Living with Anxiety Part 1: An Introduction

My name is Jesse, I’m 24 years old and graduated from UNC in December, 2012 with my B.A. in Biology. I introduce myself as a successful recent graduate to not only mention my linkage to UNC, but as a mention of pride. This pride stems from the fact that, 6 years ago, everyone around me gave up on my chances to ever achieve more than a middle school education due to severe generalized anxiety and panic disorders. Despite years of struggling towards a goal that seemed to gain distance as I ran towards it, I am proud to say I am here, and I am proud to share my success.

From a world outside of the prison of generalized anxiety and panic disorders, our struggle is thought of as a challenge that can be easily overcome. With modern medicine, advances in pharmaceutical treatment, and an overabundance of various mental health specialists, why wouldn’t it be? Our generation has made leaps and bounds towards treatment and cure of dozens of diseases and chronic illnesses of epidemic and pandemic scales. Compared to those, something as common as anxiety is nothing!

In some ways, anxiety is something we all must deal with, and undoubtedly a feeling everyone has experienced, but there is a vast difference between the normal feelings of being anxious and the anxiety felt by an individual with an anxiety disorder. According to current guidelines, a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by excessive worry occurring more days than not over a period of 6 months. When I explain my condition to the uninitiated, there is a common misconception between the normal feeling of anxiety about an exam coming up and the inappropriately experienced “fight of flight” sensation that occurs during activities as mundane as going to a movie or going with friends to dinner. From this perspective, I can easily see why our condition is easy misunderstood as one that is managed with ease.

My introduction with the terrors of panic disorder came swiftly, and gave little warning of the destruction that would domino out of control in the future. What began as a single event that occurred in 5th grade later turned into a chronic problem in 7th grade. When I originally sought help from my doctor, I was diagnosed with Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease. After over a month of suffering I was sent to see a neurologist where I was diagnosed with severe generalized anxiety and panic disorders. I was prescribed a common Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)  that works by controlling the release of serotonin, the key malfunctioning neurotransmitter that results in these and many more neurological disorders. I was lucky at the time and after only about 2 weeks of headache, nausea, and consistent exhaustion, the medication began to work, though it took some adjustments to get back to myself. Due to my severe symptoms, I was placed on a medical 504 through the school system, a medical management plan for those with disabilities, allowing me to only attend 2 classes during the day and leave the classroom if needed. By the end of the year, this was no longer needed and I was anxiety free until the beginning of high school.

The question by now is usually, “How did they misdiagnosis two psychological disorders to be a viral infection?” The problem with my conditions, like many other mental health illnesses, is that diagnosing them is often very difficult, and usually is a process of elimination other possible conditions. My initial list of possible illnesses included Hand, Foot and Mouth disease (HFMD), allergic reaction, Hypothyroidism, and panic and anxiety disorders. A blood test ruled out the allergic reaction as well as hypothyroidism, which left HFMD and panic and anxiety disorders.

Based purely on my personality and behavior, panic and anxiety disorder was ruled out. In hindsight, I can now see the fundamental issues revolving around the perception of anxiety, panic, and other psychological disorders. This bias, however, was not limited to just medical staff. My teachers, school faculty, and even my family believed I was faking my symptoms in the beginning. I was an extremely social boy, loving to act as a class clown or get in front of my peers to entertain. I had already been in 3 performances in my school prior to 7th grade, and it was seen to be a ludicrous diagnosis by my school, even after seeing my face go pale and the frightened look appear during an attack. To them, this was an act, and to many physicians and clinicians, someone like me could never have anxiety or panic disorders.

I’m here to tell you, as many who face the same problems know, that like many psychological disorders, anxiety and panic disorders do not discriminate. In many cases, these conditions are inherited from your parents and we are in no more control of our condition than an individual with a chronic illness. Diagnosis of these disorders can’t be black and white, as many professionals sometimes may have you believe, and can happen to anyone. The stigma that appears seems to stem from a community that is unfamiliar with the detrimental problems that occur because of these conditions, and the struggles of dealing with them.

In a country where 1 in 5 Americans suffer from a mental illness, stigma and misunderstanding constantly surrounds the issues I, like many others, have faced.I am no different than any other individual who suffers from these disorders, but I am here to share my success story of perseverance in the face of opposition, and determination to reach my goals. It is my hope that my story can bring a better understanding to the challenges faced by those living with these illnesses, and encourage those dealing with them that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel despite how bad it may get. In my next entry, I will explain how my life was put on pause when my anxiety and panic disorders consumed my life, causing me to never have attended high school and how I have been able to get to where I am today; a UNC graduate.