Suffering from panic attacks and depression, I felt like I was turning into a monster. What was happening to me?
I suffer from an anxiety disorder which includes bouts of clinical depression. Although this illness is usually hushed up and kept secret, one in ten people suffer right along with me, each in their self-imposed silence.
I share my story with the hope of educating others to understand the dynamics of emotional illness and what it’s like to be caught in its tight grip. Perhaps as a result of my words greater sensitivity and compassion will prevail and others will react to a sufferer’s pain accordingly.
I was a typical child and teen. I had many friends and was successful both academically and socially. When I reached my early 20s, without any warning whatsoever, I began to experience debilitating panic attacks.
How can I explain a panic attack to someone who has never experienced one? Think of the fear you’d feel if a criminal would be holding you and your loved ones at gunpoint, slowly pulling the trigger before your disbelieving eyes. Imagine the frantic thoughts of danger and despair that would quickly overwhelm you, the frenetic pounding of your racing heart, and the ragged gasps of air as you tried to breathe through lungs that seemed to have stopped working properly. Imagine your clammy skin dripping with cold sweat, your stomach muscles convulsing in painful spasms, your entire body shaking as if with a mind of its own. Imagine the pain, the fear, and the helplessness of it all.
My world turned upside down when, as a carefree 21-year-old, I began to experience panic attacks on a regular basis that left reeling.
For those suffering from anxiety disorder, this is the panic they can feel out of the blue as they wait on line in the grocery to buy a loaf of bread. My world turned upside down when, as a carefree 21-year-old, I began to experience these attacks on a regular basis that left me reeling from the intense fear.
After months of suffering in silence, the attacks disappeared as suddenly as they came and I went on with my life thinking the whole strange episode was behind me. I married and began a family but soon the panicky feelings returned, this time with other symptoms as well. I began to have terrible trouble concentrating and focusing as unwanted intrusive thoughts began to flood my mind. These thoughts were the antithesis of who I was and what I stood for and shocked me to the core. I, a young religious loving mother, had irrational fears of intentionally abandoning my Jewish observance, violently harming my children and loved ones, and thoughts of committing acts of immorality and blasphemy. These thoughts became “stuck” in my mind 24/7, like a broken record, and my feelings of panic skyrocketed as I was forced to contend with the monster that I erroneously thought I was becoming.
A Shadow of My Former Vibrant Self
After years of intense suffering I learned that I was suffering from yet another aspect of anxiety disorder called Pure O – a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that manifests itself primarily through mental obsessions. Yet at the time I did not realize this and was living a nightmare. Along with the panic and OCD, or perhaps as a result of it, I began to experience significant depression. I was emotionally worn down trying to constantly fight the anxiety attacking me and began feeling weepy and lethargic. I also had trouble eating and sleeping and felt as if I was living in the midst of a thick dark cloud.
I was surrounded by an anxiety-ridden darkness and felt that there was no hope.
I was raising my young family as best as I could, but I was a shadow of the vibrant and upbeat person I once was. I finally reached a point where I felt I simply could not go on. I couldn’t concentrate, I was plagued by panic, and frightening intrusive thoughts sucked the joy of life out of me. I valiantly tried reading self-help books, exercising and even tried strengthening myself with herbs and vitamins but I did not find the relief I was seeking. I was surrounded by an anxiety-ridden darkness and felt that there was no hope. I could not enjoy the sweet embrace of a child. I was merely living on autopilot, mechanically going through the motions and felt that I wanted to die and leave all the pain, condemnation, and humiliation behind.
Despite the severity of my pain, my suffering was not obvious to others; I hid my condition very well. To everyone I was Esti the well-dressed young mom down the street with the cute kids. But those closest to me saw through my façade and my husband, on the advice of his mentor, took me to an experienced psychiatrist who took one look at me in my terrible state and immediately started me on an anti-depressant.
Those Little Pills
At first I hated taking the pills. I felt like a complete failure. I had been brought up in a culture which erroneously believes that taking psychiatric medicine for anxiety and depression is a cop out, a sign of weakness, a reflection of an inept individual who lacks fortitude and vision.
I erroneously believed that taking psychiatric medicine for anxiety and depression was a sign of weakness. How wrong I was.
