I can close my eyes and still picture the scene. Little Ashley waking up in the middle of the night feeling like she can’t breathe, her legs shaking. Slowly, weakly, walking to the stairs, trying not to fall over, holding onto the banister for dear life while climbing to my parents’ room. Waking up my mommy. Scared and crying, my mom holding my legs down because they were shaking uncontrollably. Spilling a glass of orange juice all over the floor when a chill ran through my body, then crying and apologizing for making a mess. Not knowing that my life was about to change forever.
My whole body shook, I felt uneasy, and above all, I had no idea what was happening to me. I was 11 years old when I had my first panic attack.
When I went to the doctor and we explained what happened that night, they checked my vitals and insisted nothing was “wrong.” I expected to feel better, but new symptoms kept appearing, and I kept going back to the doctor. Apparently, what I was feeling was “in my head.” The mystery ailment was just nerves associated with moving to a new town and starting a new school. But I felt like the only middle schooler in the world with this invisible mystery disease.
School became an extreme source of stress — but not necessarily for the reasons it typically is for others. I wasn’t bullied, I had amazing grades, and I had a good handful of friends who took me under their wings. Rather, I was scared of having an anxiety attack — puking or fainting or having a heart attack in class. Eventually a teacher suggested I head to the school’s social worker, which further terrified me. Only “crazy” people went to social workers and therapists, to my knowledge, and I wasn’t crazy…was I?
I didn’t tell anyone about what I was going through.
I did tell a lot of lies to protect my image, even to my closest friends. I wanted to be cool and funny, not someone who was afraid of sleepovers and field trips. When the school counselor wasn’t cutting it anymore, I went to an external therapist. When therapy alone still wasn’t cutting it, I was referred to a psychiatrist where I was prescribed Zoloft and Klonopin. No side effects were mentioned except for a potentially upset stomach. No information about how long I might be on these meds.
I vividly remember being in my kitchen, taking my first mini-dose of Zoloft with a glass of milk, having no idea what I was getting myself into, but I did know this: anxiety already ruled my life.
As the months went by, and I moved from grade to grade, things got worse. Still, I didn’t know anybody else who was going through what I was. It was me against a world of “normal people” who didn’t need to go to therapy or take medicine everyday. I skipped most of the parties and sleepovers I was invited to, missed days of school, and spent lots of nights crawling into my parents’ bed because I thought I was dying.
And yes, I truly thought I was dying.
My panic attacks were physically consuming. They were typically triggered by going to school, being in school, or thinking of school. Another trigger was social situations, especially parties or group hang outs. Nighttime was also a trigger because I was terrified of dying in my sleep. So, between school on weekdays, going to sleep at night time, and socializing on the weekends, there was really no time when I wasn’t anxious.
I was doing everything “right” — I was in therapy and taking my meds. Zoloft was supposed to work, the doctors and TV commercials said so. So why wasn’t it working? I was spilling my guts weekly in therapy, so why wasn’t that working, either? Anxiety touched everything in my life, but the anxiety attacks weren’t getting less scary.
Each attack brought with it basically every symptom listed. It was always a combination of the following: extreme shortness of breath, tingling and numbness in my fingers (and sometimes face), chest pain, racing heart, feeling of impending doom. I don’t think a day went by when I didn’t experience some kind of physical discomfort. I was popping Klonopin at school everyday just to cope. Not to mention, I was a regular in the nurse’s office. I’d sign in and shuffle over to a plasticy bed covered in that special doctor’s office tissue paper. It was uncomfortable and the paper was loud whenever I even moved an inch, but it was more bearable than sitting in the back of class, pinching myself, trying to not throw up.
Even as the end of high school drew near, I still felt no relief. Feeling physically ill each day was the norm, but now, there was a new kind of stress: getting ready for college. It wasn’t that I was nervous about getting accepted to schools — my grades were nearly perfect, I was at the top of my class, in a million extracurriculars, and in various honor societies.
What freaked me out was leaving my comfort zone — my home. For this reason, I only applied to colleges in New York, mostly in the city, so I could be within an hour of home. I decided to attend Pratt Institute, an art school in Brooklyn (I wanted to be a fashion designer at that point), which was closer than the required hour radius. After accepting the offer to attend Pratt, anxiety kicked into full gear. There was no turning back. I was going to college. I was terrified.
When late August rolled around, it was time for orientation week. I cried each day, and after only a few days my mom and brother were already visiting me at school (before classes had even started), bringing me home because I didn’t have the mental strength to stay. I felt pathetic. I was so embarrassed when I had to tell my roommate and handful of new college friends where I disappeared to and why. This was the first time I had been open about my anxiety disorder so soon after meeting new people, and I was shocked by how it felt: relieving.
