Growing up, no one warned me about how much pressure and scrutiny an 18/19 year old was put under. I always just assumed that by the time I graduated high school I would know exactly what I wanted to do with my life. But graduation came and went, and I still had these huge life decisions hanging over my head. “What are you doing with your life,” “Where are you going to college,” “You know that career doesn’t make enough money to support yourself,” “You better start now or you’ll never go back to school.”
If it wasn’t difficult enough to make these decisions while pleasing myself, imagine the horror of making these decisions while trying to please every single person I ran into that asked these exact questions. Having the adaptable, people-pleasing personality that I do made these choices even harder. How would I please everyone? Hearing the disappointment in people’s voices when you tell them you aren’t going to college or you don’t have a major picked out can really eat at your brain; it sure did bother mine. Should I just enroll in college because it will stop the badgering of questions? I mulled these thoughts over often. I never could seem to escape the questions. It didn’t matter if I was at work or at church on Sunday; they always seemed to be there. And don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the questions were coming from those with pure intentions, but I also don’t believe older people really understand the disapproval they show when you are 19 years old without a mapped out plan of what you are going to be when you grow up. It also didn’t help the fact that I seemed to be the only one my age who was having these issues. All of my other friends had left for school in other states, leaving me feeling alone and confused.
So there I was, 19 years old, not enrolled in college and working 30 hours a week at a job where I was not very happy. I decided to drive to the gas station after dinner one night in March. Gas was cheaper the next town over so I made the extra 10 minute drive, not thinking anything would happen. Everything was fine until I let my overactive brain cloud my judgment. Driving gives you time to think in silence, which can be good, I guess. For me it just gave me time to think about how much of a failure I felt as a daughter and person. I mean I thought my whole life was supposed to be put together already, I was so behind.
“I can’t breathe” I thought as my heart started to beat out of my chest. Staring at the dim brake lights in front of me I tried to focus on driving as my sweaty palms tightly choked the steering wheel. I didn’t know whether to pull over and turn around or keep driving. My throat tightened as it became hard to swallow and I sat in my car terrified. What the heck is wrong with me?
That became the new question. Obviously, I made it home safety and I would love to tell you that that was my first and only panic attack, but I wouldn’t be writing this article if it was. Shortly after that incident, driving in general became something of complete difficulty. It didn’t matter if I was driving three minutes to church, being in the car felt like an eternity. I battled with the thoughts that something was seriously wrong with me. I even made a trip to the emergency room one afternoon because my throat felt like it was suffocating me for hours on end with no relief. They sent me home with a packet on anxiety and some judgmental looks.
Anxiety. Panic attacks. How could this be happening to me? I’ve always done the right thing. Why would God allow me to go through this? What did I do wrong to deserve anxiety?
The pressure from home didn’t help my mental state. I love my mother dearly, but she didn’t and still doesn’t understand panic attacks and the effect they had on me. I could tell she was disappointed in me and herself for not being able to “fix” my problems. The thoughts of being a failure to her made my panic attacks even worse. I would cry at night – the idea of suicide entered my head more than once, but I knew it wasn’t the answer.
Life became very dismal and along with my anxiety came his buddy depression. I could barely make it through work and back home and my social life quickly diminished. Before too long I became house bound with panic attacks, no longer sleeping through the night, and deathly afraid to be left alone in fear that the next panic attack would leave me dead and alone.
By the grace of God, my story doesn’t end there. Life seemed impossible but somehow I was given the strength to keep fighting. During my sleepless nights I did a lot of research on panic attacks and methods to reduce them. I also began searching for some medical help. I met Psychologist, Gene Benedetto in the summer of 2013. After months of suffering alone, I was finally ready to reach out and try to figure out why this was happening to me. Talking to Gene helped put things into perspective. I realized that unlike what my brain was telling me, I wasn’t crazy and another people were dealing with the same issues I was having. I worked through a lot of personal issues sitting in his office. Although my mind was always somewhat distracted by the clock; waiting for what felt like an eternity for that hour to be up and to go back to the safety of my home. I visited Benhaven on and off over the next couple of months. It was difficult to see him regularly when I could not make the 15 minute drive myself. After Christmas, I decided I would not return. I had been put on Zoloft for my anxiety and it seemed to be working. The constant overwhelming feeling of choking had subsided enough to where I felt I could live a little and no longer felt the need to seek out help.
I didn’t realize until later on that I had stopped going to see Gene because I wasn’t ready to change. I wasn’t willing to put the effort into stretching and desensitizing myself to my anxiety symptoms. And I certainly wasn’t ready to open the can of worms that was causing all my issues to begin with. Anxiety became my new normal. I knew the limits I could live within to feel comfortable and as long as I stayed within them I could live my life just fine.
But after a while, fine wasn’t good enough. I was healing slightly, but I still didn’t feel like myself; just an anxious, unhappy version of myself that I really didn’t like too much. You see, if you don’t ever work on the root of the problem, the symptoms aren’t ever going to really disappear. Anxiety gave me an excuse not to answer the questions of my future, but having never dealt those issues never made them truly go away.
So time passed slowly as I adapted into a new “normal.” It had been a year and a half since I started having panic attacks and nothing had really changed. My meds did soften the effects of my panic attacks, but I was never willing to put myself in any situations where anxiety might arise.
That was until my boyfriend dumped me. It really is crazy how some of the worst things in life turn out to be for the good. So there I was alone, yet again. My first love, my best friend, my confidant left me without a reason to be seen. And I was crushed. I had so much banking on our relationship and I didn’t know what to do with myself anymore.
I was again faced with the question of what I would do with my life; no longer able to hide behind a stable, hardworking man who was willing to drive anywhere for me so that I was never uncomfortable. But this time, I was ready to answer that question. I was finally ready to push myself to do something. Not because my mom, my friends, or the random lady from church wanted me to, but because I felt confident in myself.
I quickly signed up for a dental assisting program in my area. I traveled back and forth to school the weeks before classes started, filling out paperwork and trying on scrubs. Most of those trips started and ended in phone calls to my mom who assured me I could finish those drives by myself. As I continued to make the drive to classes something miraculous happened, the drive no longer seemed overwhelming or impossible. I was finally able to start trusting myself to get in a car and drive places. I even began driving to my boyfriend’s house, after we started working through our previous issues.
Six months later, I finished my dental assisting program at the top of my class. It was a tough 6 months, but worth the effort. I also pushed myself to go on several interviews way outside my 20 minute drive comfort zone. I had never been more proud of myself than I was in those months. I had done this. I had made a decision and stuck with it, no matter what anyone else thought.
With that program completed and a job lined up, I finally felt ready to return to Benhaven Counseling. I was finally mentally ready to make the steps needed to continue to push myself into becoming a stronger person.
One of the first lessons I learned from Gene was breaking everything into steps. Choosing not to look at myself as a failure for not being able to drive to California and back by myself, but taking reasonable bites often until they built up to longer drives. I also began to take steps to learn how to distract myself. Couponing and donating the items to a local charity became my way to calm my fears before pushing myself to go further on a drive. I continue daily to make the conscious decision to push myself, not allowing my anxiety ever to control me again.
The journey has been tough and there are still many twists and turns in the days ahead, but for the first time in my life, I’m not completely worried about my future. I have learned that I can trust myself to make decisions and that it is okay not to listen to everyone’s “advice.” I encourage all those reading to take the first step if you haven’t. Confide in someone you trust about what you are going through. You are not alone in this and there are so many people around you that want to help.