It could be a Saturday evening in a restaurant, or during a Tuesday morning breakfast.
Maybe even an afternoon with friends, and then, it hits. The panic. The pressure on my chest that doesn’t lighten. The tightness in my throat as the world begins to spin.
I readjust my body, clear my throat, and try to breathe. I think, this time, I have it. I can push it down. But control slips through my fingers and I am left wondering, hoping really, that this will be the last time.
Panic attacks leave me feeling hopeless, like a stranger in my own body. I try to rationalize, reassure myself it will pass, but the fear is still there. The fear that I won’t be able to catch my breath again, the fear that I just ruined the vacation, the fear that I’m too much. Too much anger and distance, too many feelings and too many excuses, too much self-hatred, and never enough love.
I learned to plaster on a smile, even when I was on the verge of a panic attack. I would politely leave the room and try to collect myself. The fear and embarrassment led me to a place of silence, and I built my life there.
While living in self-imposed exile, I lost friends because not everyone wants a noncommittal, plan-breaking, terrified, and timid friend. I wish I could tell my younger self it wasn’t my disorders—it was society’s lack of understanding and empathy about mental health.
I was faced with a societal stigma I wanted to Hulk-smash. When I canceled plans, or made a run for it during a party, they would search for understanding but would usually misinterpret it as shyness. The “I understand; anxiety is difficult“ slowly turned into “everyone is stressed.” Have you tried yoga and deep breathing?
It gradually progressed into fewer and fewer invites and, eventually, turned into light waves and smiles in public, to nothing at all.
I spent years carefully crafting a coping kit with my therapists that has created a new space and life, that, although is still full of anxiety and panic, fuses with self-acceptance and love. It still feels like a panic attack might kill me, but I have found something that has helped me manage the fear, and it all started with a chocolate chip cookie.
I had planned on bringing dessert to a friend’s house one evening when a panic attack hit. I was going to cancel but cookies sounded like a really good idea, so I turned into Betty Crocker for the afternoon. The following week, I offered to make muffins. Then cupcakes, cake, pie, more cookies. I found something that helped me live more presently and helped me thrive. I took my anxiety, my panic, the bad days, the terrible moments, and whipped up something good.
Baking helps me hold some control in an uncontrollable mind—and world. That stranger who told me to smile more—I baked some killer cookies that did, in fact, make me smile. The woman who told me not to be sour—helped to produce an exquisite lemon raspberry tart that was a hit at a party I didn’t want to be at.
I had struggled silently for so long with this heaviness on my chest, and I was finally able to breathe again. I had to readjust my life, and truly, deeply learn to love every piece of myself. It’s a constant journey, ever-changing and evolving. Every day is different and I’m learning to forgive myself for what I perceive as weakness. I am learning to be okay with those days I can’t do what I had scheduled.
I have surrounded myself with those who do not blame me when I cancel plans. Those who love me and give me space and time without judgment.
It’s never easy talking about my mental health and it doesn’t get easier just because I do it more often. It’s been a hard road, one filled with depression, anxiety, panic, and so much more. But it’s also been filled with happiness, progress, and love.
I have grown and rebuilt and carried on.
It’s still not easy, but I refuse to be silent about my journey.
I will be shouting from rooftops, mountaintops (instant relief), and raising awareness through platforms like my TEDx Talk (shameless plug) because it benefits no one to act like it’s not happening.
Check out Daniela’s TEDx Talk: