I had my first panic attack when I was seven. I was watching a movie with my parents and brother when an invisible hand reached inside my chest, gripped my lungs, and wouldn’t let go. The air I hadn’t thought about breathing my entire life was suddenly all that mattered; I didn’t even know what oxygen was, but I desperately knew I needed it.
I was hyperventilating, hysterically crying and shaking uncontrollably as my hands went numb first, followed by my face and limbs. My muscles tensed up so severely it felt like I was ripping them to shreds when I moved. Everything my formerly rational little brain knew vanished completely, replaced only by thoughts of dying.
I can’t describe what it was like to truly believe I was dying before my 8th birthday. At first, the attacks were so rare that the doctors chalked it up to an ibuprofen allergy. But within a few years, I was diagnosed with a panic disorder that became the background struggle of my adolescence and young adulthood.
You wouldn’t know I have an anxiety issue unless I told you, or you stuck around long enough to witness the inevitable panic attack. I’m the most carefree person I know. Anxious is the last word I (or anyone I know) would use to describe me.
But isn’t that the tragic beauty of mental disorders? They’re silent wars that you try to fight alone, until the inevitable overlap with the outside world occurs, and in those moments you just want to shake the people around you and scream, can’t you understand!?
My panic attacks have waxed and waned throughout my life, and it’s only in retrospect that I can attribute them to extenuating circumstances… sometimes. Because I don’t worry. This may seem completely counterintuitive, but let me explain. My conscious mind worries so little that my unconscious mind takes the brunt of the stress in my life. And since my conscious mind refuses to acknowledge the problems that need to be dealt with, my nervous system builds up the pressure until it erupts and my entire body enters a Red Alert.
After college, I loved my job. I lived in the best city on Earth. I had amazing relationships and spent more time laughing every day than anyone I knew. But the attacks were constant. And the more I used prescription drugs to help, the more my body seemed to think it was okay to lose control.
As much as I loved my life and was making the best of what I had, I realized I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I wanted to be traveling. As long as I’ve had anxiety, I’ve also had an underlying desire to explore the world. So, at 26 I quit my job and booked a one-way flight.
The only comfort I took in my anxiety was knowing I had people around me who understood it and could handle me at my worst. So, leaving alone, with infinite unknowns ahead, was worrisome to say the least. I prepared for an onslaught of panic attacks as soon as my plane touched down. But I experienced the opposite.
I woke up my first day abroad and had never felt so calm. And then I woke up with that feeling every single day after.
As much as I loved my life back home, I wasn’t where I truly wanted to be and my mind knew it, even if I convinced myself otherwise. It wasn’t the 60+ hour work week, laughably high rent, or delayed subways that were causing my anxiety attacks. It was being tied down to the job, apartment, and public transportation in the first place.
The “stress” of sleeping in an airport, or getting off a bus in a new city at 3 a.m. with a dead cellphone and no map, or being stranded without cash on an ATM-less island that you didn’t realize was ATM-less until too late, or anything else on the endless list of backpacker problems… That’s the kind of stress I can deal with. Because what’s important to me is getting on those flights to new places and exploring those remote islands. Occasionally feeling lonely is bearable when it means I can live life on my own terms. Having a dwindling bank account just means coming up with new ways to earn money that are just as satisfying as anything I could do back home.
This isn’t to say I have cured myself of my illness. But I will say that one panic attack every four months is exponentially better than what I’ve had since I was six years old. And I’ll take those odds.