my anxiety: how it’s going

i never knew what a panic attack was until the year before moving to europe, 2011. earlier that year, i had experienced the worst airline turbulence of my life…. alone… in the middle seat… on my way home from my grandma’s funeral in minnesota. it was so bad, i can barely talk about it. this is about as much detail as i can give. after this happened, i started driving like an eighty-year old woman and began feeling very uncomfortable riding in the car with a fast driver or going too fast on any transport in any circumstances. 

my fear of heights shot up from “pretty bad” to “nearly crippling”.

i still am not sure if this incident was related to what would come, but i can only guess and speculate that it was.

later that year, i was visiting alex’s family for the very first time in michigan, and we were driving around the state and made a special stop in ann arbor to go to the famous restaurant zingerman’s, because apparently the food there is absolutely the best and world famous, especially their mac and cheese. we stood in a really, really long line in a crowded room, finally paid after at least a twenty minute wait in a stifling restaurant packed with people, and as soon as we stepped outside to find a place to sit at a picnic table that mild day, suddenly, i had the overwhelming feeling that i was going to die.

like, i was dying, but i was the only one who knew. why the hell would i feel like this? was it not an unseasonably beautiful and warm october day? was i not on vacation for a whole week from my hectic job? was i not about to dine on delicious zingerman’s macaroni and cheese?

this had never happened to me before. i had to get out. i paced around the area, attempting to leave the place where the feelings started (as if i could “escape”), tried to take some deep breaths, and eventually after some minutes the panic subsided…. but it was one of my most unpleasant experiences to date. when you firmly, 100% believe that you are doing to die for no reason at all and there is absolutely no way you can tell yourself not to think those things.

unfortunately, that was only my first time. although it was the worst one, throughout the next year i would experience smaller versions of this panic attack. a disagreement with a roommate or any feeling that i felt i couldn’t control might trigger it. not only did i have these episodes, but often times, they were immediately accompanied by an overwhelming depression and malaise that would carry on into the next one to four days. i had never been actually depressed before and definitely didn’t have a reason to be depressed about anything, but my body sent those signals to my brain. it was more than just feeling sad – the unhappiness was overwhelming in every single minute. i feel very lucky that those episodes didn’t last more than a stretch of days because i couldn’t imagine living like that and i feel deeply for those of us who must.

it has been awhile since i’ve experienced these short episodes of depression and anxiety, but it was so bad and such a part of my day in how it hijacked my brain that i actually had to inform my boss and coworkers that i was having an “episode” – translation: i was feeling anxious, panicky and depressed in a way that would not allow me to normally function. it seemed much better for people to know versus not to know. fortunately, they seemed supportive of me – my spending my short breaks in the most calming part of the hotel i worked at listening to calming music on my headphones. sympathetic co-workers would give me tips on their favorite calming bands or artists. i would go home and hide under a puffy blanket after work, not wanting to talk or interact with anyone.

i quickly realized, caffeine was the absolutely first thing that needed to go. (working at a cafe, i would have 1-3 cups a day on average). the switch to half-caf and decaf helped, but the episodes persisted. in the lead-up to leaving on our big adventure, i would carry my prescribed xanax with me everywhere i went, should the case be that i would need it (which i never did). i anticipated that with my upcoming life change (I AM MOVING TO EUROPE – no idea where) and the airline travel that would accompany it, i would start having these episodes again.

i still am unsure why, but i have only had a handful of small-scale anxiety episodes since arriving in europe, most of them occuring pre-budejovice, when we still lived in prague. leaving seattle, travel, and moving abroad actually made me less anxious than before – go figure. i still avoided caffeine for a couple years, but have since fully returned to caffeineland after years of being episode-free. something that has helped me is keeping my blood sugar level stable: taking snacks everywhere i go, never drinking caffeine or alcohol on an empty stomach. (i also learned i can’t mix caffeine and alcohol, either). i think my newfound anxiety-free life may have been a combination of all of these things, not only one of them. learning more about what is good for you, leading a stress-free life that i feel i have more control over, and taking more initiative to turn down things that i know aren’t good for me… even if other people are able to enjoy them without problems.

the most important thing i learned about having anxiety is that it always feels better to tell people around you what is going on, and if applicable, what they should do to support you. even if it seems crazy because it can be or seem unexplainable, it’s incredibly beneficial to have others (friends, family, colleagues) be aware of your situation, and that you are not crazy, nor are you alone in this.

the only reason i feel okay writing about this is i haven’t (knock on wood) had any major incidents for two years now and i am hoping this is behind me. i’ve wanted to mention this on the blog and have vaguely alluded to these episodes a couple of times but i was always so worried (and honestly, a tad superstitious) that if i talked about it, it might trigger something, but i think and hope those days might be over. it might not be forever, and i haven’t yet found a great way to prepare for it or what to actually do with myself when it is happening, but prevention seems to be the best thing – to make sure my body is in as good a state as possible. life’s too short to hold back on things we want to do because of these dementors. 

a thank you to camila for her recent post on traveling with anxiety which inspired me to finally open up about my own experience, and a thank you to you for reading. never have i been so nervous to hit ‘publish’, but i knew i would be ready to share on this space about it one day. ready as i’ll ever be, i guess.