At nine years old, I started grappling with sudden, frequent panic attacks. At the time, neither my parents nor I could understand what was happening to me. I appeared to be experiencing seizure-like convulsions — sweating, shaking, panting — but on the inside, I felt paralyzed with fear, with no control over my mind or body.
“When is it going to stop?” I’d ask my mom.
“It should be over by next week,” she’d respond, as if we were in the midst of a war that was rumored to end soon.
But when the episodes continued, my parents sent me to Dr. H, a child psychologist. During my first session, I told him about my disturbing thought spirals and the nightmares I had about my uncle who’d died a couple of years prior at the age of 24 from a drug overdose. I remember him tearing up and asking about my relationship with my uncle.
After my first session, Dr. H diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder. Despite my parents’ prior warnings about talking to strangers, I began to see him every week. Every week, I’d tell him my deepest secrets and even accept the occasional candy bribe.
Whenever I arrived, I’d ring the doorbell, escort myself into the waiting room and enter his office only when I saw the shadow of the previous patient disappearing down the staircase, just as he’d instructed me during our first session. The protocol wasn’t foolproof. Over the years, scheduling conflicts would occur and I’d run into other therapy-goers in the slivered hallway. When that happened, I’d hang my head low to avoid eye contact, like I was in trouble.
Because I didn’t know any kids in therapy, I thought I was the only one of my kind. Then one night, while I was walking out of Dr. H’s office, I bumped into my classmate — and not just any classmate: the 10-year-old boy of my dreams. We exchanged embarrassed glances and promised to keep each others’ whereabouts a secret. It was one of the first times I entertained the idea that therapy didn’t make me an outsider if cool kids went too.
While my parents supported me and went to tremendous lengths to help me manage my anxiety, they advised I forgo telling my classmates about my weekly visits. I took their word as law and hid my feelings from my friends for years. I understood therapy to be an unspoken, taboo topic. Before I even knew what stigma meant, I felt it swallow me whole.
When I went to my pediatrician, I didn’t have to hide from other patients in the waiting room. So why was mental health treated any differently? When I’d arrive late to school because of an anxiety-fueled stomachache (a frequent occurrence), my doctor’s notes would claim I’d been sick. Would a note explaining that I’d been in the throes of an anxiety attack have made my tardiness any less valid?
For years, I was afraid of opening up about my struggle and assumed others wouldn’t accept me because I didn’t accept me. The first person I told was a boyfriend, about seven years after my diagnosis. Afterward, the world seemed a less lonely place. I felt less isolated and safer than I had in a while.
I avoided medication for 13 years. When I was on the fence last year, at the age of 22, about seeing a psychiatrist for the first time, my friend said, “If you had diabetes, would you even think twice about going to a medical doctor to scout out your options?” She was right. My anxiety needed just as much attention and care, and it had just as much validity as someone whose blood sugar level required management.
Soon after, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which helped me better understand my obsessive thought spirals and gave me the opportunity to explore more targeted tools to help manage them, like cognitive behavioral therapy and an anti-depressant prescription. What I once thought would make me seem weak became a gift I gave myself to live a happier, healthier life.
Even if the stigma of mental health has begun to unravel, I still feel it. “Things are that bad?” a friend asked me once, as if therapy were a last, pitiful resort. My boyfriend at the time, out of care, told me he was afraid to date me because our relationship might trigger my anxiety. We ended up dating for two very loving, panic-free years. A principal told me I might not be the right candidate for their school after I had a panic attack during an open-house tour. I went on to graduate from that school at the top of my class.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” another friend texted me this summer after I confided in her. She’d sensed I’d been acting different lately. “Because I thought I could go it alone. Because opening up about my struggle is deeply personal and painful to share” were a couple of sentences I typed and deleted, re-typed and deleted again.
As counseling for mental illnesses has become more commonplace and spoken about, I’ve discovered that many of my friends are now seeing therapists and slip the word therapist into conversation with ease while I, who started going in a time when it was deemed taboo, still sometimes struggle to say the word without lowering my voice to a whisper.
In one of my final sessions with Dr. H, he told me he knew my uncle well. He said it was mere coincidence that I walked into his office all those years ago as the niece of one of his former patients. I was stunned. “I didn’t know he died until you told me,” he said, teary-eyed. “He tried getting help. He wasn’t proud of his actions.” I couldn’t blame my uncle for doing drugs or for living in shame when I had felt the same way.
After 13 years, I sit on my cognitive behavioral therapist’s couch. “Try doing your breathing techniques when you’re on the train this week. That’s not a weird thing to do in public anymore.” She lets out a light laugh. I think of 10 things I’ve seen on the subway that are much weirder than openly taking long, calming breaths. I decide to take her advice.
As I walk out of her office, I see the patient after me shuffling in. He wears a suit and carries a briefcase. We make eye contact. He says hello; I say, “How are you?” We both smile. I keep my head held high the whole time. It’s not everything, but I’m getting there.
Bonnie is a writer living in Brooklyn with works published on Coveteur and Harper’s Bazaar. Follow her blog, bontobewildblog.com.
Collages by Emily Zirimis.