How wrong I was. An anti-depressant simply regulates a chemical imbalance in the brain and raises the level of an important neurotransmitter called serotonin. It has nothing to do with a person’s inner strengths and weaknesses. It has nothing to do with one’s level of trust in God. Depression and anxiety is caused by a physical imbalance coming from the brain which is a physical organ. By taking an anti-depressant, my anxiety and depressive symptoms eased considerably, putting the ground back under me so that I could focus on healing. I still had plenty of hard work before me, internal work and soul searching that no pill could take the place of.
One of the hardest feats I had to accomplish was accepting I had an emotional ailment and still continue to love and respect myself unconditionally. This was even harder than getting through the day in a daze of panic, OCD, and depression. By accepting my illness, I was recognizing that I was different than others, and that hurt. For years I struggled to come to terms with my condition and my need to medication for the rest of my life. When I finally reached a level of true acceptance I experienced a serenity of spirit that continues to help me each and every day.
Acceptance and Gratitude
Thank God today I am a devoted wife, mother, colleague and an active member of my community. And I continue to take my little white pill each and every day. I have reached a point where I can say out loud, “I suffer from anxiety disorder and depression and I love and accept myself exactly how God created me.”I did not do anything to cause this disorder. Despite what others may think, there does not have to be abusive situations or family dysfunction involved. Many people suffer from a biochemical predisposition to anxiety and depression without any major environmental trigger. My brain does not produce enough serotonin – it is simple as that. It is no different than a diabetic whose pancreas does not produce enough insulin. I have nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of. With my daily anti-depressant thank God I am myself again and able to experience life to its fullest. I shudder to think of the suffering I and my family would have continued to go through had I had not gotten professional help.
My illness has actually impacted my life in a positive way. It’s trained me to become humbler, recognizing that our lives are ultimately not fully in our control. I recognize that when I feel happy, ready to face the world with vim and vigor, it is not because “I’m made of strong stuff;” it’s because God is granting me the amazing gift of a pure heart and clear mind. The gift of emotional health is truly the most precious gift of them all and should never be taken for granted.
I’ve learned to see others as I see myself – good people who are trying their best to cope with whatever challenges they are facing.
Realizing how truly dependent we are on the Almighty has strengthened my faith and trust in God immensely, and has expanded my sense of gratitude. It’s so clear to me how every day of health, days where life beckons to me as a wondrous adventure full of beauty and promise, is a supreme gift, one that I can never take for granted.
I have also become more tolerant of others. I used to be a rather critical, quick-tempered person. I have learned to see others as I see myself – good people who are trying their best to cope with whatever challenges they are facing. We are all works in progress and we all make mistakes. Some days our hardships weigh us down pushing us to make wrong choices. When I see others in such a state I feel empathy, not self-righteous condemnation, and try hard to not judge them.
Being afflicted with anxiety and depression has trained me to live life in the precious present moment. The medication I take helps to take away the feeling of despair but it’s not a perfect art. It does not make me into a happy robot without free choice; it simply helps put the ground back under me that I can reach the level where I can activate my free choice. I need to learn how to find meaning in life and focus on the positive just like everyone else. I still need to consciously make the choice to enjoy the seemingly small things in life. I also need to nurture myself, eat nutritiously, exercise daily and carve out time for relaxation and recreation. These are not extras. Most of all I pray to God to reward my efforts with the precious gift of a healthy body and mind.
Clinical anxiety and depression are authentic illnesses. The hell that sufferers go through is compounded greatly by the subtle or not so subtle vibes of those around them who blame and criticize the victim instead of encouraging them to get the professional help they need. Is it fair to blame and order those with leukemia to stop acting so weak and to get themselves together again? Mental illness is no different. The brain is just as much a part of the body as one’s blood cells.
Although most of us suffering from mental illness would not have chosen this challenge, in truth it was tailor-made for our tikkun, oursoul’s rectification in this world. One day, I tell myself over and over, I will understand why I needed to go through all the pain and suffering. But for now I try not to focus on “why” but on “what” – what does God want me to do? And I eagerly await for the day when all sadness, despair and hardship will disappear as the dust in the wind and in its place is understanding, healing and completion.
With thanks to Chazkeinu, a project of Shabbat.com. Chazkeinu is a peer-led project supporting Jewish women with any mental illness, along with their family members and friends. To find out more information about Chazkeinu, visit www.chazkeinu.org.