The Perils of Extreme Anxiety, and Overcoming Them

Author: Danny Abriano, Real Life Stories

“Kill me.” Those are the words my grandfather whispered to me while he laid in his hospice bed late at night in August of 2008 with just the two of us in the room.

He was 95 years old and had been not only healthy but vibrant until just a few months earlier. But this moment was just days away from the end and he was ready for things to be over.

I felt the magnitude of his words at the time, but wasn’t hit by everything with full force until I watched him pass away a few days later, taking his final breath, surrounded by the rest of our family.

People are impacted differently by hearing something like my grandfather said and then witnessing his death. For me, it led to something that nearly crippled me. And while I’ve overcome it, it’ll still rear its head every now and then.

Anxiety. Not just run of the mill anxiety everyone deals with. I’m talking about debilitating panic attacks — ones that made me leave Mets games, not want to see my friends, be nervous about leaving the house for six hours, and eventually led me to take a leave of absence from my job.

It started right around the time my grandfather got sick, with a feeling of being unable to breathe — more specifically, being unable to get a deep breath. That spiraled into hyperventilating, dizziness, feeling like I was having a heart attack, like I was going to pass out. The attacks were acute and often, and I had no idea why they were happening.

I told those closest to me but tried to push through it. Bad idea.

There was a day at the mall where I couldn’t take being there any longer. My friend jokingly asked if I was going to die and I replied yes. I wasn’t joking.

There was a Mets game — a doubleheader specifically. I was having mild panic issues during the entire first game and made it to the start of the second (a Johan Santana start) before forcing my friend to leave early with me.

But the worst part of it was trying to work a few months after the symptoms first started. My commute at the time was about two hours each way, to a nonprofit in the Bronx.

Part of that ride to work — the train — became my personal hell, where anxiety attacks occurred basically every day. I would then emerge and try to do my job, which included managing a staff of four while recommending either incarceration or social services for people who had recently been arrested.

Again: bad idea.

By this point, I’d been on medication for the anxiety (one pill to take daily and others to take when I felt the most anxious), but kept on working before it took full effect. It was impossible to work while feeling this way, eventually leading me to take a six-week leave of absence.

During that time, I didn’t want to leave the house, since I didn’t feel like I could handle being in public. I didn’t want to see my friends and would barely answer their calls or texts.

Most people around me didn’t attempt to understand what I was going through, with some telling me to just “stop it.” That’s not how anxiety works. If you could stop the feeling of thinking you were about to die, you’d do it.

Fortunately, those who were closest to me at the time were there to support me. Had they not been, I seriously don’t think I ever would’ve emerged from the worst of it.

I foolishly tried to come off the medication in 2012 because I wanted to feel ‘normal’ again. Another bad idea that eventually led to a career change. If this situation ever happens to you, don’t try that.

But now, I work for SNY and the Fest For Beatles Fans. Translation: I haven’t missed a day of work due to an anxiety attack in four years.

While eight years have passed since it began and the panic attacks are few and far between these days, anxiety is something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.

If I stop taking the prescribed medication, the feeling of dread and debilitating anxiety will eventually come back. If I travel somewhere without Xanax and feel something coming on, I’m basically screwed.

If you feel like you’re having anything close to what I was having, tell someone. If friends family members tell you they’re having a panic attack, take it seriously instead of shrugging it off.

But severe anxiety is something that can be beaten. You need to address it, be honest with yourself and those closest to you, and realize that it’s a day-by-day thing. There’s brightness ahead no matter how dark it might seem at the time.


Seek help for anxiety at www.anxietydisordersfoundation.org.

The Dementor and The Boggart: How Harry Potter Helped Me Cope With My Depression and Anxiety

Author: Brett Pucino, Real Life Stories

There is a subsection of millennials, roughly those born between 1988 and 1992, who came of age with The Boy Who Lived. I was born in 1990, and I was eight years old when I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I eventually consumed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows the summer of my 17th birthday. J.K. Rowling’s magical world made me fall in love with reading at such a young age. Little did I know that when I was first introduced to Dementors and Boggarts as an adolescent, there were Dementors and Boggarts in my own life that I’d have to face in young adulthood.

The Dementor and The Boggart as Symbols for Depression and Anxiety
JKR has been open about her battles with depression in her life, and has even recently reached out to a fan on Twitter who is facing depression.

I used to think these were just creepy creatures growing up, but when I re-read the series for the umpteenth time as a new college graduate going through a bout of post-college depression, I realized that a Dementor is a harrowingly accurate representation of depression.

I’ve felt the metaphorical lights go dark in my head as the depression eradicated any positive memories. I’ve felt depression’s cold, rattling breath as it called up my worst thoughts from my mind’s annals. I’ve felt depression’s chilling fingers brush my skin as it sank to suck the last drips of hope out of my body. I can tell you first hand that being in the constant presence of Dementors is exactly what depression feels like.

Just as the Dementor represents depression, the Boggart represents our deepest fears. To me, the Boggart is an accurate representation of my struggle with anxiety. My bouts with depression have been situational. I’ve been lucky in that regard. It’s the anxiety that’s more prevalent.

