By Laura Trapletti
I just started my new job at an adventure course in mid-coast Maine, and while sitting 75 feet in the air, peering over the edge of this tiny little wooden platform, I felt an intense, debilitating panic overwhelm me. Suddenly, the height that I climbed over for past two weeks frightened me witless. The sweat that began to soak my sports bra had nothing to do with the June sunshine, and everything to do with the palpitations of my rapidly beating heart. I gripped the two yellow lanyards strapping me into the wires, just staring at the ground below me, with barely anything but some ropes and air in between. Even after hours of training, my brain couldn’t connect the dots on how to get down. I stared down and felt dizzy, but heavy everywhere else. The pounding in my ears blocked out anything I could focus on, and my breath came in short, quick rasps, only exacerbating the tight feeling in my chest. How do I get down? I felt the shakes in my fingers as I clenched tighter at my yellow salvation. My reverie was interrupted when my course manager called to me, snapping my attention away from the fear in my brain to him. My first panic attack was cut short. For the next two summers, every day I quelled that fear when I stepped onto that course, masking it with a smile and laughter that I hoped was louder than the anxious pounding of my heart.
I thought by pure determination alone I could force my new anxiety into a deep space inside me. That I could do it alone. That I could mask the fear and the restlessness I felt over little tiny daily nuances of life. That driving someplace new or walking alone or even ordering a sandwich at the deli, these anxieties couldn’t control me. I wouldn’t let them control me. Close friends knew about these secrets, these little tasks that would send me over the edge and maybe for an hour or two, I would close myself away. My boyfriend would rub my back, my best friend would bring me ice cream and jabber at me about her job. For the most part, these little remedies worked. Until senior year came along, my boyfriend of many years ended the relationship, and I moved away from the comfort zone. Suddenly, I was surrounded by triggers and the anxieties became worse. Still, I ignored them, these flutterings of my heart, fear over leaving the apartment for anything but work. Little niggling anxieties over my outfit for the day, the strange noises my car makes, the snow, my health, my finances, how good dinner was going to taste, these worries that would not leave me. These continued and continued, but still I ignored them. I was determined, after all.
Until I ended up on the ground. As I walked to a volunteer commitment after a panic attack earlier that day, I felt an odd emptiness sneak into my head and the next thing I knew, I woke up horizontal. As I sat on the curb, I attempted to focus my addled brain enough to call for help. Thankfully, a friend came to the rescue and I was able to safely return home. But there was no longer any option for secrecy. My plan for ignoring my anxiety ended in disaster, fainting in the middle of downtown, and calling for help as I waited in the rain. Besides the bump on my head, this became the proverbial slap in the face.
Underneath the embarrassment, I realized that the anxiety I lived with for years, that I pushed away for years, was controlling my life and my health. That by pretending I could live without acknowledging these fears, I was only creating a bigger problem. I wondered: why me? I’m so young, why do I feel this all the time? Trapped inside my head these anxieties just amplified until everything became something to fret over, something to obsess over, until I could feel the shivers start in my spine and my heart rate increase just by thinking about one of them. Waking up in the morning became one giant list of worries: from what socks to wear to what I was going to eat. The what ifs of my life overpowered the moments that I was in, until my brain spun out of control and I needed to excuse myself to the bathroom so I could look in the mirror and breathe. Just breathe, in and out, until the clamminess passed.
As I started therapy for this problem of mine, I realized I was anything but alone in this. The little worries of my life were not only common, but frequent in my peers. Millennials have the highest rate of stress and anxiety in America; I was merely one of many. I was among millions of my age group that felt this worry pushing down on them. I realized that I was not alone in this struggle in feeling a tightening in my chest over walking out the door and facing life head on. That anxiety was in fact a part of life that I had to live with, not ignore. More importantly, there were hands to hold that felt this fear as well. Gradually, I accepted that this was not a problem to contend with, this was part of me. A part to be accepted and controlled, not ignored. I still feel the fears, I still become blindsided by attacks that seemingly sprout from nowhere and overwhelm me. I can’t stop that entirely. But the thought of not going through this alone is a great relief. I realize it will never fully disappear from my life, but I can accept that and learn how to integrate it, not ignore it.
Help came in many shapes and sizes for me. One of the largest issues for me was realizing I needed it. Over the last year, I’ve come to move past the intense individualism I was instilled with at a young age and reached for help in order to remain healthy. The pioneer attitude of going at it alone was more detrimental to me, because the loneliness was a key trigger. Coming to grasp the idea that healthy doesn’t have to mean getting better on your own was a key step in maintaining an active life not dictated by anxiety. Because “healthy” is more than just a physical aspect of being; it is also mental and emotional. The therapist and support group I discovered have helped me to cope. Through openly sharing my experiences with a group, I can receive verbal acceptance, feedback, and reassurance from those around me, who reach out and hold my me because they too know that twisted feeling in their chest, their peripheral vision disappearing, the loss of breath and countless tears. They are fighters as well and understand, literally, the restrictions we place on ourselves because of this. I found peace in a yoga class, where my instructor sits on my mat and holds my hands, helping me to breathe in deeply, to let the tension relax in my shoulders. My therapist gives me countless tissues as I sob out my little fears, the ones I never had before, but now do and wish I didn’t. Finding the help I needed has allowed me to release some of these tiny fears in order to continue on with my life without the weight of the world on my shoulders. Although this is still a work in progress, I see the light at the end of the tunnel and know, now, I can reach it.
Laura is a self-proclaimed book snob who spends too much time reading classics, poetry, and Captain Marvel comics on the side. She eats grilled cheese too often and watches lots of Disney. She is a new native to Portland, Maine, the most beautiful on the East coast in her fine opinion. Although she is originally from New York, and if you listen to her speak, you’ll definitely know it, she has come to love Maine and all its coastlines. She hikes on the weekend and works at a nonprofit during the week, where she spends more time with volunteers than she is willing to admit. She also is the frequent but determined blogger who rants plenty and offers solutions not so much. She decides much of her life on whims and never plans for the future. Too much adventure to lose out on.