By Anna Brüner
I’ve had panic attacks all my life, before I could even recognize them for what they were. As a child I developed obsessive fears. Some were somewhat rational, like my parents dying suddenly. Some were bred into me, like going to hell if I wasn’t a good enough Catholic. Some were absolutely preposterous, like my eyeballs falling out of my skull at any moment. All of them affected me the same way as if all were equally possible. Imagine a five year old hyperventilating on the sidewalk and pushing on their closed eyelids to “keep them in there” because they could “feel them getting loose.” Yeah. That was me. And my anxiety still works like that.
I didn’t get treatment for my ever-present panic until I was already an adult, and was diagnosed with Bipolar I. It’s dumbfounding to me that I was twenty years old when I was diagnosed, since looking back on my adolescence it now seems so obvious that this had been going on since I was thirteen. Perhaps everyone was just distracted by my eating disorder at the time that all the other stuff just kind of took a back seat. Or maybe I was just really good at hiding all of it. 1 in 5 manic individuals will develop Bipolar I before they’re twenty. Suddenly my mood swings and episodes that came with puberty had the name “bipolar,” and my anxiety had a new name that it got in therapy. “Panic disorder.”
When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was in an abusive relationship where my illness and treatment were used against me time and time again. The relationship was one of the reasons I quit going to therapy and taking my meds and went back to engaging in risky, impulsive behavior. The delayed trauma that came months after leaving that relationship was the main reason I went back to therapy. I found my current psychiatrist, who is the first medical professional I’ve seen who didn’t want to just suppress my demons under a cocktail of pharmaceuticals to get me through the day. Don’t get me wrong though: I take a lot of medication. He assures me in our sessions that one day I might be able to live without it...but he assures me of this while increasing the dosage of my mood stabilizer and prescribing more anti-anxiety meds. It’s more than a little difficult to believe him when he says things will get better.
There is a very real chance that all of my diagnoses could change going forward. “What if I get to be thirty years old and they say I have schizophrenia?” I’ve mulled over while lying awake at night, paralyzed in bed with a racing head and heart while my partner sleeps. What if I become so depressed that I become suicidal? What if my marriage falls apart and it’s my fault? What if I have a child and am not emotionally stable enough to care for it? What if my child is mentally ill because of me? What if I become violent or abusive to the people I love? What if I wake up one day and I am terrified to ever leave my house again? It spirals out of control pretty quickly. But then I think about what my psychiatrist says. What if things don’t get worse? What if they only get better?
Despite my mood swings becoming more extreme even within the past year, and despite my panic attacks becoming more and more frequent, I am getting better. Maybe not in any medical sense, but I am getting better at taking care of myself. The fact that I even called psychiatrists around Chicago and found one all by myself was a huge step; I am terrified of using the phone. I go to therapy twice a week, consistently, having learned that days where I skip for whatever reason usually take turns for the worse. I set timers for when to take my medication. I’ve begun carrying a brown paper bag with me to class and work in case I begin to hyperventilate. I’ve learned to identify when a manic or depressive episode, or a panic attack, is beginning to set in. I am getting better at acknowledging what my emotions are. I am becoming more outspoken about my illness and getting better at communicating it to others.
But I’m also getting better at planning how I’m going to do all of this in the future. I’m scared about what will happen if I can no longer afford therapy or medication after I am off my parents’ medical insurance. While this feeds into my anxiety, it is realistic, and I am hardly ever one to be realistic about anything (remember my fear of my eyeballs falling out?) In an ideal future, I am off of medication and practicing transcendental meditation and making organic meals for my tidy, emotionally stable nuclear family, somewhere in New Mexico or northern California or wherever the hell zen mental health gurus go to be, well, mentally healthy. Maybe some of that will happen. Maybe I have a nervous breakdown in my forties and it all goes away. The important thing is to never stop taking care of myself.
I am in a better place now than I was two years ago. I am a better person now than I was two years ago. I don’t know what I’ll do in the next decade or even in the next year, or hell even two weeks from now, but I’ve already gotten myself help before when nobody else knew how to help me. My psychiatrist assures me that that’s what it’s all about: being able to take care of yourself in the way you deserve.
I am sitting in my parents’ house, and my collection of small orange prescription bottles are lined up along my childhood dresser. Beneath the soft blue and white guestroom colors my mother painted the room a few years ago are the bold orange, red, and purple walls where I once spent nights scrawling passages of Shakespeare in hot pink marker along my ceiling in a manic, sleep deprived high school haze. Though no longer visible, I know a temple to my panic lies behind the pale blue paint and paintings of sailboats on tranquil waters. I know my mental illness will continue to evolve and will never go away, but I am determined to keep chasing clarity and peace of mind, even if I never truly find it. I’ll figure out how to take care of myself. I’ll stop hiding my problems. I’ll try to live without fear.
And I’ll bring my xanax with me. Just in case.