Meet Jill. This is her Story
People are always surprised when I tell them I suffer from Panic and anxiety attacks.
The reaction I get is usually the same, “ Really? but you are always so calm and chill.”
So- what does a person with panic and anxiety disorder look like? Hard to know. I think panic is associated with frantic behaviour; so maybe people expect a nervous, jittery person or maybe expect to see a ‘freak out’ of some kind. For me, when I’m having a panic attack it’s actually quite the opposite. I may look calm and chill on the outside, but on the inside it’s nothing but that. My mind is racing and my catastrophic thoughts are consuming me. Its a mix of irrational thoughts and self-loathing for being the way I am.
I hate feeling anxious. It’s the worst possible feeling. It can be embarrassing and scary and the mind is so powerful that it is easy to sometimes feel completely overtaken in that moment. Most often it feels like I can’t breathe and I instantly think I’m going to die right here right now; sometimes my heart rate gets so high as if I’ve just finished a sprint. I have been told the reason for this is the adrenaline in me- the “Fight or Flight” feeling.
I vaguely remember my first panic attack. I was around eight years old; it was a regular day at school when I was hit hard with what I thought was a stomach ache (a feeling I never forgot- and I didn’t know this in that moment, but it was a feeling that would end up returning many more times). When that feeling came over me all I knew was that I needed my Mom and I wanted to get out, escape, go home. It wasn’t until my adult years that I associated that exact feeling with an anxiety attack. What made me feel safe, like most, was to be with my Mom and to be at home. The feelings of not wanting to go to school happened quite often. If I had it my way I would stay home every day (avoidance) but that wasn’t the case.
Throughout my elementary school years there were certain situations I hated being in; situations that gave me that stomach ache, the anxiety. I would panic if I was ever left home alone or if I was at a friends house and we were alone. Mostly the panic happened when I was separated from my Mother. I also had this terrible fear that my parents were going to die. At times I would do anything to stop my Mom from leaving the house. I would block the door, scream and yell and even throw myself at her legs and not let her go (no joke- I would be on the ground holding her legs until she would stay- sometimes even chasing her down the street hoping she would stay home and never leave me.
I couldn’t explain what I was scared of. But I always felt safest when she was nearby.
My mom did a great job dealing with the panic attacks then and she still does a great job dealing with them now. She was familiar with what was happening because she too had suffered from panic and anxiety attacks- not to say I didn’t get my way when I was little and begged her to stay home with me. There were many times I would tag along with her and my Dad, or join her on a power walk with her friends. Her friends learned to accept me being around. (Or if I wasn’t around I was calling every five minutes to see when they were coming home). Over time as my behaviour and reactions to her leaving the house got worse, she started putting her foot down. I wasn’t allowed to be her shadow anymore. I had to face my fears. I’m not saying these feelings went away completely, but as I matured I could put things in perspective. I became a bit more rational, for the most part. Eventually I learned to manage and was ok when my Mom left for a deserving night out.
I can’t remember many situations of panic and anxiety when I was in my teens. For the most part it disappeared. I could stay alone, babysit, go to summer camp. For some reason this time of my life was was not so panic-stricken. I actually became pretty independent as a teen and young adult. I could do things then that I wouldn’t dare do now. I wasn’t fearless, but definitely less inhibited than now. I even moved away from my home in Winnipeg to start a new life in Toronto. I pursued my passion for fitness, and started personal training and teaching fitness classes full time. I married the love of my life and we started a family. This is not to say I didn’t have any panic attacks during those years; they were just fewer and far between.
My panic and anxiety made it’s return with a vengeance as soon as I became a Mother. I have three amazing kids and am so blessed for my wonderful family. In 2003 came Maya, 2004 Charlie and 2006 Tyler. However- three kids under the ages of three can make anyones life hectic and stressful, which in turn can cause anxiety.
For me, it wasn’t the chaos that made me anxious. I loved being immersed in this new busy life.
