My mental illness story began when I was 17, which is actually a pretty typical age for mental illnesses to rear their ugly heads.
I'll never forget that moment of my first panic attack. My boyfriend had just broken up with me, and as a teenager, that news was devastating.
My throat started closing up; it felt like I was choking. I started hyperventilating, my heart began to race. I got nauseous and suddenly felt the overwhelming need to run away.
I continued to have these panic attacks for days. I couldn't eat and when I did, I couldn't keep it down. I started to become dehydrated and my mom took me to the doctor, worried that there was something terribly wrong with me.
The first doctor I saw was incredibly understanding. She listened to my tragic teenage tale and explained that what I was experiencing was panic attacks.
She prescribed me a few medications to help me during the attacks. A few weeks later, I started to get over the break-up and the panic attacks subsided - for the time being.
Most of my college years, surprisingly, were without major anxiety. I, of course, had the "normal" kind of anxiety that most people know and understand - nervous before exams, jittery before dates, stressed during times of high work loads.
But after I graduated, I got a job as an elementary teacher. I spent my whole summer before preparing my classroom and making lesson plans so that I was ready for the shining, young faces that would soon enter my room.
The first day went well but on the second day, I felt more stressed and overwhelmed than I had ever been in my whole adult life...
Those same terrifying sensations came back - I felt like I was choking, I couldn't breathe, my heart was pounding, I began vomiting, and I felt like I just needed to escape.
I knew I had to tell my principal but I was so afraid of being judged. However, she saw how I looked and told me to go home and that hopefully I would feel better in the morning.
The next morning, though, I was scared to go back because I was afraid of having another panic attack.
I was in an anxious state all the way to work, and sure enough, once I got there, I had a full-blown panic attack again. I had to leave for the second day in a row in my first week - which I'm sure did not impress my new boss.
I went straight to my doctor, who officially diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder and prescribed me an antidepressant for a long-term solution, along with an anti-anxiety medication (benzodiazepine) for immediate relief so I could function at my new job.
I was grateful for the relief that the antidepressant gave me, but after almost 2 years on it, my husband and I wanted to start a family, so I weaned off of all medications (under my doctor's care and guidance).
Again, I went several more years without another panic attack or anxiety. But the next time they returned, they were worse than they had ever been before...
By this time, my husband and I had 2 beautiful young children (both preschool-aged), a wonderful home, a new Golden Retriever puppy, and I was taking graduate classes for my Master's degree in Education.
My husband had a business trip planned that would take him away for a month. I felt fine about it until the first night he was gone.
The children were in bed, the puppy was in his kennel, and I was checking the house to make sure everything was locked and secure.
Walking around, I began to feel anxious. This was a feeling I hadn't felt in years, but it was familiar. I felt that sinking in the pit of my stomach and I knew what was coming next.
My heart started racing, my breathing accelerated, I got nauseous, and my chest got tight. This time, however, I experienced symptoms I had never had before - my whole body started shaking uncontrollably, my hands and feet got tingly, and I felt certain I was about to die.
I called my in-laws (who lived in the town next to us) and they told me to pack up the kids and puppy and head to their house.
At first, I thought I would be fine if we just stayed at their house, figuring it was just me being afraid of being alone. But I wasn't.
The panic attacks continued - coming randomly now, not just when I was thinking about or doing something stressful. I remember one instance of sitting on the couch watching a kid's comedy cartoon and BAM - panic attack.
I returned to the doctor, who amended my diagnosis to include panic disorder.
I went through about 6-8 months of trying different medication combinations - antidepressants, mood stabilizers, benzodiapines - every body's chemical makeup is different so what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for another.
It's frustrating while you are in the process and just want relief, however. But ultimately, it is truly a trial-and-error process until you find what work with your unique needs.
Finally, we found a combination of medications that didn't give me horrible side effects and seemed to keep the panic attacks at bay.
This was huge for me. I felt like I could actually start living my life! I was functioning at a normal level, being productive, and able to hold down a job and take care of my children again.
I went an entire year and a half with no panic attacks. I was positive this was the medication combination that would set me free from panic attacks and anxiety and change my life forever.
And then the proverbial sh!t hit the fan.
My life stressors began building up again. My husband and I were having marital difficulties and it was affecting me on a very deep, personal level.
One night, I started having a panic attack. I took an anti-anxiety medication and began doing some of my coping techniques I had learned in therapy sessions I had been attending. Nothing was helping.
This went on for a week or so. I was having 5-10 panic attacks per day. One night, I became suicidal and drove myself to the emergency room.
They called in a psychiatric consult, who decided I needed to be admitted to the local psychiatric hospital for inpatient care.