Implosion: How a panic attack allowed me to gracefully bow out
Updated: Jun 1, 2022
Anxiety disorders: It’s your brain’s way of reacting to stress and alerting you of potential danger ahead. They’re a group of mental illnesses that cause constant and overwhelming anxiety and fear. (Web MD)
Depression: Also known as major depressive disorder, is a mood disorder that makes you feel constant sadness or lack of interest in life. (Web MD)
High functioning depression: The diagnosis for high-functioning depression is officially called persistent depressive disorder, or PDD. Someone struggling with PDD experiences many of the symptoms of depression, but less severely. This allows the person to be able to function mostly normally, going to work or school, performing well, keeping up with responsibilities at home, and engaging in most social activities. (Bridges to Recovery)
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I'd like to share my mental health story to bring awareness and to encourage anyone that may be struggling or feeling similar symptoms to seek help sooner rather than later.
Unbeknownst to me, I was experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. My lack of appetite, the frequent crying, or the little desire to do anything nice for myself like paint my nails or wash my hair frequently didn’t give me a hint that there may have been something deeper going on.
On Valentine’s Day, my husband and I were channel surfing on our sofa in search of a romantic movie to enjoy while celebrating our love in ways that are meaningful to us. Shortly after, I started feeling a weird sensation in my chest that increased the more I thought about it. The sensation worsened and made me feel like I was experiencing an actual heart attack. Unable to discern what was happening to me, I prayed to God that he wouldn’t let me die on that couch while my husband sat next to me and the children watched TV in their bedroom. My heart felt like it was beating outside my chest and like I was experiencing out-of-body phenomena. My husband was both nervous and terrified. He continuously asked what he should do while simultaneously begging me to calm my breathing. I held off as long as I could before I could muster the words, "Please, call 911".
Nervous and unable to confidently speak the English language, my husband was unable to speak with the operator and so, I did it myself. The first time I called, I seemed to have calmed down while explaining my symptoms. Embarrassed, ashamed, and nearly paranoid, I told the operator I was feeling better and hung up only to call back several minutes later because the sensation returned and this time it was accompanied by uncontrollable shakes. I could not stop my body from trembling nor my chest from beating excessively. Amid the shakes, I urged hubby to notify our 9- year-old and 6-year-old boys that an ambulance would be coming so they wouldn’t become alarmed. While waiting for EMS, my husband attempted to calm me down by offering me sips of water and reminding me to take deep breaths. I couldn’t do any of it. My mouth and lips were so dried I was having a hard time swallowing my own saliva. While hubby hugged me, he also asked that I attempt to control myself to keep the boys from becoming spooked at the sight of me. Luckily enough, they decided to stay in their bedroom throughout the whole ordeal.
The EMS barged in and inundated us with questions. I attempted to answer to the best of my ability. Many times, I couldn't answer at all because I felt like my reality was warped. I was laying down on the couch wrapped in a comforter while they talked and talked and talked. I was so concerned with what was happening to my body that I could not make out what they were saying. I do remember hearing, “Ma’am you’re really anxious right now so you need to breathe.” As someone who practices yoga regularly, I could not remember to control my breathing. How could I? When I thought I was dying of a heart attack. They had so many questions and I could not get my bearings together. This sensation lasted for about forty-five minutes. I was still under the impression I was having a heart attack therefore, EMS checked my pulse and placed round stickers all over my chest and stomach to ensure that my heart was ok, which it was and so were my oxygen levels. I continued trembling for a while longer but gradually began breathing normally. The EMS offered to take me to the hospital, but I refused since my heart was stable and I was just experiencing what my therapist of one year feared would happen during our most recent session just two days prior- a panic attack.
Due to the pandemic and my fourteen-year career as a social service provider, my mental health was beginning to decline rapidly. My therapist, husband, and best friend all knew that the significant weight loss, the lack of appetite, and the loss of desire for all things joyful was not a good sign. My mother and aunts suffer from anxiety and seventeen years ago, I lost my brother to suicide, thus, the mental health issue was prevalent in my family. However, because mental health is not a topic that is openly discussed within our Dominican culture, I didn't know this could also be happening to me. Moreover, I have always been the strong one that continued pushing past my limits and so I continued pushing-- until it was beginning to feel like I could push no further. Most days, I felt like I was barely surviving, and just a few weeks prior, I shared this with my supervisor because I was sensing something wasn't right. And still, it didn’t dawn on me that whatever I was feeling was my mind and body's way of screaming for help. I just assumed it was burnout from being in the same company and position as a supportive housing case manager for close to eleven years. Fortunately, my body did me a favor and shut itself down for the sake of my well-being.
