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 onto 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 young brain knew vanished completely, replaced only by thoughts of dying.
I can’t describe what it was like to truly believe I was about to die before my 8th birthday. At first, the attacks were so rare that the doctors chalked it up to a medicine allergy.
But within a few years, I was diagnosed with the 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. Jumping off bridges, out of planes, or into a cage surrounded by great white sharks? Just say go. I’ll do it with the biggest smile on my face.
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, so 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 negative pressure until suddenly, and without warning, it erupts. And my entire body enters a panicky, all-systems-malfunction, red alert. The panic attack is my body screaming to my brain, “Um hello?! We have problems!”
After college, I loved my job. I lived in the best city on Earth. I had amazing relationships and spent more time laughing each day than anyone I knew.
But the panic 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.
So as much as I loved my life, I finally realized I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I wanted to be traveling. I may have had anxiety since I was a little girl, but an intrinsic desire to explore the world has always been there too.
Alas, at 26 I left my job and booked a one-way flight.
The only comfort I can take in my anxiety is in the knowledge that I have loved-ones around me who understand it. And who are mentally equipped to handle me at my worst. Thus, leaving the country, alone, with infinite unknowns ahead, was worrisome to say the least. I prepared myself for an onslaught of panic attacks as soon as my plane touched down.
But my experience was quite 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 the life I truly wanted. 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 reliance on public transportation in the first place.
The “stress” of sleeping in an airport.. or getting off a bus 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 solo-backpacker-problems… That’s the kind of stress I can handle.
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 — ways that are just as satisfying as anything I could do back home.
It doesn’t have to be travel. Just live the life you truly want to be living. The life you’ve always known you wanted.
It’s hard to make changes when your life doesn’t suck. But your life doesn’t have to simply be good either. Your life should feel perfect. You should go to bed at night knowing you’re exactly where you want to be — where you’re supposed to be- and wake up each morning overwhelmingly thankful for your life.
It certainly won’t always be easy, but it should always feel worth it.
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.
This article originally appeared on PsychCentral and is republished here with permission.