For most of my adult life I have lived with Panic Disorder. It’s natural for folks who hear that to immediately cross-reference to their own lives. They think of a time they were very afraid or very anxious and, bless their hearts, they think they understand.
While I knew there was something was wrong as a kid, the disease didn’t manifest completely until I was in my mid-twenties. In 1980, there were almost no resources available to diagnose my problem, let alone treat it. Professionals gave me Rorschach tests, which my creative mind loved, and had me sit down for lots of talking therapy. For a time, I spent good money deep in the world of Jungian psychology. Fascinating but useless. I became agoraphobic as habits of mind and body solidified without useful treatment.
A decade later, as science and treatment advanced, I found myself in a program with a room full of fellow sufferers. I knew the enormous effort it took me to get to NW Portland and the shear will it took to remain seated in that room. I knew everyone sitting in that circle of chairs shared my story in some unique way. But here’s the thing that has always stayed with me about that moment. Looking around the room, everyone looked calm. Oh, there were little tells, fidgeting and reaching for water bottles, but an outsider would not have been able to tell how much desperation and struggle was happening in front of their eyes.
The first decade of my affliction I survived and sometimes thrived. I depended on the love of a few people and the confused tolerance of a few more. I self-medicated with moderate use of booze and pot. Panic Disorder people are unlikely to abuse either as controlling oneself and the world around you is perceived as essential to survival. That’s the biggest difference between someone who has an anxiety episode and someone living with a disease. My people, we absolutely know that what we are thinking and feeling is a very real threat to our survival. Repeat…survival.
Like other sufferers with mental health issues, the disease punches huge holes in one’s life. I could not fly for 20 years. My family lives 1,000 miles away. Think about it. I am a baseball fanatic who didn’t see a Major League game for 20 years. Seattle was out of reach. And when I did make it up there, it took 2 tries. The first time I stood outside of the empty stadium in the middle of the night. Months later, I saw an actual game. Sally took a picture of me in the stadium. I look at it now and think, “That’s me at a real game. That’s me in ecstasy.”
Many people don’t survive mental illness. I have been close to that point. But for reasons that still escape me, perhaps grounded in my blue-collar work ethic and stubbornness, I am relentlessly hopeful about recovery. I never stop working the problem. That strange will power, some amazing professionals, and the love and support of my wife, means that I have a wonderful life. When I get whinny, I wish it wasn’t so hard on some days. But those are the cards I was dealt. And, entire parts of my life I cherish would not exist except for the powerful urge to not be owned by my illness.
People who I have been around for years have little idea that this is my real story. Like the other people in that circle of chairs, I am a great actor. I have run high stress meetings while having panic attacks. I have adjusted my work activities and personal life in subtle ways to keep moving forward. What looks eccentric is sometimes simply a survival tactic. Though, honestly, sometimes it’s just because I am eccentric. I have been at this so long I have lost track.
Here’s the deal. This essay isn’t about me. It’s about all the people around us who are also great actors. When I have shared my experience, “normal” people have told me, “Me too.” This missive is about cultivating compassion and understanding. While some mental health issues are apparent, far more are essentially invisible. Pause before you judge too harshly. Wonder why things seem harder for some people. When someone reveals something hard to you, know there is more and be honored with trust bestowed. I couldn’t have built the life I have without little bits of understanding by others along the way. Simply…be that person. It can make all the difference in the world.
(If what I have described rings a bell. Email me via the website and I can suggest where to get help.)