I wish I would’ve known… That my symptoms were an actual illness. That I wasn’t alone. That medical help was available. And that I would recover.
I knew I didn’t have a normal problem. I didn’t dare divulge my secret, in fear of being ridiculed. What prevented me from talking about it was the stigma attached to mental illness.
May is Mental Health Month. And this week is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. This hits close to home, so I thought this would be a good time to dedicate a post to it.
I was about ten years old when I started to have symptoms of panic disorder. Of course, I had absolutely no idea what my strange feelings were. At first I’d have episodes of disorientation. It was like I was in a fog or dream, and things didn’t seem real. Sometimes when I looked in the mirror, I’d think, Am I really ME? I know it sounds weird. It was frightening. I never told anyone because I was embarrassed and ashamed. I now know I had feelings of detachment and derealization, which occur in people with panic disorder. I wrote about that in a previous post, you can find it here.
In middle school, I started to have terrifying times when all of a sudden, I’d get lightheaded, my heart would race, I’d start to black out, and was afraid I’d faint. I’d want to practically run out of the place I was at. It happened at school, the mall, and while driving. I couldn’t think of any reason I should be so scared. The sensations would wash over me like a tsunami, and eventually retreat to calmer waters. I didn’t realize what I experienced were panic attacks.
I was in my early thirties when I finally went to the doctor. He told me I had anxiety, agoraphobia, and panic attacks. I couldn’t believe there was a name for my symptoms. And that other people, millions of others, had this too. The best part was that I could get treatment. I didn’t need to suffer anymore. REALLY?
I felt pure relief! I had a diagnosis for my mysterious symptoms. I honestly thought my doctor wouldn’t know what to do with me, that he’d be referring me for tons of brain tests, in a desperate attempt to find out what was wrong.
When my daughter was ten and diagnosed with panic attacks, she didn’t want anyone to know. She was afraid her friends would think differently of her. I couldn’t blame her. I didn’t want the school nurse to write ‘anxiety’ in my daughter’s medical chart. I didn’t want her to be labeled.
It’s much harder to explain a mental illness, rather than a physical one. No one would say anything if my daughter had a broken leg. But I worried what they’d say if they found out she had panic attacks.
Thankfully, things are beginning to change. People are speaking out. But we’ve got a long way to go to end the stigma.
People suffering from mental health issues need to know they aren’t alone. And they can receive treatment and they can recover. I’m happy to say my daughter and I are testaments to that. We are nearly panic free.
First image courtesy of: http://www.namilongbeach.org
Second image courtesy of: http://www.franklinlakes.org