Cathryn Chenkus

My first panic attack was in September, 2002. I had missed the first few days of my Junior year because of a family wedding, and came back to a pop quiz in my first period class. At first I just had run-of-the-mill nerves, but within a few minutes of starting the test my heart started racing. My face became flushed, I had cold sweats, and I felt like I was going to throw up. My thoughts began rapidly cycling through how I could escape the room without being noticed. I couldn't come up with any “safe” way to escape. If I asked to go to the nurse, I would have to argue with my teacher in front of the whole class and potentially get sick while arguing. If I stayed put, I could throw up in front of everyone and never live it down. If I just left the classroom, I would be written up for “insubordination.” When class was finally over I had not thrown up, and I felt a little better, so I continued with my day. In the back of my mind, however, there was a small seed of worry still building.

The next day I woke up at 4 a.m. in the midst of a full blown panic attack. I had an overwhelming dread of going back to school. I was terrified of feeling sick in class again. Not getting sick in front of everyone the day before had been a miracle, but what would I do if it happened tomorrow, or the day after that? That one thought, that one panic attack, dramatically changed the rest of my life.

For the next two years I woke up every school day morning with a panic attack: I would throw up, try to go back to bed, wake up in panic again a little later, try to brush my teeth to get ready, and throw up again. The cycle of thoughts felt like they couldn't be stopped, like I was fighting my own brain, but I wasn't strong enough to fight myself. I couldn't eat much during the school day out of fear, but not eating would make me faint. I would slowly chew on a granola bar all day until I could finally eat a massive dinner at home. My weight, and consequently my health, diminished during this time. I was suffering miserably through panic attacks most of my day.

My parents eventually got me to a psychiatrist who prescribed Zoloft and Xanax. Zoloft made me suicidal and Xanax made me fall asleep, so I couldn't take either. I missed a lot of school, and was one absence shy of an automatic fail both Junior and Senior year of High School. I only felt safe when I was home. The few friends I told tried their best to help, but they couldn't understand—I don't blame them, I didn't either! I felt incredibly alone and scared. All I could think was “I can't live like this.” I had no hope for my future.

When it came time for college, my parents encouraged me to live on campus at a nearby school. They knew that if I stayed in my comfort zone at home, I would never leave. College started to help because I could leave class whenever I wanted! I would still get sick a couple of days a week, and I still had panic attacks every school day, but it was getting better than it had been.

I eventually got a job at a university nearby. Unbeknownst to anyone else, I had panic attacks in every meeting for the first year. Even though I was becoming more comfortable with the world since starting college, and I had developed more coping skills, I would still have panic attacks when I felt that I couldn’t safely leave a room. At this point, I figured that this was just my life and anxiety would set its limitations on it; I wouldn’t be able to travel as much as I wanted, to eat where I wanted, or to work in certain places, and no one would understand why.

While working for the school I was able to enter their Master's Program for Psychology. While learning more about psych, I came across “agoraphobia,” a term I had misunderstood before. I'd only heard it used in reference to someone who kept themselves in their house, but in the context I learned about it, this was a fear of having panic attacks in a public place. I researched it further, and for the first time in my life I read about and watched videos with real people who went through the exact problems and quirks that I did. This was me! This is what it's called! The first time I watched a documentary on someone with agoraphobia I cried throughout it, but they were happy tears! The past 10 years had been isolating, but I didn’t feel alone anymore.

The past 10 years had been isolating,
but I didn't feel alone anymore.

Since that time I've slowly but surely gotten better. I only have a few panic attacks a year instead of a few a day. I can eat better in public now, and I don't always need medication to fly or take a train. Subways still aren't my favorite. I'm terrified of sitting in the dentist's chair, and long plane rides still make me panicky. I still won't be driven anywhere by someone I don't know really well.

A few things that helped my illness improve were learning more about it, building confidence to leave a room and not feel the need to explain myself, changing my diet, taking small doses of Xanax when needed, and most importantly—being able to tell people that I was anxious in a scenario.

I don’t tell many people, because I think it's still stigmatizing, but the increase in mental health awareness has made me feel more comfortable to do so. Whenever I do share now, I find that a lot of people have relatives, friends, or even themselves with the same type of anxiety. No matter how small or seemingly invisible your issue may seem, more people can relate than you would ever know—you just have to give them the chance.

Cathryn Chenkus

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