I will never forget that night.
It was one of my first nights as a freshman at Bethel University. I was exuberant, liberated by my new freedom. I was no longer a measly high school student being forced to conform to long schedules and nitpicky dress codes. During Welcome Week, every freshman was placed in small groups, each lead by a “new student mentor”. On this night, it was the campus wide scavenger hunt. Each group member was supposed to adhere to a different role, a few staying inside to decode clues and direct the scavengers while the others to go out and hunt for the objects. I was having so much fun with my group members, making jokes, getting to know them, laughing at our wrong guesses and the scavengers’ light hearted missteps, and letting loose from the nervous ambiance every freshman radiated. That’s when it hit me.
My chest tightened so hard, as if a Sumo wrestler had sat on my chest. My heart raced faster than I’d ever felt during my hardest hockey game. I began sweating and breathing funny. I could feel adrenaline beginning to drown my body. I had to leave. I didn’t know where I needed to go but I couldn’t stay sitting. I told my group members I had to go to the bathroom and left.
I locked myself into the handicap stall. I legitimately thought I was going to die on the bathroom floor. This is how it’s going to end, this is how I die, I thought to myself, leaning on the wall, sinking to the floor. No other thought came to my mind other than breathing. I didn’t think to call my mom, I didn’t think to yell for help. Finally, after a few minutes, my adrenaline ceased, and my chest lightened up. My heart was slowing down, but still beating quickly. I was absolutely terrified, and finally walked out of the stall to call my mom. I told her I thought I had just had a heart attack and need to get to a hospital. She got ahold of my aunt (who is a nurse), and she explained I might be having something called a panic attack. I didn’t believe her, and through my tears, demanded to be picked up. My mom picked me up and took me home. She said sleeping in my own bed might help. I was surprised I made it through the night, but I nonetheless awoke.
Everything was okay for a few days. Once the initial terror subsided, it was back to the freshmen festivities. A few days later, the same thing happened. This time, I went in to the Emergency Room. I was all hooked up to heart monitors, had to pee in a cup, was poked and prodded, and after all tests came back perfectly fine, I was diagnosed with having panic attacks and anxiety. I was given medications to take in case another panic attack arose. Irritated, I left the hospital. There was no way what I had felt was nothing other than a “panic attack.” But, it was.
Concerned floor mates and classmates asked what happened and if everything was okay. To my classmates, I made up some flu-type story, afraid of their judgment. I was much more comfortable with my floor mates, and was honest about the panic attacks. To my bewilderment, other girls on my floor had also experienced panic attacks and anxiety! They said it was more common than one might think, and that there was nothing to be ashamed about. I was surprised that this was a common occurrence, but relieved that they understood.
To this day, I still tear up when I talk about my story. It is something I deal with continuously, even after three years. I have learned ways to calm myself down, ways to communicate to loved ones when it happens, and how to avoid situations that generally cause my anxiety levels to rise. While I can’t always avoid it, it is mostly under control.
People with mental illnesses, disorders, or anxieties are not crazy. What they are going through and feeling is real. I thought I was genuinely having a heart attack when I experienced my first panic attack. A “panic attack” is when your body initiates your “fight or flight” system for no apparent reason, and with no way to stop it. Your body cannot maintain that system for long periods of time, eventually allowing the attack to pass. This affects 1 in every 75 people in the world (American Psychological Association).
It is absolutely wrong and uncalled for to belittle someone’s anxiety or panic attack symptoms. While the onset may be psychological, your body is initiating a physical response that can be paralyzing, and can sometimes lead people to commit suicide. Anxiety is absolutely real, and is not something to joke about, use as an excuse, or to not take seriously. Listen to my story and be conscious that while it may not impact you personally, it may impact someone around you or someone you love, and they might not be brave enough to tell you.
*If you are someone who struggles with debilitating anxiety or suicidal thoughts, please call:
the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1 (800) 273-8255