I’ve always been a bundle of nerves, from my very earliest memories. My eyes lingered a little longer on troubling images on the news, and my mind wandered a little bit more than most about the worst possible scenario. What if the plane I’m on really has engine trouble? What if I insulted that person by accident and now they hate me? What if I forgot to turn the stove off, lock the door, call mom, got attacked on the subway, made a terrible mistake, what if, what if, what if…
In elementary school, I’d suffer chronic stomach aches, as I worried about everything and anything ad nauseam. But at a young age, I noticed that none of my classmates were nearly as worried about the things that stayed on my mind constantly—although they would fret about small things intermittently, my fear meter was in 24/7 overdrive. I could sense something was off about that, so I never shared how nervous I felt with anyone. For years and years, my anxiety was my secret. And this is not uncommon.
The Anxiety And Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that anxiety disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder manifest as early as the ages of two or three, but go undiagnosed until years later, at 10 years old on average.
But I’m also an extreme perfectionist— instead of showing weakness or vulnerability, I would play off my symptoms as best I could. And when I couldn’t hide them in public, I beat myself up over them privately.
What exactly is a panic attack? According to The National Institute of Mental Health, panic attacks are “characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no danger.” During an attack, a person will feel as though they are having a heart attack, and their biggest fear is the threat of having another debilitating episode. Since my diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder at 23, I have felt intense fear that most often manifests in icy hands, being unable to move, and the world spiraling out of control around me. But I’m also an extreme perfectionist—instead of showing weakness or vulnerability, I would play off my symptoms as best I could. And when I couldn’t hide them in public, I beat myself up over them privately.
My first full-on panic attack happened in college, even though my body had been riddled with anxiety for quite some time. The 9/11 attacks added a layer of worry that was virtually impossible to overlook. I was a sophomore at New York University, mere blocks away, on that cloudless day when the Twin Towers fell, taking 2,977 lives and an entire city’s nerves in a terrorizing wake. My father is a survivor, first and foremost. He escaped Building 5 of the World Trade Center unharmed, and he protects his sanity in two ways: he rarely talks about the flying debris and bodies he watched hit the pavement that day, and he never visits Lower Manhattan.
My trauma manifested differently from my dad’s. I internalized watching crowds running, covered in dust, blood and fear, and it left me with severe anxiety around large groups of people. Years went by without many panic attack incidents—mainly because I began to isolate myself. Do you really want to go to that club and have another embarrassing moment in front of friends? Who wants to have a freak out in a freakum dress?! I started to retreat from my friends and family, in a way that I worried might hurt their feelings. A natural introvert, I’d always preferred a quiet night with just a couple of friends than a huge Hennypalooza-sized function.
LIVING IN FEAR
So of course, I chose a profession in which one of the main components is social interaction. As a journalist, I’m invited to red carpet premieres, listening sessions and parties quite regularly. Early on as an editor, I was able to skirt around my social anxiety by offering plum invites to my coworkers. This made me an awesome team player in their eyes, but it really gave me a chance to avoid people. And if you know anything about anxiety, avoidance is the one way to send your symptoms into overdrive.
When I absolutely couldn’t avoid an important invitation, I would adhere to some internal rules to keep my secret hidden: stick around only as long as necessary, and stay towards the back of the room for an easy escape. I hid my terror by touting my brightest smile, pretending that everything was absolutely fine—since childhood I had become a master of emotional deception. But that façade is just as painful as the most harrowing of panic attacks. I would silently cry in cabs on my way home, ashamed that I wasn’t able to be like everyone else. After leaving something too soon, I would take off the mask during that ride through the Midtown Tunnel, and just feel the fear privately.
I hid my terror by touting my brightest smile, pretending that everything was absolutely fine—since childhood I had become a master of emotional deception.
Aside from work, I began missing more and more events with the people who mattered most in my life. My studio apartment became a bunker, as I respectfully declined invites to friends’ birthday gatherings, dinners and a host of other events. I’d either show up late, or would cancel altogether at the last minute. My friends would become frustrated with me, and some eventually stopped inviting me. Had I explained that I was throwing up due to the wave of panic I felt with the idea of leaving the house, or about the times I was frozen and could not descend the subway stairs to head to the city for the movies and returned home beating myself up in defeat, they might have understood.
I began to google “anxiety attacks,” and desperately looked for ways to help myself. I took up yoga and running, and began sharing the internal terror I’d been hiding with my mother, and a couple of trusted friends. And to my surprise, no one thought I was crazy. No one shunned or avoided me. They were just stunned and upset that I carried this much anxiety, living in the highest level of fear under their noses the entire time.
I found an amazing therapist, who taught me that the anxiety I was feeling was—first and foremost—not my fault. That I wasn’t broken. That I was still that happy, bright light that everyone knew me to be—it was just that my worry meter was dialed up in a way that other folks don’t experience. But in order to get better, I had to face it head on. No more hiding.
A WAY OUT
For those looking for a way out of their own panic attacks, it’s extremely important to find a therapist trained in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). The therapy is rooted in confronting fear head on, with the guidance of a professional. As part of my therapy, I took baby steps to goal. First I started by saying yes to dinner with a friend at a less-frequented neighborhood spot. The next, we’d try a couple more friends for movies in the city. Then small shows. Then stadium arenas. Some days I wasn’t successful, but simply trying helped me heal slowly but surely. But slowly, I started to come out of my studio bunker. And slowly, I started to feel happy (for real) again.
There’s no foolproof cure for anxiety— odds are, I’ll have to deal with my chronic worry meter for life. And acknowledging that is probably one of the biggest steps in my progress. Everyone’s got their something— this is my something.
But when my panic comes out to play, I express how I’m feeling candidly. “I need to take a minute,” “I’m uncomfortable,” and “No, I’m unable to do that,” have all empowered me in expressing my true feelings, and taking care of what I need, at any given moment. The people close to me now get what’s going on in my sometimes overwhelmed brain, and help calm me. They hold my hands to warm them when they get icy. They help me “breathe through it.” They let me cry out the rockier anxiety waves. And they don’t judge me.
Most importantly, I don’t judge me. The most important lesson that I’ve learned is that every single person is fighting a battle. With that in mind, I treat everyone with the care and concern I needed when I was living my life hidden in broad daylight.