When I was a child I used to love to fly in airplanes. I didn’t get to fly in them very often, but I loved the feeling of arriving at the airport with my luggage in tow. I loved the smell of the warm asphalt as I was dropped off (or parked) in the lot to enter the building. I loved standing in line and getting my boarding pass. I loved going into the plane, greeting the flight attendants and pilots, and looking for my seat. I always wanted the window seat because I loved to look down on the earth during the flight.
But, something changed in me in January 2000. Suddenly, on a flight from Atlanta to Phoenix, I was no longer excited to fly. I started to worry about all the things that could go wrong on the flight. I started to worry about so many small details. I don’t want to scare anyone, so I won’t elaborate, but please understand that my whole mindset changed in one night: I went from a joyful passenger to a freaked out passenger.
Yet, I continued to try and conquer my new found fear. I would take shorter trips in duration, such as going to Denver or Orange County. Still, I didn’t like it anymore. And, in 2005, on a trip to Baltimore, I started to have a panic attack at 33,000 feet. I literally breathed in and out of a bag for almost the entire flight. But, once I heard the pilot say that we were 20 minutes from landing, ALL of my fear and panic subsided. I had to call my doctor and ask how I would be able to get home. She prescribed a nice tranquilizer that did help with my return flight. I sat next to a gentleman and talked continuously for 5 hours until we landed in Phoenix. Poor guy. I still fly the friendly skies if necessary. And, the last four flights I took in 2013 I did not use any tranquilizers. I wanted to conquer my fears.
In February 2014, a new fear decided to rear its ugly head at me. The fear of dying. I lost my mother in 2013 to a stroke. Then, one day at work I couldn’t feel my leg. Panic set in. I thought I was having a stroke. Turns out it was just a low blood sugar that triggered dizziness, loss of vision, and numbness. Paramedics were called. I was given the okay to go home. Little did I know that this was going to be the start of a new battle for health…. mental health.
The attacks were sporadic, but started to come once a month. The next one happened in March, at the opening night of a community theatre performance (three of my family members were part of the cast). Instead of this attack lasting only a few minutes, I lost full control and it went on for 8 hours! From 7pm to 4am, wave upon wave of panic swept over my body. Just as I thought I was gaining control, another wave would hit. I could only describe it in these words: I feel like I’m on a plane that won’t land.
After a few trips to the doctor, I was prescribed a common tranquilizer; in fact, it was the same one that I used to take when I boarded a plane. Again, I thought I was over the worst of it, and I didn’t expect another one to hit. But it did.
The anxiety attacks kept coming, first: once a month, then in June I had one that lasted off and on for four days. Finally, they started hitting almost every other day. It was like my body was getting addicted to anxiety. The symptoms were not as strong as a full blown panic attack, but I definitely developed generalized anxiety. I felt absolutely hopeless.
I started to do some research on my “good” days. I found a book that was helpful on relieving the symptoms at the onset. I talked with my counselor. I also started reaching out to family and friends on facebook. I didn’t care that I was being vulnerable by sharing such an embarrassing situation. I just wanted to know that I wasn’t alone. True to my findings, I wasn’t alone.
It has now been six months since my first attack. This past month has been a whirlwind of learning how to use mind-body techniques, prayer, meditation, deep breathing and sleep breathing, medication, talk therapy, and a whole lot of FAITH. I started praying on a moment by moment basis. I read my Bible, scouring the verses that talk about God being my refuge and my strength. How he casts out fear with HIS perfect love. How he loved us so much that HE sent his son to die on a cross for us, so we could have eternal life. That the death and resurrection of Jesus put the sting of death away.
I know that my plane hasn’t fully landed yet, but I can see the runway. I know I am starting on the descent path toward healing. For those of you who have dared to read this far, please know that mental health is vital to a full life. If you suspect a change in your mental health status, do not be shy or scared to tell someone. Look at what happened to Robin Williams. I wished I had known him. Maybe I could have encouraged him to seek help. No one should be alone in the battle against the unseen, unrealistic fears of the mind.
Don’t be ashamed. Don’t be afraid to speak. The best thing you can do is to start moving forward. Make that phone call to a friend or doctor. Make an effort to find healing. True healing is found when you are on the journey, and not at a specific destination. It’s a process that continues to strengthen, to shape, and to recreate beauty from the ashes of the past.