How being Diagnosed with a Panic Disorder Became a Gift

I watched Nelle Yanez grow up. She has always been a beautiful girl, but the radiance she showed after being diagnosed with a panic disorder last year stuns me. This girl figured out in her early twenties what it takes most of us a lifetime to discover. Loving yourself is a powerful antidote. Here is her story:

There are lots of reasons why I was diagnosed with a panic disorder but none of them really matter to me anymore. I spent so much time trying to pinpoint what wrong turn I took that lead me down the road of mental illness, but I never really figured that out. It could have been the tremendous pressure I put my body through to maintain a size 0 figure or my constant obsession with perfection that drove me to spend hours applying makeup and carefully perfecting my social media profiles. I understand the reaction many people will have to reading my description of myself, but it is nonetheless true. Regardless of all the reasons why this happened, I can honestly say that I am so truly thankful for the momentary total destruction of my life.

To really understand the reasons I would never take my diagnosis back, you have to understand what my panic disorder looked like. I believe mental illness has many faces but is often given one name to make it easier for everyone except the person who is suffering from it. I have met many people who only share a diagnosis with me and none of my symptoms. Mental illnesses can arrive in many forms and regardless of how they arrive are no less terrifying.

Mine came at dawn. After months of constant stress to be what I believed to be “perfectly happy,” my body and mind had enough. I woke up in the midst of the first panic attack of my life and it felt like someone had turned off the sun and left me in absolute despair and confusion. My heart was beating so fast I couldn’t feel my left hand and it felt like there was no oxygen left in the room. My generally cheerful thoughts were smothered by feelings of impending doom and fear. In that moment, I called out to God in shock as to why he had decided to shower me with every ounce of wrath he had in his possession. Having never been educated on mental illness I had absolutely no idea what was happening to me. I had no way of articulating what I felt or what was wrong. All I knew was that all I wanted in the world was to crawl out of my body and get away from myself.

This morning ritual would continue from 6am to 3pm every day for the next three weeks. My sunny life would be clouded by constant anxiety and exhaustion. By the time 3pm would roll around and my prison gates would open, I was too exhausted to care about anything at all. I was too miserable to appreciate my already severely underweight body shrinking smaller still. I was too anxious to leave the house, so all my pretty clothes and my perfect boyfriend went unnoticed. My tidy cheerful life had shattered and I had no idea what to do.

Now that you know what happened I can explain why I am so grateful it did.  After spending the first couple week wishing I didn’t have a panic disorder and being angry with God for allowing this to happen to me, the transformation process began. It started with a deep need to spare everyone around me from any sort of pain. I might have recognized this as compassion and empathy, but I wasn’t the type of girl to spend a second thought on what it took to be a good person. Then, I began to understand how incredibly stupid it was to value my body only when it was malnourished and weak. I began a yoga practice to learn patience and self-love. Mild anxiety medication, a healthy diet, and regular exercised did their work, but they only took the edge off panic and anxiety that had become my constant companions. It sounds crazy, but the one thing that I believe saved me and allows me to see this whole ordeal as worth while was the fact that it brought forth my need for self-compassion.

It sounds almost too simple and it really is. I learned to stop being angry with myself for not being who I thought I should be and instead forced myself to recognize my strengths. Instead of being angry with myself for being scared of the smallest change, I whispered kind words to myself at how far I had come from my initial diagnosis. I could go on, but what self-compassion really meant was treating myself as I would a dear friend. Before I knew it, my favorite things about myself had nothing to do with the outside but all to do with my heart. I learned to be patient with myself and that started to be reflected in how I treated my family. When I started accepting my flaws, I found the flaws in others as beautiful. I wanted to be a good person, not a perfect one. I learned to love myself so I could love others for who they really were.  

It didn’t come easily, and sometimes it still doesn’t. I still have days where the old feelings of panic come back and, like the annoying uncle at the family reunions, I accept them and patiently wait for them to get bored of bothering me and leave. I imagine my negative emotions like bubbles that will eventually pop.  It has been almost six months since my diagnosis and the beginning of my treatments, and I am happier than I ever was before. I am thankful that through my struggle with mental illness I made the decision to be a real person with real feelings instead of an empty shell with a smile permanently plastered on my face. I would rather learn to love myself for the mess I am than hate myself for not being perfect.

I would never want it to seem like some fairy tale story where I was the ugly step-sister who was hit with a mental illness spell that made me a kind princess who lived happily ever after. This journey was full of stumbling and propping myself up on my loved ones. My panic disorder was a big bully who wanted to knock me down and the only way I could stand a chance was by having my own back and accepting the fact that I needed help sometimes. I've had a lot of time to think about myself before and after that morning when it all started, and I have to say I would much rather be friends with the girl I am now that who I was before. There are a lot of possible reasons a panic disorder happened to me but none of them really matter to me anymore because everything that it brought to my life was so much better than what it took away.  

How have you effectively dealt with anxiety or panic? Talk to Nelle in the comments below. One commenter will win a copy of Glennon Doyle Melton's Carry On Warrior Best Seller.