I felt a sudden kick in my chest.
It was a little after midnight, as I was finally starting to drift off to sleep.
I jumped up and tried to catch my breath, but I couldn’t. I grabbed a glass of water and tried to relax, but I couldn’t do that, either.
I sat on the couch in my apartment in Towson, Maryland, trying to figure out why I was so confused and scared—and why my chest felt so tight.
I couldn’t tell what was going on, so I called my mom and woke her up to ask for help. I explained that I was dizzy and scared and my chest was tight and I didn’t know what was happening and I was scared and what if it was my heart?
She agreed I should get my roommate to take me to the hospital. He asked me what was wrong.
“I don’t know. I can’t. I can’t. I don’t know, but something’s wrong,” I told him.
Anxiety about school work
That night two years ago was the beginning of my journey into panic disorder. As a sophomore at Towson University, about an hour from my Maryland hometown, I had never had much in the way of health concerns—or so I thought.
In high school, I got anxious about homework, school projects, classes and all that typical friend drama that high school students deal with. I wanted to keep doing well at Towson and doing good work for the student-run newspaper, “The Towerlight.”
I can remember a few things from checking into the local hospital emergency room that night:
The woman at the reception was rude as I filled out my paperwork. I wasn’t focusing really well, and I was a college kid in the ER in the middle of the night. Maybe she thought I was on drugs.
The triage nurse who gave me an EKG and drew my blood was nice. I calmed down a little bit, because something that was killing me would have shown up on the machine. Right?
No concrete medical advice
When I finally got a room, I was alone for hours before the doctor came and told me my tests looked normal and that he didn’t know what had happened to me. He sent me home with some vague suggestions to maybe visit a psychiatrist or a cardiologist—but no concrete advice.
For the next few weeks, I don’t remember much happening. I attended classes and did my homework for my journalism major. There were a few nights when I had trouble sleeping and a couple of days that I felt on edge. I don’t think my roommates—or anyone—really noticed that anything was different.
And then, one night in early December, I felt wave after wave of panic alone in my apartment. I’d try falling asleep and then my chest would feel funny, I’d feel my heart rate speed up and I’d feel overwhelmed and panicked and this deep sense of dread.
I kept my mom up on the phone all night until I drove from my apartment to my childhood home in Frederick around 8 a.m. I ran into the house trying not to have a breakdown.
The first doctor’s visit
She called and made an appointment for me to see a general practitioner. Classes weren’t quite over yet, but I didn’t travel back to campus for about a week or so, until it was time for finals.
The first doctor I saw didn’t want to prescribe me anything long-term, because she said antidepressants can cause suicidal thoughts in 19-year-olds and I wasn’t yet seeing a therapist.
Instead, she referred me to a psychiatrist and a therapist. She also prescribed me a low-dose of Ativan to keep panic attacks from creeping from the shadows in my room each night when I turned the lights off.
Staying in Frederick with my parents, I was able to see a therapist that same week. But it would be a bit longer before I could see a psychiatrist—so I spent 10 days taking an addictive benzodiazepine to fall asleep at night until I met my new doctor. I was home, not dealing with classes.
New medication and its effects
About 10 days later, my psychiatrist prescribed me Lexapro, which took a few weeks for my body to fully adjust to. Despite the early side effects—I got intensely irritable and a little lethargic while my body adjusted to the new chemicals—it has since worked to fully stabilize me. Since I started taking it in January 2015, Lexapro has worked to balance my brain chemistry and keep panic attacks from happening.
While the first therapist I saw was cold and clinical, she actually taught me the cognitive skills I needed through a workbook and asking me basic details about my life every single time I sat down in her office.
The tools she taught me—like being able to recognize the symptoms for what they are and a couple of breathing exercises—work with my daily doses of Lexapro to keep panic from hitting me in the chest.
It’s not a heart problem
A few weeks later, I was finally able to get in to see our family cardiologist. I was feeling a bit better by this point, but I had to be sure. My dad had a heart attack before age 50 and there was high blood pressure on both sides. I wasn’t about to take any chances.
The cardiologist assured me matter-of-factly that my heart was fine. My EKG was normal, and just a year or so back, I’d had an echocardiogram that was normal, too.
There was no escaping my diagnosis. It was anxiety. It was panic. I was relieved it wasn’t my heart. I was a little embarrassed that it was a mental health issue.
We spent a few minutes talking about my family history and my relationship with my parents. I realized I may have developed some anxiety because of my family’s history with anxiety and some unintentional pressure from my family to perform well in school.
A good therapist to connect the dots
We talked about anxiety, about how to control it and about how important it was that I find a good therapist to connect some dots and try to get a hold on what my mind was doing. I took every word he told me as gospel because it felt right to me. This doctor seemed smart as anything, and I finally trusted that my heart wasn’t going to burst.
I was starting to feel stable, winter break was ending and I felt OK about going back to school to finish my finals and starting the new semester in a few weeks.
I used Towson’s counseling center to help find me a therapist closer to campus—and one who would feel a bit warmer. I started seeing Janet Cohen, a grandmotherly woman with a doctorate and big, wire-rimmed glasses. During our first appointment, we talked. We really talked.
She asked me if I had any recurring dreams. She asked me about my friends and my family. She told me that we’d get to spend some time digging through my life, and seeing where my anxiety and panic developed.
She helped me understand myself a bit better and through that, the roots of my anxiety and panic. Those are roots that, admittedly, I’m still trying to figure out.
Our appointments went from weekly to biweekly to monthly to every few months. I occasionally see someone else (because of an insurance change) but it’s not a big part of my life anymore.
A plan for my health care
I’ve stabilized. I start every morning with 15 milligrams of Lexapro that keep the panic away and I end each day with melatonin, a natural supplement, to help encourage sleep.
I’m OK. Even as a working journalist—in a job with tight deadlines, sensitive topics and pressures coming from every angle—I’m OK.
I still have panic disorder but it’s not caused by my demanding job. I still get nervous sometimes, and I still feel anxious. I still keep my (prescribed!) Ativan with me, just in case a switch flips and there’s some panic. But I don’t feel a lot of panic.
I consider myself in recovery, even in remission. And I love the deadlines that come with working as a reporter. I work best with them breathing down my neck.
I still get stressed and sometimes before a big interview I get nervous—but that’s work nerves, not the panic that comes from some unbalanced chemicals or latent anxiety that I try to ignore. That panic doesn’t come back on deadline.
It’s even taught me a bit of empathy.
Because I know what it feels like to experience absolute fear and terror—that comes with no real reason—I like to think I’m more compassionate when interviewing people who are experiencing the worst moments of their lives.
I graduate in May. I’m facing the challenge of transitioning from the safety nets of college to the do-or-die “real world.” While I would never, ever want to live through another panic attack, I can say that the experience taught me how to cope.
I think I’ve experienced the type of fear, terror and confusion that only comes when people are sure they are going to die. If I can survive my brain telling me that my heart is about to stop—and survive the fear and panic that comes with it—I think I can survive anything.