I’ve heard my friend’s with various anxiety disorders describe the feeling of a panic attack in different ways, although around a cluster of similar systems. For me, it is simple to describe.
It feels like I’m dying. Not in the figurative way. In the literal, I’m having a heart attack call an ambulance kind of way. And I have- called an ambulance- and had them tell me that nothing is wrong and been left feeling silly, with only a big medical bill to show for it.
Ironically enough, it was during the time period in my life that I was trying to become the best helper I could be that I had to reach out for help myself.
Right after finishing my BSW, I worked for a summer and saved enough to buy my first car. I put everything I owned in it and moved 2,000 miles from Oregon to Chicago to start a new job. I was excited to start building my social work experience and to see a brand new part of the country. I had no friends or family in Chicago, although I would meet some of the best people I know by the time I was finished. I also didn’t understand how to exist in a city, or in the snow for that matter. I trusted people I shouldn’t have. I put myself in dangerous situation without even realizing what was happening. I never had enough money for food after paying rent and 1,000 other little stressors like this built up.
After a year of working in a housing and homelessness services agency, I decided to get my MSW at UIC. Financially, I needed to keep my job while I attended school, but I felt confident in my time management skills. I commuted each night after work on the blue line to UIC and back home around 11pm each night. I would do homework until 2am and start again at 6am. I also started the infamous unpaid social work internship at a wonderfully vibrant community center on the Westside. 20 hours a week on the weekends and evenings when I didn’t have class. I was coping and moving along. I did that for 6 months. Then all of the sudden, I wasn’t coping anymore.
I started having horrific panic attacks. A lot of them. It started to effect my work, then my school. I made a doctor’s appointment and was diagnosed with panic disorder by my MD. He started medication and I knew counseling would make it more effective. But who has the time for another appointment or the money for co-pays? It was strange to learn about the medication I was taking and read about panic disorder in my DSM for class, while also having this visceral embodiment of the disorder.
I was that overwhelmed client that we all wish would just make time to take care of their mental health.
It took a long time to start feeling better. I took the medication. I employed on myself all those self-talk strategies we learn. But still there were times when I was so convinced that I was dying that I thought ” I might as well kill myself and so I don’t have to go through all this fear before it happens.” It sounds melodramatic now, but it seemed logical in the moment.
A lot of little things helped along the way. Phone calls from my dad to walk me through some of the worst attacks, a casserole my coworker made me during finals, kind words of encouragement from my boyfriend and my supervisors. All were incredibly meaningful and brought me through to graduation.
Looking back, that time was an important part of my education. Just as much as what I learned in all my MSW coursework. I learned how to practice social work, while also reaching out for help for my own struggles. I learned that I have limits, that at times what I want to achieve surpasses the limits of what is healthy from my brain and body.
I know many social workers can relate to the paradox of being the helper who also needs help. I feel you.