I think that particularly crazy time in my life kept me distracted and focused on my kids and not on me and my feelings. The odd mild panic attack would creep in here and there, but I never really let it get in my way, until my husband left town for one week and I was staying at home alone with the kids. For most this is not such a scary event, but for me it was terrifying. My fears grew strong and my catastrophic thoughts were out of control. My fear was that I would die and leave my kids without their Mom. The recurring feelings were mostly around bedtime. I would worry that I would die in my sleep and my kids would find me in the morning!
It was a long five nights for me.
My mind and body was in such a state of fluster over those few days. I was relieved and more relaxed when my husband returned, but I developed fear and anxiety about staying alone with the kids. Panic would even set in at the most random places. I avoided taking the kids to a movie alone, or to indoor playgrounds alone. I always felt better if I had someone with me- it was kind of a safety for me.
Each panic attack seemed to be getting worse than the last.
One morning during school drop off I was in such a frenzy. My heart rate felt like it was so high. I could feel it pumping, I was panicking. I remember exactly what I was doing. Checking my pulse, checking my breathing while trying to remain inconspicuous about it. I even went up to a parent at school who is a doctor to see if she thought my heart rate was too high. So embarrassing!!
My nervous thoughts were getting worse and worse, in turn making my feelings elevated. I was scared to go home and be alone.
Instead I drove myself over to my husbands office and sat on the floor behind closed doors hiding from others trying to cope. I wanted to call an ambulance because I thought I was dying and these feelings were stronger than they had ever been and were not going away.
However I didn’t. So why not? Well deep down I knew this was a panic attack and the thought of calling 911 and explaining my symptoms was too embarrassing. Eventually my heart rate came down, I pulled my self together and went home.
I developed a long list of situations (which seemed silly) that I started to dread or avoid. I started to fear I would have an anaphylactic reaction to foods at restaurants (note: I have no allergies). I would feel better knowing if a hospital was near by, or if there would be a Doctor amongst the crowd! On top of all that I became scared to exercise! I have a career in fitness and now I am scared to exercise!!! I hated and dreaded the feeling of my heart rate getting too high, I was always worried it wouldn’t come back down.
This list of fears were exhausting and were disrupting my life.
Those fears and catastrophic thoughts would bring on such strong feelings of anxiety. So much so it became debilitating. This is when I decided to seek help. I tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It definitely gave me the tools to conquer many fears which I still use today, but my panic was still too much. With the support of my Doctor we decided meds were the way to go. This is what changed my life for the better. Aside from the fear that the pills were killing me at first and I was allergic to them (true story called the pharmacist to see if that was a possibility)they gave me a life again.
After going on medication, it felt like such a relief to be back in the world of the living.
I started to enjoy things again. I wasn’t as fearful to go on a run, or to eat at a restaurant. I wasn’t as distraught if I had to stay alone overnight with my kids. Things were just better, I was just better. I was in control again.
I spent a lot of years feeling weak and scared, and during this time I was looking for something to make me stronger; this is the feeling I got when I discovered Crossfit; a fitness program that combines a wide variety of functional movements into a timed or scored workout.
For me, there was no better feeling than proving to myself that I am strong and able. Lifting a barbell and pushing myself to do things I could never have imagined before is such great therapy for me. I feel empowered in every way; mind and body. I truly believe it has been a natural outlet for me. It has given me a focus and has helped me conquer many fears.
You should know that I still get the odd anxiety attack from time to time. There are situations that to this day I am avoiding, but hope to conquer those fears one day soon. I’m not cured, there is no cure. It’s all about learning to cope with what you have. Talking, sharing and not being embarrassed about your struggle can change someones outlook on panic and anxiety disorder.
Jill is the Founder of The Burpee Project- Their mission is to do 25 thousand burpees for Youth Mental Health! JOIN IN Nov 17th Toronto, ON- MSG through our contact form on this site for details!