The pain doesn’t have to go on forever

By Claire Hettinger

My doctor thought my first panic attack might have been an isolated incident and would pass on its own, but he gave me a prescription for Xanax in case it didn’t. Two weeks later, I went back for a follow-up appointment. I explained to my doctor that I had still been having bad panic attacks almost every day. He basically told me “too bad” and refilled my Xanax prescription, which was rapidly depleting. 

It helped, but it wasn’t enough. I was miserable all the time, and my panic attacks were getting worse. I breathed in brown bags. I went for walks. I cried. I prayed. I called my parents and boyfriend, but all the while, I never really felt any better. 

I kept my Xanax with me at all times, and it was a constant struggle deciding whether to take it. I always wanted to, but I read it was as addictive as heroin, so I was afraid of what it could do to me. I didn’t need an addiction to prescription drugs on top of everything else.

The medicine bottle sat on my night stand and reminded me when I woke up in the middle of the night or early morning that my chest pains were not a heart attack, but symptoms of my illness. I would start every day strong, telling myself that I could get through the day on my own. I started feeling the symptoms of addiction coming on when I didn’t take it — headache, dizziness, stomach pains. So I decided that I was done with Xanax, telling myself that I was strong enough on my own, that I could make it without the help.

But the cycle would start. Pain. Breaths. Craze. Fear. Terror. Thoughts. All of it unwanted — the cause, the relief, the side effects of taking it and of not taking it.

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How could three inches of orange plastic hold such pain and such relief? Who knew that such a blessing could become such a curse? A constant battle between self-reliance and constant terror or sweet bliss, followed by dizziness, headache, inability to sleep and loss of appetite.

But in the end, sometimes strength does come from a bottle of pills. 

I gave up on myself. I thought I was done being a happy person. I thought the awfulness that my life had become was permanent. I thought that all the people I met for the rest of my life wouldn’t know the kind, happy person I used to be. I faked everything because that was the best I could do. The worst part was, I forgot what true happiness felt like. I let myself get to the point of deep depression, which I thought was my new reality. 

But after two months of almost constant panic attacks, I decided to try again. I convinced myself that my happiness meant something and was worth fighting for. I didn’t have to be scared anymore. I didn’t have to cry anymore. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life. 

I went to a different doctor, and he gave me a medicine to take every day called Paxil. This medicine is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. It does wonderful things in my brain that I don’t understand, but most of all it makes me smile again. 

But as the panic faded, depression came. Slowly at first, then all of a sudden. I’ve read that depression is just a side effect, just another step along the way to getting better. I don’t think I am going to die all the time now – just sometimes, when the feelings are too strong to keep the panic at bay. I stopped crying so much, and I started living again. I gained the energy back to see my friends, to leave my house, to stop worrying about if an ambulance could get to me, or if I would die first.

Mental illness is exhausting. It is hard to carry on a normal life, even when you are getting treatment. Sometimes the smallest things set me off, like an unexpected event in my day or an offhand comment someone says. I’ll freeze up and won’t be able to function for a few minutes, or I’ll break down sobbing. Then, I’ll remember that it really will be OK, and I can overcome it. But instances like this always take me back to my dark days and the fear that I try to bury there. I’ll get over it, and, in a few hours, I’ll be great and happy again, just slightly shaken from the episode. 

The social connotations that go along with it are overwhelming. Sufferers of mental illness will agree that we are not as crazy as the umbrella term makes us seem. There are more of us than most people know, because most of us hide the suffering part of ourselves well. But we don’t have to. 

I don’t know when or if my struggle with mental illness will end, but I do know that I have hope for a normal life. I fought my way out of the hell I was living in. I found my way back to who I want to be, and I am happy. 

I made a choice to save myself because, in the end, I was the only one who could do it. Happiness is worth fighting for, and I realize that it was within my reach. All I had to do was trust that I was worth saving, that the person I was before mental illness was worth getting back. 

Claire can be reached at [email protected].