But the pattern from high school continued. Every single day I was nauseous and afraid of throwing up in class. A lot of weekends, I went home so I could cry anxiously, but in peace. For reasons unrelated to anxiety, I ended up transferring schools to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology to study fashion merchandising, but of course, the anxiety followed.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started, but at some point I became depressed. It was as if having an anxiety disorder pointed me toward depression. I felt hopeless. Lifeless. All I wanted to do was sleep. I was dealing with a mix of insomnia at night (including marathon anxiety attacks) and oversleeping during the day — sleeping in excessively or napping any chance I got. I was still nauseous every single day and was constantly having GI problems (AKA violent diarrhea).
I couldn’t believe the universe decided anxiety wasn’t enough and I had to develop depression, too. I hated the fact that I had mental illnesses. I hated the fact that I was not “normal.” Everyone else in college was out partying, having a great time. I was spending my time sleeping, having anxiety attacks, crying, going to therapy. I was navigating every situation around my anxiety and my fear of, well, everything. Sometimes I would walk to class and feel like I was going to throw up, then turn around to retreat to my dorm.
During this time, I was seeing both a therapist and psychiatrist at FIT. Things were going alright, until they weren’t. The psychiatrist had bumped my dose of Zoloft up to 300mg (which I now know is extremely high and usually not recommended dose for anyone, let alone a 100 pound 19-year-old). Even at this high dose, I didn’t feel a difference in my mood or anxiety levels.
And then, surprise — my therapist told me we only had 2 more sessions.
The school only allowed a certain number of visits. Panic kicked in. Even in a city as huge as New York, it was extremely difficult finding psychiatrists and therapists who were 1) taking new patients and 2) accepted my insurance. I was calling offices and having no luck at all.
At this point, I was desperate. I looked into inpatient programs at various hospitals in New York, but was scared to tell anyone I was even thinking of that as an option. I even looked into clinical trials for alternative treatments. I was ready to drop out of school and become a human guinea pig.
Eventually, I found a counseling center that accepted my insurance where I was able to see a therapist and a psychiatrist regularly, but I continued to struggle a lot. Plus now, on top of school, there was another stressor: interning. In the fashion industry, interning is crucial. I landed a dream internship at an amazing company, but had no idea how I’d get through it feeling the way I did. The idea of being in an office 5 days a week from 9-6 was terrifying. I couldn’t just not show up to work, or leave, as my anxiety so frequently demanded.
It was the embodiment of so many things I was afraid of. Feeling trapped, needing to be in a professional environment, the social anxiety that came along with talking to new people, my coworkers, plus the pressure to perform well in hopes of landing a full-time job there. I was miserable from the moment I woke up, and became increasingly more miserable as I rode the jam packed, smelly subway to the office. Arriving at the office and seeing all the rows of identical cubicles was just the icing on the cake. Klonopin along with my overpriced morning coffee was a necessity.
Throughout the summer, both my anxiety and depression worsened. It didn’t make sense: I had so much going for me. I was about to graduate from one of the best fashion schools in the world, I had an internship at a brand I loved, which would look amazing on my resume, and I lived in New York City! At night I’d look out my window at all the twinkling city lights and the Freedom Tower in the distance, and wonder “Why am I not happy? What’s wrong with me?”
My life was set up for success, but there was one problem: I barely wanted to live it.
Not if it meant feeling this terrible.
And I was growing increasingly impatient with my medications. Nothing seemed to work. I tried different medications under the supervision of two doctors during that summer (looking back, this was not a great idea). It seemed each medication I tried gave me a new side effect I couldn’t handle. One of the last ones I tried was Prozac, which made me so sick I ended up in the emergency room (more on that here).
That horrible day in the ER was an awakening. I never wanted to feel so weak or helpless again. More than anything, I just wanted to be “fixed.” I wanted to find the perfect drug or the perfect therapist or the perfect anything that would make me better. I took a couple days off from work and then dove right back in, begrudgingly making my way through the last few weeks of my internship while starting what felt like the millionth drug I’d tried — Paxil.
During my last semester of college, I was focused on keeping my GPA up and, even more importantly, trying to get myself into a better mental state so that I would at least be semi-stable come graduation. I was slowly increasing my Paxil dosage under supervision of a doctor and seeing a therapist weekly. I couldn’t stop thinking, How different would my college experience have been if I was “normal”?
I still wonder that. I wonder how different middle school and high school and college and even my internships would’ve been if I never had a panic attack, if I wasn’t afraid of everything, if I wasn’t depressed.
Looking back, there are a lot of things I wish I knew, a lot of things I wish I’d done differently. There are so many “what ifs” that I try to not get caught up in. The past is the past and I can’t change any of it. I can only learn from it — and trust me, I’ve learned a lot.