

Eventually, I learned coping mechanisms for dealing with anxiety and panic attacks. It took five years for me to be able to go grocery shopping without having anxiety every time I stood in a checkout line. It would be ten years before I was able to eat in a restaurant, and fifteen years before I went on a vacation. The thing is, I got there. It took time, and I’ve also learned the importance of giving myself permission to have bad days. I began to focus on self-acceptance, patience, and being a better friend to myself. The new skill set was a challenge because these were not things I had ever considered. I consider myself a work in progress.

I have been living with anxiety, panic disorder, and agoraphobia for over twenty-years. I openly share my story with others in hopes of doing my part to end the stigma of mental illness. I no longer hide the fact that I’m gay because I refuse to risk my well-being for the sake of fostering the denial of others. I surround myself with people who celebrate diversity, and accept that we all come with something. I know I will always have days where my thoughts race like a comet across the sky or I’m so anxious that walking out the front door feels terrifying. And that’s ok. This is who I am, and I’ve taught myself how to roll with it, one day at a time.

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Neighbor_028Stephanie lives in New Jersey where she shares her home with a pair of lovable but unruly dachshunds. She is an advocate for special needs pets, a tattoo enthusiast, student of Buddhism, and hates the beach. She is working on her first collection of non-fiction essays, which she hopes will inspire members of the LGBT community to speak their truth.

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