Recollecting a Panic-Ridden Adolescence
Reprinted from "Anxiety Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, 1(14), pp.10-11
I have always felt that I've inherited a hypersensitive nervous system from my mother, and she, from her mother. When there's a surprising noise or explosion in a movie, we're the ones in the theatre who will physically jump out of our seats and gasp audibly - and then shrink back in embarrassment. These days, it seems that everyone else, desensitized by the 'action' in daily life, is seeking bigger and bigger thrills and adrenaline rushes. Not me. I think life is pretty exciting the way it is.
I first started to realize that my mind and body were prone to 'excitability' around the time that I was getting used to a double digit age. I remember that I was really excited about the first day of Grade 6, so much so that I found it hard to get to sleep. When I finally did, I ended up having a nightmare and woke up with a start in the middle of the night. Wide awake now, my mind became active and I got so worked up thinking about going back to school, I had to run to the bathroom and throw up. I still remember how the next day I had asked my friends if they had thrown up too, as if my reaction was the norm. They just looked at me funnily. It was then I realized I probably shouldn't mention my vomiting incidents to anyone. Looking back now, after that day I never felt "excited" about anything because to me, excitement felt the same as nervousness.
From around age ten to age eighteen, I routinely (and secretly) experienced panic attacks whenever there was a special outing or event about which I was uncertain, or whenever I felt someone had expectations of me. I make this distinction because, for example, I never had anxiety writing exams or driving because I felt I had control over my test performance or what the car did. But all the fun things that everyone else loved to do, it seemed, I would 'freak out' over. These could be vacations, sleepovers, birthday parties, or even just a family meal at a restaurant. Someone would make the mistake of inviting me to these activities days or weeks in advance - way too much time for me to think about it.
My fears started out as 'what if they don't have a good time at my house?' or 'what if I sleep funny and they make fun of me' or 'what if I can't finish what's on my plate? - someone I care about will have wasted their money.' Soon enough though, the only fear I had was having another attack: the horrible tingles down the spine, the knot in the tummy, the heart rate and breathing accelerating, the nausea, the sweating, and that horrible feeling that the world was going to end. So why didn't I just avoid the 'fun' activities that were common triggers for my panic? Because then people might suspect something was wrong and I wasn't about to give them the satisfaction of judging me. Also, I hated "missing out"; I knew I'd regret it later if I did. Besides, after a couple of hours, I'd relax enough to have fun.
So I developed a proactive campaign to prepare for an attack. For example, what frightened me most about having a panic attack was that there was the possibility - though it rarely happened - of vomiting. I could disguise a panic attack in a crowd, but throwing up is harder to hide and would have concerned my friends and family. So to tackle this foe, I had come up with two strategies:
Since anxiety and a full tummy don't mix well, I made sure I didn't overeat. Often after having a meal, I'd run and lie down on my bed for a few seconds to make sure my stomach didn't feel too full. I never stayed hungry or anything, I'd just focus more on medium-sized meals.
- Whenever I went on an excursion that might have triggered an attack, I made sure a bathroom was accessible in case I had to ever-so-inconspicuously run in and throw up. In cases where that wasn't possible - like during a long drive - I'd put a plastic bag inside a paper lunch bag, fold it up, and put it in my pocket. Or if I was driving alone, I'd put an empty ice-cream pail on the passenger's seat. God help me, I was so ridiculously over-prepared for emergency vomiting.
In senior high where I was a sociable, popular, straight-A student involved in many extracurricular activities, the panic attacks were less frequent but a kind of social anxiety combined with obsessive-compulsive-like behaviour took over. I became hyperconscious about being made a fool of by my peers even though my peers really respected and liked me. It was so bad that if someone just happened to be laughing when I walked by, I'd always assume they were laughing at me. Or I'd worry about embarrassing underarm sweat patches that people might see if I raised my hand (I'd go to the washroom during recess and lunch to make sure I didn't have any patches - realizing, of course, that the more I thought about it, the more likely I was to sweat over it). My hand would quickly and casually check my pant zippers to make sure they were pulled up, my bra straps to make sure they weren't showing, and the backs of my skirts to make sure they weren't tucked into my underwear by accident. During the worst of it, I must have checked these kinds of things at least a dozen times during school hours. I hated that I kept doing it but I couldn't help it. After school and at home, I was relaxed and fine.
In 1996 - actually, for reasons totally unrelated to my anxiety - I began a battle with major depression. My depression ended up completely dissolving my anxiety. Why? Because I went from a state of hyperawareness of other people's judgments and petty details to the exact opposite: in my depressive state, I was barely aware other people even existed; they all felt like robots or movie extras. I had no time to care about zippers and bra straps when I wasn't eating and would spend half the day sleeping and half of it crying. All I cared about was getting through the day and surviving. Ironically, depression has given me a perspective I longed for all those years in my childhood and adolescence. I'm happier now than I've ever been and for almost six years now and counting, I haven't had any anxious symptoms. Okay okay, I still jump out of my seat a little at the movie theatre, but that doesn't count - I like to think I get more bang for my movie buck that way.
About the author
Sarah lives in Vancouver, BC