In high school, my social anxiety crippled my social life. I was the quintessential quiet kid, but I had the loudest mind. I was terrified to verbalize my thoughts into words. Things were different, though, when I put pen to paper. At the time, I had little confidence in my writing ability, but my English teachers would always gush over my writing assignments. In my junior year I received the only 100 on a writing assignment that my teacher gave out that year. The assignment? Write an alternate ending to The Catcher and the Rye in the voice of Holden Caulfield. Looking back, the ease at which I was able to channel Holden’s angst was a warning sign.

The Patronus as a Symbol for How to Fight Depression
In the Harry Potter series, the only way to fend off a Dementor is by casting a Patronus. The Patronus is one of the most fascinating spells in the Potterverse. It is similar to the Native American concept of the spirit animal in that each person’s Patronus takes on an animal form based on the characteristics of the caster.

In order to cast the spell, one must channel his or her happiest memories when reciting the incantation (expecto patronum). If one isn’t 100% absorbed in these happy and positive thoughts, then the spell won’t work. I think this is the perfect analogy for fighting depression in the real world.

The Riddikulus Incantation as a Symbol for How to Fight Anxiety
The Boggart is another fascinating creature from the Potterverse. No one knows what a Boggart looks like in its true form, since it immediately takes on the shape of the deepest fears of the nearest person. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Lupin teaches us that the way to get rid of the Boggart is to picture your deepest fear in a disarming, and often humorous, situation while reciting the incantation Riddikulus. 

I think that this symbol is a perfect representation of my anxiety in the real world. I worry obsessively about the future and also play the “what if?” game. So, if I were to come across a Boggart, it would be a version of myself that I call the “inner critic.” The “inner critic” is extremely critical of any aspirations I have for my future. He points out all of the things that could go wrong and frames them as if they are inevitable outcomes.

Thanks to JKR, I came up with a creative visualization exercise to help me deal with this anxiety successfully. I picture facing this Boggart version of myself and actual me shouting Riddikulus as I visualize Boggart-me losing his voice. Without his voice, his doubts can’t affect me.

I used a similar exercise to deal with my bouts with depression. I visualize myself facing a Dementor and in need of a Patronus. I absorb myself in happy memories and positive thoughts, and then my Patronus (a lion) appears to protect me.

You may feel silly doing these exercises at first, but they helped me and I think they can help you too. Plus, to paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, just because it’s happening in your head, that does not mean it isn’t real.


Seek help for depression and anxiety at adaa.org.

Once Again, Start Smilin’

Author: Claire Greene, Real Life Stories

My first experience with depression happened when I was 13 years old. It was the summer before I began high school. It was very gradual. Day after day, I would wake up and find I had lost more and more happiness. My energy declined, the thought of eating made me sick, I had constant crying spells and I was unable to face day-to-day life. To be completely honest, the only thing that would have made me happy would be to curl up in a ball on my parents’ bed and stay there for the rest of my life.

The best way that I have ever been able to describe depression is that it is similar to a cloud hanging over your head. A dark gloominess takes over you that you cannot shake, while everyone around you is experiencing sunshine. And guess what? I was extremely fortunate in life. I was born into a wonderful family, with a father as a dermatologist, a nurse as a mother and a brother who would bend over backwards to protect his little sister. We were financially stable, but were not necessarily able to spend excessively.

My parents always supported us, regardless of the religion we chose to endorse, our sexual orientations or our career paths. They simply wanted us to be happy and healthy. I had a great group of friends and excelled in school. I was extremely fortunate in life and was always grateful for the cards that I was dealt.

The truth is that one can have an absolutely perfect life, and still suffer from any psychiatric illness. I was given a great life, yet I still always had a deep feeling of despair within me.  Sometimes it felt like my insides were completely frozen over.

It took me a while to realize that this state of being was not normal. A 13-year-old girl should not be questioning why she is living. That should not even be a thought that pops into a kid’s head. At that age, kids should be thinking about what they are going to do with their friends and how they are going to finish their homework.

When one says that he or she is depressed, most people think that it is simply being really sad. Severe clinical depression is a whole other thing entirely. I was not able to function every day as a normal, healthy adult. It took a great amount of energy and effort to simply get up in the morning. This aspect makes going through depression even more difficult, because many do not understand that one cannot simply “snap out of it.” It is difficult for others to relate to you — and therefore the thought of telling people about your time of crisis can seem overwhelming.

A psychologist once told me that the three ways to know if someone is clinically depressed are hopelessness, helplessness and guilt. I had all three. I felt hopeless for the future, that I would never be able to live a normal life or hold a steady job. I felt helplessness, that there was absolutely nothing that I could do to help myself get through this terrible time, or make it easier on my friends and family to deal with a constant downer. I also felt guilt for countless reasons.

I mainly felt guilt because this was a huge ordeal to put my family through. Coming home to your 13 -year-old daughter always crying under the blankets in her bed cannot be easy. I had guilt that I was blessed with such a wonderful life—and that there are so many less fortunate than I was, but I couldn’t put a smile on my face.  I also felt shame that I had a steady, well paying job that many people would do anything to get and I was completely miserable. All of these feelings are irrational and yet, I still had them. I share these thoughts to help you understand that if you are depressed, you can recognize it and seek help. Recognition is key. Please, if you recognize these symptoms in yourself, tell someone.

