I started having panic attacks three years out of college while working as a special education teacher. Walking a group of third grade boys in from recess, heading to the back corner of the abandoned library where I conducted my lessons, I suddenly felt very dizzy.
I gripped the wall to keep from falling while my ragtag group of consistently behaviorally challenging third graders ran down the hall screaming for help. Somehow, my wonderful coworkers got me to a chair and called the school nurse.
I felt woozy, I couldn’t stand or think straight, and my heart was beating faster than ever before. The school nurse deemed me not able to continue work but also not able to drive myself home. As an adult, I have never felt more like a child than when I, the teacher, was sitting in a child sized chair in the school guidance office being picked up by my parents.
I didn’t know right away what was happening, but soon what I considered my normal life – work, hanging out with friends and family, living independently – became more and more difficult to achieve as spiraling fear and sadness seeped into my life. Soon chores became impossible; work became impossible; and before long I found myself surrounded by a crisis team swinging diagnoses at me.
Panic attacks. Anxiety disorder. Major depressive disorder. Post traumatic stress disorder. Flashbacks. Disassociation. Night terrors. Suicidal ideation.
I was covered with terminology I didn’t fully comprehend, much less know how it applied to me.
I spent two stints in the psychiatric ward in the hospital having my electronics taken away, not wearing clothes with tie strings, not writing in journals with metal spirals, instead I was beading jewelry and shaping clay, eating hospital food, being led on supervised walks, and participating in therapy groups all under the watchful eye of the hospital staff checking on all of us every half hour.
At first, I felt lost. I don’t remember much of the beginning except crying. I felt overwhelmed with the weight of both the past abuse I went through and my new mental illness. Both so insurmountable it was impossible to imagine healing and recovery.
One day, a wonderful and thoughtful hospital staff member found me in my room scribbling fiercely in my non-wire bound journal tearing up as I wrote out all my terrified feelings and gently handed me printouts from web MD articles about depression, anxiety, and PTSD. And I am so grateful that she did.
I consumed the printouts she gave me learning more about my diagnoses from them than any of the doctors at the hospital and immediately requested more. She had handed me a tool, a way to understand something that was controlling my life.
I immediately became curious. I needed to know more. I needed to know as much as I could about these disorders, and symptoms, and medications that my whole life had suddenly began revolving around.
Curiosity about what was happening to me gave me some control again. I started asking questions in my meetings with the social worker and psychiatrist every time they used a term to describe what was happening to me, my behavior, or a medication.
I started raising my hand in group therapy asking questions to gather as much information as possible. What was a flashback and how did it differ from dissociative behavior? What are the possible side effects of this medication and why do you think this one might work? How is this guided mediation supposed to help me? What is the purpose of spending hours beading jewelry? Why does the hospital chicken soup always taste better on the weekends?
Curiosity gave me some power back. The effect wasn’t immediate. Healing took time. I was given a multitude of different medications, testing one after the other until an acceptable formula was found. I was assigned a social worker and psychiatrist in the hospital, and outpatient therapy afterwards, spending a total of six months doing nothing but taking care of my new mental illness full time. I regained the independent life that I had lost.
My mental illness is something I continue to work through every day. Becoming curious about my mental illness and the healing that surrounded it gave me something to focus on. It was the calm at the eye of the storm; it was the wall I held onto to hold myself up during my first panic attack after my diagnosis. And the knowledge I gained form it gave me the strength and power to begin to control my life again.
Curiosity is a powerful tool that can lead us to discover new knowledge.
And knowledge is, in fact, power.
By: Mandy Doyle
Mandy Doyle is from Florence, Massachusetts with llamas and vineyards, but she currently lives in Boston. She is a sexuality education teacher and self-defense instructor for people with disabilities. She also runs my own private tutoring business. She has lived in Zaragoza, Spain, Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. She loves being a nerd girl and fan girl, She loves baking, and she loves earrings.