The other night I told my therapist I felt “suffocated in my brain.” It wasn’t eloquent, but simultaneously we each drew in sharp, audible breaths of air—as anyone who’s been to therapy knows, the symbol of an “aha” moment.
I’ve struggled with anxiety and, what is likely some form of depression (let’s save diagnoses, and how difficult it is to get one, for another time), since graduating from college. The impetus, as I remember it, was a lonely stint in New Orleans, teaching at a public school that beat down my soul and tested my compassion. I had my first panic attack in a classroom filled with 16-year-olds, clutching at the corner of my desk with sweaty palms as I earnestly, truthfully prepared to die on the dirty, linoleum floor. The thing about your first panic attack is you actually think you’re dying. The funny thing about your second, third, even thirteenth, is that you still…actually think you’re dying.
The panic attacks became daily occurrences and when I wasn’t full-on panicking, my breathing was constantly noticeable, consistently labored. It felt like I could only get in a half gulp of air before my lungs would squeeze and tighten, my body rejecting oxygen and my brain dizzying at the deficit. The only way I felt I could get the full inhale I needed was by yawning, and so yawn I did. In meetings, in the classroom, with my friends. I’m sure I looked rude, painfully bored, perhaps even narcoleptic, but really I just couldn’t breathe.
I moved home to San Francisco feeling defeated and emotionally depleted. I rebuilt my life, found jobs better suited to me, a support system, a therapist, a prescription for Zoloft. But it’s been seven years since I left New Orleans and there are still times I’ll sit up, my spine perfectly parallel to the wall behind me, gulping and yawning and incredibly frustrated. Drowning from lack of oxygen, drowning in self-doubt, and even sometimes its nomadic cousin, self-loathing.
Feeling “suffocated in my brain” is when these feelings become paralyzing. I become so stuck—wading through the muddy waters of doubt and confusion and full-fledged fear of the future—that it’s easier just to tell myself I can’t. I can’t pitch an article because no publication will run it, I can’t reach out to that woman because she won’t want to be my friend, I can’t take that workout class because I’m not strong enough, I can’t tell my boyfriend how I’m feeling because if that thought is part of the package, he won’t want to stick around. And that’s a pretty vicious cycle, because when we “can’t,” we don’t—and then we really, truly are stuck.
A quick note on medication, before I share the other thing that helps me tredge through the muck and come out the other side. I don’t want to be on medication forever, just like I wouldn’t want to take antibiotics every day, month after month, for an infection. But, just like we need antibiotics to fight infection, I believe in SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) because anxiety is an illness, and I don’t believe in leaving illness untreated where we don’t have to. There’s no shame in medicine, there’s only despair in unnecessary suffering.
The other absolutely critical piece to fighting, no, surviving, mental illness is talking about it. Sometimes my beautiful, talented, ambitious friend Laura tells me she feels like she’s not enough, and because I can so clearly see that she is more than enough, it puts my own self-doubt in check. Honesty has buoyed me, connection has saved me from the worst things I could ever believe about myself.
When we launched Blood and Milk in April, we consciously didn’t have a mental health pillar because, as I reasoned, it would be interwoven throughout all the pillars. But perhaps that’s why it’s so critical that it is its own pillar—because the effects of mental health are interwoven into every single aspect of our lives.
I look forward to sharing these stories with you and I hope that from them, you feel connection, you take time to breathe, and you remember that you’re not alone.
With a hug and a deep breath,
Managing Editor, Blood and Milk