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Here's What Having A Panic Attack Really Feels Like

Seventeen logo Seventeen 9/07/2017 Lauren Miller

Here's What Having A Panic Attack Really Feels Like © Getty + Dana Tepper Here's What Having A Panic Attack Really Feels Like I'm either dying or crazy.

Those were the words on repeat in my brain the first time I had a panic attack, the summer after my sophomore year in high school. I was at the Georgia Governor's Honors Program, aka "GHP," a four-week summer program for "gifted" kids that sounded really awesome when I applied. Two days in I realized I'd made a terrible mistake. I don't fit in, I remember thinking as I lay in bed that second night. I don't belong. Not here. Not anywhere. And then my heart started racing and my skin got way, way too tight.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. I'd pinned all my hope on this summer at GHP. It was here, sleeping in a college dorm, taking advanced classes in "Communicative Arts" with other Type-A, overachieving high school kids, that I would finally find My People, aka People Like Me, aka People With Whom I Wouldn't Have to Try So Hard.

© Provided by Seventeen Except when I arrived, on a hot, sticky June day in South Georgia, to a remote college campus situated on something called the "Gnat Line" - which I soon learned meant that there were as many gnats in the air as there were oxygen molecules (I won't call it hell, but let's just say I would not be surprised if actual hell sits on a Gnat Line) - I didn't find My People. I found some more Other People, aka People Very Different From Me, aka People With Whom I Would Have to Try Very, Very Hard. Not in the same way as I had to try back home, where I hung out with kids who cared much less about school than I did and had a boyfriend who skipped class more than he went. With them, I had to hide the fact that I actually liked doing homework and that the national Model U.N. conference was my idea of a really good time. There, I couldn't reference cool historical facts or get overly excited about whatever book I was reading. If I wanted to belong, I had to closet my inner nerd.

Here, at GHP, being a nerd was a badge of honour. Here, I was an Other because I was too mainstream. My taste in music and clothes and TV shows rendered me cliché and boring and too cool (um, what???), which meant that one wanted to hang out with me.

Cue my first panic attack.

The fact that I didn't know what it was at first made it even more terrifying. If I wasn't stroking out, then surely I was having some sort of psychotic break. My thoughts were all jumbled and chaotic like little ping pong balls in my skull and my skin was crawling and I had the overwhelming urge to scream.

I didn't scream, though. Not during that first one, not during any of the dozens of panic attacks that followed over the course of that summer and the next ten years. And I didn't talk about my anxiety, either. I wasn't just an Other. I was Weird, and Different, and probably very, very Messed Up.

The only good news was that no one could see it.

They call it High Functioning Anxiety. On the outside, it looks like achievement and productivity and control. On the inside it feels like a thousand spiders up your back, a vice grip on your chest, repetitive thoughts you can't shake. In college, my stomach hurt literally every day. The doctor at the campus health center told me I had IBS. Two years later, another doctor decided I was allergic to wheat. Nobody saw what I was really suffering from – an all consuming fear that I would never be enough. Smart enough, cool enough, pretty enough, successful enough, interesting enough, likeable enough. All the things I was trying so hard to be.

That fear was at the root of my first panic attack that summer at GHP, when it struck me that I might never find My People, that I might never feel Not Alone. It was underneath every anxious moment after that, too. My senior year in high school when I applied to 27 colleges because I was convinced I wouldn't get in to any. My freshman year in college when I woke up one morning so nervous about midterms that I couldn't feel my legs. A year later when I started working out for two hours every day because I was terrified of gaining weight. The summer I interned at Entertainment Weekly in New York City and walked 51 blocks every night because I had nothing to do after work and having nothing to do made me feel like I would most definitely throw up.

The crazy thing is, I had friends. Close friends! Girls I trusted. Yet I never trusted them with this. With me. To admit my anxiety would mean acknowledging all my raging insecurities, my not-enough-ness, and there was no way I was doing that. So I pretended everything was okay.

Jessa Gray, the protagonist in my new novel All Things New, is a lot like the girl I was back then. No one at school knows about her panic attacks, the anxiety meds that haven't worked, the therapy that hasn't helped. All they see is what she wants them to see - a girl who has it all together, a girl who belongs. But like me, like so many of us, Jessa feels like an Other. She's convinced that she's Weird, and Different, and very, very Messed Up.

But Jessa isn't an Other. Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental illnesses. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, they affect forty percent of adults and more than twenty-five percent of all teens. And everyone else? They're dealing with their own thing. For some, it's another mental health issue like depression or OCD. For others, it's something physical - a heart condition, a birth defect, disfiguring scars. Maybe it's an eating disorder, a history of self-harm, or a difficult family life. There are broken places in each of us. No matter how good we get at pretending they don't exist.

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It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I finally got real. I remember sitting with one of my best friends from high school at our ten-year reunion, talking about everything and nothing the way we always had, when she turned to me and said, kind of casually, that she'd battled a binge eating disorder in college. That there were nights when she'd eat entire loaves of bread. I stared at her as she was talking, thinking, how is it possible that I never knew about this? Then I realised: she could say the same thing to me. I'd been having panic attacks for a decade. My friend had no idea.

Something shifted in that moment. I stopped wanting to pretend. The pretending itself suddenly felt like the burdensome thing, so much heavier than the anxiety underneath. And so I told her about it. And then I told someone else. And every time I spoke of it, I felt less like an Other. Less Weird, less Different, less Messed Up. Because every time I told my story, I got a story back.

© Provided by Seventeen Because we all feel like Others. We all have broken places, and this brokenness doesn't make us different or weird – it's the one thing we all have in common. It's what makes us the same.


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