Today I want to try to be doubly helpful: I want to tell you that I am getting better, because you must know that it does get better. For everybody. For you, too. When I’m anxious I often know what I’m anxious about, I can feel anger and sadness and I’m not as scared of them as I used to be. I don’t repress them anymore. But I’m not anxious as often as before. I know it’s going to get worse again (in a month, when I go back to Italy), but I’m doing much better, and this counts a lot, whatever happens next.
But I also want to tell you something of what I went through. Last year I started suffering of panic attacks again. I had already suffered from that three years ago, when my beloved Grandpa got sick, but I was only prescribed antidepressants, I wasn’t told how fundamental psychotherapy is. That’s why after a couple of years panic free, the attacks came back.
I want to take a moment to explain what panic attacks are to people who have never experienced them and to people who have been diagnosed but still haven’t a clear idea – keep in mind I’m not a doctor and I’m not a psychologist, I’m just passing the knowledge I have on the topic.
Imagine being in the middle of a wood alone and finding yourself facing a huge grizzly bear. Are you feeling the terrible fear? You might die of a painful death in a couple of seconds. So, that’s how scared a panic attack can make you. Of course there are different degrees of panic, I hope you got an idea.
Panic attacks aren’t generally what they look like. Let me explain. The most common type of panic attack is the one that makes you believe you are having a heart attack. You feel a huge burden on your chest, you can hardly breathe, your heart beats faster than usual, you feel sick and your head aches, your arms and legs feel weak or shake, and you just know you are about to die. It’s not just in your head, it’s really happening. You are not going to have a heart attack, but the symptoms are real.
What’s happening there is that your body is trying to tell you something. It tried to tell you in the traditional ways (sadness, rage, thoughts…) but you probably repressed it, and now it just can’t keep it in anymore. You have to face what’s torturing you and you have been trying to avoid.
Back to my story, I will talk about how it all started in another post, but I want to focus on what happened to me last summer right now. A little episode in my family triggered the already latent anxiety. What this episode was about is irrelevant, what counts is what it brought out of me.
I had started psychotherapy about six months before this, but nothing prepares you to the explosion. In a moment, panic attacks were back, and they petrified me. That’s another thing they do: They petrify you to keep you in a situation, in a comfort zone, and prevent you to risk and live your life. I was flying back and forth from Italy to Brazil, I was trying to get more independent from my parents, I had just turned 23 and I was still treated like a child. One little thing was enough to push me off the edge.
I kept on going to my psychologist, but I could hardly get through my appointments: I cried so hard it got hard to see through my swollen eyelids, I couldn’t think straight, I could only beg her to put me in a psychiatric clinic so I couldn’t be a danger or a burden to me or anybody else. I was terribly scared of myself.
I had to start medication again, in order to be able to continue my psychotherapy, but I was in total despair and the pills took a while to kick in. I started throwing up every morning. There was something that my body was physically rejecting, incapable of keeping it in any longer. I threw up every morning until I was dehydrated, and I could hardly eat at all. I couldn’t be alone because I was too scared of losing control, so I begged my friends to spend every free minute of their time with me.
It was a living hell, I really thought I wouldn’t survive. I managed (somehow, on the phone with my friends and in total panic) to fly to Rio de Janeiro to stay with my boyfriend. The distance from home helped, but, as the medication, it took a while to kick in. I’ll spare the details for now, but the situation was pretty bad. I was out of control.
This lasted about three or four months. For all that time, I lived every moment of my days in total panic. My life completely stopped to survive that living hell. I was lost, and all my energy went to resist the panic, which I just couldn’t do, so I just cried and stayed in bed without moving all day long, terrified.
I remember catching an image of myself in the mirror, sometimes, in the corner of my eye, by mistake. I tried to avoid it, because it was not a nice picture, and I knew the feelings it brought – and yet, every time I gave in and had a look, it was worst than I thought.
I had always been thin, but that was not normal anymore. It was not human. I could see the bones pushing against my skin on my chest and the strong shadows around my eyes. I felt dead inside. I was ashamed of myself. How could my boyfriend still bear to look at me? I was hideous. I couldn’t even bear to look at myself. I touched my face and where my round cheeks used to be… there was nothing. I looked into my own eyes and I saw no color. No life. I could only wonder when this hell would end, and I could not imagine a happy ending. That’s when I would go back to bed, and cried, and waited.
Sometimes we just can’t be there for ourselves, I guess. Sometimes we need somebody else to believe in us, somebody else to see the beauty that’s still shining through every pore of our skin. But if you are doing fine right now, tell yourself – maybe even write it down – that you are truly beautiful. Fight until you see it, and then just say it to yourself. With love. You really are.