The following day I was expected at work, but the attack left my body feeling, well..umm...attacked. That evening, I was unable to sleep replaying the events that occurred, and was still feeling the vibrational residue of that invasion. I had a busy week ahead, filled with home visit appointments while also preparing for the program's annual audit inspection, which was scheduled to occur within the next two weeks. I was fearful of notifying my boss because I didn't want to call out on such an important week nor did I want to reschedule all those visits. My incoherent brain believed reporting to work would have been much more manageable than calling out. While laying in bed I knew I couldn’t get up to prepare the children for school let alone commute from NJ to NY to give of myself to others. My body lacked vitality and energy. It lacked life itself. My body gave out and I was coerced to listen. It was the wake-up call I didn't know I needed. I texted my supervisor and briefly explained what had happened. I then contacted HR, who is also a close friend and mentor, to explain the situation. She was really concerned for my well-being and suggested I get seen by my physician for an evaluation. I was allowed to take the rest of the week off while I met with my therapist as well as a psychiatrist for further evaluation. I didn't know it then but all this commotion was the beginning of freedom.
I returned to work the following week only to be told by HR that I still didn’t look well enough to be out on the field dealing with other people's emotional instabilities, especially when I was visibly unstable myself. After much deliberation, it was concluded that my job was a trigger for me as the decline had been building up for months, perhaps even years. HR set me free when she said I should consider resigning to begin my healing journey. Shocked and nearly numb, I felt like the shackles were removed in that instant. For months, I had been planning my resignation but felt like I couldn’t walk away without a backup plan, which I still don’t have. I planned on pushing myself even further until I found a job to replace the one I had just been freed from. It was recommended I take a leave of absence while I healed and adjusted to the anxiety medications I agreed to take for some emotional relief and the stabilization of my mind, body, and spirit.
With two hundred plus hours in sick time, I began my recovery by resting, reading, eating, and nurturing myself. And this felt like true freedom to me. My well-being increased significantly since being home. While the boys were at school, I poured into myself. I practiced at-home yoga several days a week or cuddled with my chocolate min pin while watching documentaries, stand-up comedy specials, or working on writing projects. I decided to resign upon returning from medical leave because I had tasted freedom and knew I could no longer compromise my well-being for the sake of financial "security."
I am intentionally choosing sanity, peace, and joy over comfort and security. For years, I was crippled by fear and mortified to leave my comfort zone. I was terrified I would not find a replacement job prior to my resignation and even though I had been applying to jobs like a madwoman (no pun intended) I haven’t had any (traditional) success yet. As fearful as I feel, I am certain that this panic attack happened for me and not to me. I can acknowledge that a shift has occurred. A weight has been lifted and because of it, I am practicing FAITH-fullness like never before-- trusting that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. That this was all part of a larger plan. I know I intend on moving forward while doing things that speak to my soul like writing, reading, and chasing the joy that my family and I deserve. The medications and the leave have given me reasons to feel hopeful again. Knowing that I don’t have to return to a place that was draining the life out of me feels like all the emancipation I needed to begin flourishing
I am choosing radical rest so I may resurrect and begin life anew. I am choosing to step into my power as a writer and a creative. I am choosing to fill my cup daily to begin living an intentional and purpose-filled life so I may be the mother and wife my family deserves. I am learning to no longer settle for safe nor compromise my well-being for fear of the unknown. I am worthy of living a life of peace, joy, and happiness. I intend to practice this every day as I continue tending to my emotional stability because that attack shook me to my core and I hope to never experience anything like that again. Since being home, I have been tending to my nails more, enjoying books, and indulging in documentaries that fill my brain with positivity and motivation. I am being proactive with my yoga practice, which I was enjoying for forty-four consecutive days as a part of a New Year’s challenge with my tribe. The goal was to practice for one hundred consecutive days but on the forty-fifth day, life had other plans. At first, I was upset that my challenge was disrupted but I have been giving myself a lot of grace since that eventful day. I am feeling much lighter and relieved that my world seems to be blooming. I feel that I am transitioning with the seasons, and I am looking forward to how much I will grow during this Spring season. I have decided to leave the dark days behind. I believe I have let that negative energy be dragged away by the winter.
Like Nina Simone sings, “It’s a new day, it’s a new dawn and I’m feeling good.” I am feeling free and hopeful about my future. Within the past two years, I have planted various seeds that may just lead to the flourishing of a wonderful career in writing. I intend to continue watering my gift, honing my craft, and getting serious about living the life I dream of as opposed to settling for less due to fear. I am feeling serene and like I am finally recalibrating after so many years of running around a hamster wheel that just wouldn’t stop turning no matter how many times I tried to jump off. There is no telling what greatness will transpire from officially walking out in faith (or should I say Crazy Faith like Transformation Church's weeks-long series) and stepping into my purpose.
But I know that as long as I continue to take care of my mind, body, and spirit-- there's nothing I can't accomplish. Intuitively, I know I have entered the next chapter of my life and it feels magical because I am remembering who I am.