During my junior year of high school, I first began to experience increased anxiety symptoms. I believe that this was a direct result of the emotional trauma experienced when I previously developed very serious health concerns.
In ten grade, I was the top student in my high school class of 400 students. During the spring of 1980, I had the chance to visit Paris for the first time, with my French class. I absolutely fell in love!
Just weeks after my return home, I began to display significant health problems. I was hospitalized with mycoplasma pneumonia. I also started to experience blurred vision, double vision, and debilitating migraines. I spent complete weeks in bed, even the most subtle of noises being amplified as I struggled with relentless pain. I missed going to the prom, a rite of passage for adolescent females.
Despite previously being in very good health, I started to develop incapacitating fatigue. Most anxiety-provoking was that my ability to concentrate was severely diminished.
This was beyond devastating to a straight-A student. I saw numerous medical specialists, and completed multiple diagnostic tests. At the time, none of them yielded conclusive information to determine the correct diagnosis. I struggled to even finish tenth grade, having spent so much time out sick.
A perceptive neurologist informed my worried mother that I had developed many symptoms that were highly suggestive of MS, despite the fact that I was only age 16. (The majority of individuals who are diagnosed with MS typically begin to manifest symptoms in their late 20’s).
The summer of 1980 followed. My health appeared to be steadily improving. My overall stamina increased, and I was able to cycle 20-25 miles per day. I was looking forward to my junior year of high school. I so wanted to put my horrendous health problems behind me.
How little I knew at the time, most thankfully, of what would eventually manifest in my life. As fall unfolded, my previous symptoms unfortunately came back. New symptoms also developed, including periods of numbness and tingling in my legs. I also began to feel increased anxiety whenever I attended school. It was harder and harder for me to perform, and I had previously performed at the very highest of levels, in all academic subjects.
Although I had always been shy, I became much more socially isolated and withdrawn. My anxiety level steadily escalated, culminating in a full-blown panic attack. I can still remember the exact date that it took place: January 7, 1981. I was in the hallway, between classes. My legs began to feel like rubber. I feared falling down, and started to hang onto the railing in the hallway for support. My heart started racing uncontrollably, until it felt like it was ready to explode right out of my chest. I felt lightheaded, dizzy, nauseated, and extremely sweaty. Quite literally, I thought to myself that I must be losing my mind. I absolutely had to get out of that building, somehow, someway.
I left my high school that day, and never returned. The student whom everyone expected to become their valedictorian spent the next several months virtually housebound. I spiralled into an abyss of severe depression, as well as paralyzing anxiety. I had another debilitating anxiety attack one day when I was shopping with my mother.
This cemented the next few months of my life’s path, as I developed full-blown agoraphobia. The psychiatrist whom I was seeing insisted that my parents force me to return to school. I absolutely refused to do so.
Months of intensive counseling and medication ensued. I slowly stabilized. I finally felt ready to return to school, but certainly not my former high school. As long as I live, I will never forget this adolescent-onset of intense emotional distress.
The terrifying memory of that adolescent anguish fueled me to obtain my doctorate in clinical health psychology, even when I had been diagnosed with MS before its completion.
Recalling that adolescent-onset of suicidal ideation propelled me to complete a grueling academic program, even when I felt utterly depleted. It has only continued to increase my empathy toward those who struggle with anxiety and depression. Thankfully, in the thirty-seven years that have followed that first panic attack, I have only had a handful of panic attacks.
Only one was as severe, the first year of my doctoral program, while living in New York City. Knowing that agoraphobia can be a life sentence for some sufferers, I am most deeply blessed to have only experienced it for a few months in my total of 54 years of living.