“Nearly 40 million Americans struggle with anxiety every year. And I am one of them. For me, anxiety and panic attacks look like hives covering my body. It’s shaking so hard I can barely walk. It’s sobbing in the corner because I feel this overwhelming amount of fear. When COVID-19 descended, it didn’t just bring sickness, it brought fear, panic, and chaos. It sent me on a downward spiral, and triggered an episode that would land me in the emergency room.
This story is my journey, what I learned, and how I came back stronger. And finally, what I learned from talking to a therapist for this piece in hopes it might be of help to others. My name is Ashleigh, I am 30, and I live in Rural Hall, North Carolina. I have battled anxiety and panic attack disorder for six years. I grew up with insomnia and anxiety, but they didn’t affect my life greatly. Every now and again, I would be short of breath, but my dad helped me work through it pretty quickly. He also had anxiety, so he was able to relate and help me cope.
He died when I was just 17, and I wondered how I would manage without him. And then, my anxiety went dormant, and I was able to live my life without the fear and debilitation. I became a missionary and traveled the world. I visited places like China, Thailand, and Ukraine. I served in orphanages and helped support women stuck in a cycle of prostitution. I felt so at home, even though I was so far away.
This all changed when anxiety roared back into my life without warning at 25. I had no coping techniques and was unable to be on medication. I thought this was just my new life and I would have to just deal with it the best I could. Shortly after, I got married and added a baby to the mix. My son became my saving grace, and my anxiety calmed down once again. Then COVID-19 arrived.
I went into lockdown with my husband and two children: Liam, who is four, and my little girl Saylor, who is three. It wasn’t too bad at first. But with a husband who left every day to go to work, my little ones became my only form of human contact. The news outlets and kid babble became my whole world. My mental health began disappearing like water down the drain. I didn’t know how to ask for help, and honestly, I was afraid to.
What if I sound crazy? What if people see me as unstable? My fear told me to hide. If I could just appear to be ‘normal,’ eventually my anxiety would go away. But it did not go away this time. And it was getting worse. I wasn’t eating or sleeping. I turned to unhealthy ways to cope because I had never learned how to cope with panic. I would drink a glass of wine to relax, stay out of crowded places, and avoid anything that could possibly trigger a panic attack, but I learned this was no way to live or cope. I couldn’t depend on a glass of wine to relax, and I couldn’t stay in my home forever. But, what else could I do?
I desperately wanted my husband to stay home to protect me and never wanted to leave the house for fear of having a panic attack in public. I lost 15 pounds, and my nutrition was so poor I became dehydrated and landed in the ER. I sat in front of the doctor, tears streaming down my face, feeling so defeated and so ashamed. I’d let my anxiety convince me I was a bad mother, that all this was my fault. I was deep in a hole with no way up and out.
That doctor looked at me with so much compassion in his eyes. He assured me we are all struggling and we are all feeling the stress of the pandemic. He did not shame or judge me. Somehow, Dr. Tariq Shihabuddin (we meet him at the end of this story) gave me the confidence I needed to seek help.
The ER team helped me connect to counselors that introduced me to healthy coping mechanisms. Over the weeks and months, I was slowly learning how to redirect my thoughts and get to the root of my fear. I started doing things anxiety made me fear, like flying on a plane, riding in an elevator, and being out in public where there are lots of people.
In hopes of helping other people who may have had similar struggles, I spoke with Richard Maas, of Novant Health Behavioral Health, and he made me understand the importance of ongoing care. He explained our mental health wasn’t a one-and-done type playing field. I couldn’t just take a pill and be fine. I couldn’t just go to a few counseling sessions and be ‘fixed.’ I had to take responsibility for my mental health and show up for myself every single day.
The unhealthy coping mechanisms I developed, like needing my husband with me at all times, weren’t realistic. But gaining the confidence that I could be OK out in public without him by my side and taking control of my disorder and not allowing it to control me was a big revelation for me. My panic felt so big, but by accepting responsibility for myself and taking the initiative to take small steps every day eventually turned into bigger steps.
I’ve become more active. I eat nutritional meals and limit social media. I get outside! I am learning to listen to my body and recognize what I need and what my triggers are. It’s essential to have a great support system, but it is my responsibility to do the work and apply it.
Back in March 2020, I looked at my husband and said, ‘I don’t know if someone like me can thrive in a world like this.’ I felt so alone and so broken. That night at Novant Health Clemmons Medical Center saved me. The doctor told me I could do this, and I was given resources I didn’t know existed. Today, I am no longer that young mother in the corner weeping through a panic attack.
I became a real estate agent, and I love being out in my community. I am a leader with an international nonprofit called Moms In The Making, for women going through pregnancy loss or infertility. I lead a group locally. I take my children to parks, and we play in the sunshine every day. Next month, I’ll face my fear of getting on a plane.
My disorder is still a part of me. I still have attacks, but I can manage them now. I changed my thinking and learned the importance of showing myself grace and affirming myself with positive thoughts. I get ongoing counseling to help me stay on track.
I know what it feels like to be in the thick of a disorder and wonder if it would be better for everyone if you just ended it. I know what it’s like to wonder if that’s your only option. But I learned there is always another option, and there is no shame in asking for help. That is not failing, but the bravest and best thing you can do.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ashleigh Beaver and originally appeared here. You can follow her journey on Instagram here. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our free email newsletter.
Read more stories from Ashleigh here:
‘I was 6 months pregnant when I said ‘I do.’ I picked a cheap dress, wore borrowed rings, and didn’t have a honeymoon.’: Woman claims wedding was the ‘best day of her life’ because she ‘chose the right man’
‘Where’s my phone?!’ My arms, legs began to shake. I lost my vision. I lay on the bathroom floor, alone, no cellphone.’: Woman says mental illness ‘humbled’ her, reminds us ‘it’s okay to be different’
‘You guys go to the coolest places!’ The comment stopped me in my tracks. I rarely leave the house; I put makeup on once a week, and with 2 toddlers, outings are usually cut short.’: Mom reminds us that ‘no one is living the life they post on social media’
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