I’m not supposed to be anxious. I’m a straight A student, an elite athlete, and a happy kid. To me, anxiety was for people with hard home lives or depression. I never dreamed that this could happen to me. Until it did.
My anxiety began on a plane ride to San Francisco for a family vacation. My chest felt tight, and my breathing quickened. I remember leaning to my dad and telling him I couldn’t breathe. I was 12 years old. Since that day, I have suffered upwards of 200 panic attacks.
My panic attacks may have been caused by different things, but they were almost always the same. My breathing would get quick, my chest would heave in and out, and I could feel my pulse racing in my head. I would scream that I couldn’t breathe and often run around my house like a chicken with its head cut off. My body would tremble and shake as I calmed back down. My dad would get angry, telling me to pull myself together, but he was scared and didn’t understand. My mom would hold me and tell me everything would be okay, because she knew exactly what I was experiencing. My panic attacks were, for lack of a better term, “textbook”.
To make matters worse, I began to feel a huge lump in my throat when eating. I began obsessing over my health, inventing new and worse cancers and diseases that I could have. After experiencing that for a couple months, I finally went to the doctor. Turns out, I have a vocal chord dysfunction. This causes breathing to quicken and for eating to be difficult, which is not the best situation for any anxious person, especially a hypochondriac like myself. I began to obsess over my throat and my breathing. I would constantly pull my shirt collar away from my neck because I felt choked. I couldn’t eat, which was almost debilitating due to my athletic lifestyle. In the months after my diagnosis, I lost close to 15 pounds. My eating was so bad, that it took me two hours to eat a single sausage patty. I felt like my life was slipping through my fingers like sand.
It took some tough love from my parents to realize that something had to change. My father threatened to pull me out of basketball because my body couldn’t handle the constant blowing and going of elite sports anymore. I caught my mother crying to my father that she didn’t want me to suffer anymore and that she felt helpless. So, like the student I am, I picked up a book.
I began researching anxiety and OCD and all sorts of mental illnesses. I learned about the cortex and the amygdala and how they played a part in my anxiety. I started developing coping mechanisms and breathing exercises. I figured that as long as I could understand that anxiety wasn’t just me being crazy, I would be okay. I also researched medicines and relaxation techniques and ways to help alleviate my panic. I started seeing a speech pathologist for my vocal chord dysfunction and finally, I found a psychiatrist who spoke to me about my issues and gave me medicine to help.
Now, I am nearly a month on medication, and feeling better than I have in 4 years. I haven’t panicked in weeks, and my days are no longer spent constantly worrying about my health. I’ve started enjoying food again, and am actually appreciating the little victories in life. I have gained 10 pounds, and am continuing to gain muscle for basketball that I didn’t think was possible.
That’s not to say that my story is over. I still have trouble eating sometimes, and I still work through anxiety every day, but I want people my age to know that it does get better. I want to tell people who are suffering like me that anxiety does not define you, but how you handle it does. I want to teach others about the neuroscience and psychology behind their illnesses, to offer them a new perspective. But most of all, if I can prevent just one person from going through what I have, I will feel like my experience was worth it.
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