Being as I always had a close relationship with my parents, I brought up the strength to talk to them about what I was going through. They immediately referred me to a psychiatrist that my family had been going to for years — who also did counseling. For about a month I would simply meet with him for an hour, he would talk and I would cry. I realized that I had a serious, clinical mental illness that would take a lot of time to recover from. However, if I am to be completely honest, there was only one thing that I learned from him that I have taken with me throughout my life, which is that my trigger is uncertainty.

After a month of him talking and me crying in the leather chair, my psychiatrist put me on medication. At first I was put on Zoloft. Simply put: Zoloft did not work for me. It made me feel like I was outside of me, that I was not myself. After a couple of weeks on Zoloft and not seeing any improvement in my health and well being, my psychiatrist decided to put me on another medication called Lexapro. After about a week, my entire life changed. I was able to enjoy life again, take in my surroundings and focus on preparing for the future. In a way, it took away the clouds, so that I could actually begin to work in the issues that led me into my depression in the first place.

Now I want to make it clear: Just because this medication worked for me does not mean it will work for you. It all depends on your own brain chemistry and genetics. You may have to try a couple of different medications before you find the one that works right for you. With certain medications, your body gets used to them and they have less of an effect over time—which is part of why I had my relapses later in my journey. I am no longer on Lexapro. It worked for me at the time, but after being on it for about ten years, the effects started wearing off. Once again, I had to try several medications before finding another one that worked for me: Effexor.

There is absolutely a stigma related to taking medication for depression and anxiety disorders. Even though a big part of depression is a chemical imbalance that is genetic—and cannot be fixed without medication, many people think that medication is the easy way out. What would I like to say to those people? Deal with Major Depressive Disorder—and then get back to me. When I was going through my lowest point, I was completely unstable. The medication made me stable enough to help myself.

I do not view my decision to go on medication as weakness; but rather, that I was strong enough to get the help I needed to be able to live my life. I took these steps in a secure setting under the advice of professionals who had been trained in brain chemistry. There is absolutely no shame in taking medication if is will help your mental health, which is just as important as physical health. That being said, I want to make it clear that medications are not a cure-all. Had I realized that the first time, I may not have had my relapses. Even if it is only once a month, seeing a therapist continuously is a necessity.

Since the start of my depression, I have relapsed three times. It completely took me by surprise. I thought I was fixed, but I again was sucked back down into the rabbit hole. Two of those relapses were while I was still in college. I’m sure I was a pleasure to deal with for my roommates. I found myself having to make constant trips home and my school work plummeted. During my first relapse, I got the lowest GPA I ever had in my life. My psychiatrist kept upping the dosage on my medication, which would lead to improvement. However, the third relapse, which led to the lowest point of my life, I was already at the highest dosage of Lexapro that I could take. At this point, I decided to stop seeing my current psychiatrist.

I went to a new psychiatrist, and since she did not do any counseling, I also found a therapist. Together, they worked to help bring me back up again—and I have not relapsed since. I also learned tools to deal with my depression. Taking recovery in small steps makes it seem a lot less daunting. Don’t start by trying to run a marathon. The little steps you take are a leap of faith. Step One: getting out of bed. Step Two: getting in the shower. Step Three: going outside for five minutes—this was the biggest tool I learned.

Music is something that has always helped me throughout my experiences. Being able to connect to it and feel it in your soul is the best possible feeling. When I was at my lowest points, I would listen to Avril Lavigne. Her music made me feel like there was someone else out there going through the same thing I was.  I will always hold her music close to my heart. I remember the first time I heard her song “Take Me Away:”

I cannot find a way to describe it,
Its there, inside, all I do is hide.
I wish that it would just away
What would you do, you do if you knew.

This verse summed up everything that I was feeling. I never thought anyone would understand me, but these lyrics made me realize that I was not alone. Another song, “Darlin,” spoke to me as well:

Darlin’10469948_10202358427497107_3137087843476918093_n
You’re hiding in the closet once again
Start smiln’
I know you’re trying real hard not to turn your head away
Pretty darlin’, face tomorrow, tomorrow’s not yesterday.

“Once again, start smilin’” had become my mantra. Also, what I said about a small step becoming a leap of faith? I got that wording from Avril Lavigne, too. I have “A single step becomes a leap of faith” tattooed on my arm.

Depression is never your fault. The psychiatrist that I saw at first consistently made me feel that way.  My current therapist has helped me realized that whenever I am down and need strength, I already have it inside of me. I have to rely on myself to be happy, and I’m a pretty good shoulder to lean on. Instead of making me feel guilty, she has made me realize how strong I am and that I can overcome this mental illness. While I was extremely fortunate to have amazing friends and family, I realize many others do not have that support. If you are one of those people, I want my story to be your strength and emotional support. You can overcome this; I am proof. You have that power, you are resilient and you will once again, start smilin’. Oh, as you can see, dreams really do come true.

 


For more information on depression, seek help at depression.org.