This is the third installment of our monthly series, which features individuals living with and thriving with mental illness.
I wanted to share this series because even though having a mental illness is hard — really hard — we don’t hear enough stories about people who are doing well.
We don’t hear much about people who are successfully managing their conditions and savoring satisfying, healthy lives.
We also don’t hear nearly enough about how they do it.
This month we’re honored to feature Summer Beretsky, who pens the blog “Panic About Anxiety” here on Psych Central. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while working toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware.
Beretsky teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology and advises the student newspaper of Lycoming College.
Below, she reveals the toughest parts of dealing with anxiety, her mixed emotions about medication, the importance of therapy, her advice to others on what treatments to try and much more.
Please tell us a bit about your background and when you were first diagnosed.
I was first diagnosed with panic disorder when I was in college. It was my sophomore year, and I remember feeling absolutely miserable and scared out of my mind after the first attack (which I’d thought was a stroke or a heart attack).
That very first attack threw my body and mind into a state of such shock that produced even more panic attacks — they just kept unfolding, every single night, one after another.
But of course, did I know that they were panic attacks? Nope. I kept thinking that something horrible was wrong with me. Maybe they were seizures. Maybe I had an aneurysm. Maybe meningitis. I was truly convinced that I was dying.
So, the diagnosis itself was a bit of a relief — I first saw my family doctor who referred me to what I now call a “throwaway therapist.” This temporary therapist listened to me talk about my symptoms and showed me a book that listed all of my symptoms under the heading “panic disorder.”
I was relieved that nothing more serious was wrong with me. She had my family doc prescribe me Paxil, and I went on my merry medicated way with just one more quick follow-up therapy session.
What have been the toughest parts of having an anxiety disorder?
Oh gosh. I don’t even know where to begin. The first thing that comes to mind is missing my friend Melissa’s wedding. She invited me, I RSVPed, but then the day came — and I was shaking so violently that I couldn’t even get in my car (let alone survive a 3.5-hour drive to the venue).
I felt terrible and so sick to my stomach about the whole situation, and I poured my heart out in an email to her (because I didn’t want to ruin her wedding day by crying to her on the phone), and I remember dripping tears all over my keyboard. Melissa and I still keep in touch, but something was definitely lost that day. I was so mad at my body for betraying me.
Other very tough parts: limiting my professional working life to a certain radius around my home (thanks, agoraphobia!), struggling with everyday tasks like grocery shopping, explaining my anxiety-related quirks to people who don’t understand anxiety, and making sure that my anxiety doesn’t negatively impact my husband too much.
How have you overcome these challenges?
Hmm. Well, when it comes to socializing, most of my friends (now) understand that I can’t drive long distances. I can go across town to grab coffee with someone, but I can’t make long trips by myself. So, that’s what phones and social media are for — staying connected.
As for work, I’ve been lucky enough to both work from home (blogging!) and find some totally decent jobs within a fairly comfortable radius around my house. I really love my current town because, even though it’s sort of in the middle of nowhere in Central Pennsylvania, it’s very compact. Everything you’d basically need is less than 15 minutes away (except for the mall — so, I don’t need the mall. To hell with the mall.)
What treatments and strategies have helped you the most in managing your illness?
Meds without CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is like a car with flat tires. You can bumble along for a little while in that car, but eventually you’re going to damage the wheels.
What do you think of psychiatric medications?
I hate them, and I love them. They do the job but at a substantial cost. Paxil stopped my panic attacks, but turned me into a slug who didn’t feel like socializing, learning or caring about anything.
Xanax has saved me on many a road trip, but the rebound anxiety after the Xanax wears off is horrible.
I’m on Zoloft now, and while it’s lowered my anxiety level tremendously, it also makes me supremely inattentive and distracted.
I found my iPhone in the fridge last week and found a half-eaten banana in my bathroom — yes, my bathroom — the week prior. I don’t even remember carrying a damn banana into the bathroom with me. I feel so absent-minded on Zoloft. If I could manage my panic disorder without meds, I would.
What do you think of psychotherapy?
Thumbs up for psychotherapy. Learning to change your thoughts will help to change your physiology and your behaviors. Meds won’t help you to change your thoughts, but targeted practice in therapy sessions sure will.
Remember how riding a bike took practice? It also takes practice to stop focusing on “what if” statements. It takes practice to catch yourself using the anxiety-invoking words “should” and “ought” and to replace them with words like “want.” Making these changes to the way you think is crucial for recovery.
If you’ve seen a therapist, how did you go about finding the one you’re with today?
Honestly … I just got lucky. I picked one who accepted my insurance and decided that I’d keep her if I liked her. It worked out. She’s very easygoing, and if I get panicky during our sessions, I’m free to pace around the room or sit in front of her fireplace or even do yoga on the floor.
A therapist who doesn’t make you feel comfortable probably isn’t going to help you much. I try to stick with female therapists now — the one and only male therapist I’ve seen kept looking at my breasts and it made me very uncomfortable.
I was too scared to “fire” him right away, so I went to two or three additional sessions before I worked up the nerve to call his office staff to cancel all further appointments. Don’t hesitate to ditch a therapist that makes you uncomfortable in any way!
What advice do you have for someone about what treatments to try?
If you’re new to anxiety, try therapy first. That was my big mistake. I went to my family doctor first, got Xanax and then Paxil, and had two relatively useless sessions with that “throwaway therapist” I mentioned above.
She helped to diagnose me with panic disorder, sure — but she didn’t have any useful advice on how to handle it going forward.
If I had to do it all over again, I would find a cognitive-behavioral therapist willing to do at least eight to 10 sessions that involve talk therapy, changing my thoughts, interoceptive exercises and “homework” to practice my new skills in the wild.
What would you like someone who’s been newly diagnosed to know?
You’re not alone! I felt so alone when I was originally diagnosed. I didn’t know anyone else with an anxiety disorder. Nobody I knew even talked about mental health in any way.
I remember the hallways of my college’s academic center lined with posters advertising STD awareness — but I don’t ever remember seeing anything about mental health awareness.
Sure, the college held some massage workshops during finals week, but that’s about it. (For the record, I panicked during one of those finals-week massage workshops.)
What’s the best way loved ones can support someone with mental illness?
I can only really speak for anxiety disorders, I think, but still — listen to them. Avoid using generic platitudes. Ask what you can do to help — don’t assume.
And understand that what’s worked for you might not work for them. This is trivial, but it’s worth sharing: My dad has also had a few panic attacks during his life and having a drink or two helps to calm him down. He’s (lovingly) told me on a few occasions to “relax and have a beer” — but alcohol of any kind only fuels my anxiety. It makes my heart race. I hate the stuff.
What are your favorite resources on anxiety disorders?
The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne. If you’re only going to read one book, make that the one.
I also like Peace From Nervous Suffering by Claire Weeks. It’s adorably outdated (in some of the terminology she uses), but no book has ever made me feel quite as normal as that one.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
There’s no quick fix for anxiety. There’s no miracle cure-all. Don’t listen to those silly websites that promise you complete eradication of your anxiety symptoms. They’re bunk. Your money is best spent on a good therapist.
And of course, that’s not to say that you’re hopelessly stuck in Anxietyland forever — but even while on medication, symptoms might pop up. Your mind — or your heart — might race.
You might have 63 nice days in a row and then a crappy day comes out of left field, knocking the wind and motivation out of you. But the setbacks are only temporary. The less bewildered we find ourselves about those setbacks, the better we’ll feel.