I had my first panic attack late September 2012 my senior year of college. I forgot about Spanish homework until I got to class and my friend Kidder asked if I understood a question on the assignment.
“Um, what?” I said.
“We had homework,” she said with a little head nod and a little grace.
I frantically pulled out my course syllabus and flipped today’s date. We did have homework. I hated when the professor called on me and I stumbled through an answer, so I pulled out my textbook and flipped to the back where all the answers were. I started to write the answer to question one, but my hand couldn’t make it past the first word without messing it up—ella.
My body tightened up. My heart raced like I was running.
I couldn’t breathe properly. My vision went in and out of focus like apertures. My heart palpitated. I thought it was going to explode. My hands. armpits, and back started sweating. I wiped my hands rhythmically on my thighs. 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and on top of my skinny jeans. My sweat stains showed through my oxford shirt. The room was spinning, like I spun my head around on a bat, and I realized that I wasn’t okay to be sitting in a classroom for the next hour thinking I’m walking the balance beam of my body exploding.
My belongings thudded in my bag as I sloppily tossed them in.
“I’m skipping class,” I said.
My few friends in the class all scrunched their brows. “Are you okay?”
“I’m not sure,” I said picking up my bag and racing out of the classroom.
I made a counseling appointment one day while I was on break at work, walking around the parking lot outside. I kicked all the small sticks and stones I came across to see how far I could send them.
“Thank you for calling Wishing You Well Counseling. How can I help you today?” She was happy and helpful like you’d expect someone at a counseling office to be.
“Hi,” I said. “I’d like to make an appointment.”
“Okay, and have you visited our site to know who you’d like to meet with?”
“Uh, no,” I replied. “Yes, I visited your site and read one of the bios, but no, I don’t know who I would want to be with.”
“Well that’s totally fine,” she said. “Why would you like to make an appointment?”
“I’ve just been very anxious. I’ve felt at the edge of myself for the month of July.”
“Well, I’m very sorry to hear that you’re going through that,” she said. I could hear the threads of compassion in her voice. “I know exactly who to set you up with. How’s Wednesday at noon?”
“Sounds perfect.” I smiled, feeling the pulses of hope beneath my ribs.
The counseling office was in a quaint, brick house off one of Lynchburg’s busiest streets. The house itself released an aura of kindness and rest, like I was being hugged by practiced arms. A soft voice inside me whispered, “Everything is going to be okay. Please, come in.”
So I did just that and stepped into the foyer of an old house with a charming staircase in the entryway. To the left was the waiting room with two chairs and a door in view of the foyer and as I stepped in, I saw a sofa and a table with a checkerboard. There was a woman sitting in one of the chairs, so I sank in the chair cushion next to her on the opposite side of a box of magazines that looked like it was from Pier 1.
I browsed Twitter on my phone as I waited. Nothing but rap critiques and quippy rap puns, desperate passive aggressive pleas for love, and a t-rex who can’t do things like wave down a cab and shuffle playing cards. I flipped through pictures of the poor trying t-rex and chuckled to myself. The lady next to me kept glancing over until her counselor called her to her appointment. I signed off Twitter.
The door next to my chair creaks open and a kind-faced, blond haired woman says, “George?”
“Must be me, right?” I say.
“Come on in.” She smiles. Her blue dress brings out the blue calm in her eyes.
There are two brown suede sofas—one along the near wall and one facing the entryway. Each has colorful pillows tucked into the corners like rainbow sprinkles on a chocolate cone.
“Sit anywhere you like,” she says.
I sit in the far corner of the nearest sofa and face the chair in the middle of the room that I assume is where she’ll sit.
“First,” she says, “before we move on, do you go by George?” She shuts the door behind her and takes a few steps toward her chair.
“No,” I say. “I go by Andrew most of the time.”
“Okay. I want to make sure that this is as comfortable a place for you by calling you something familiar.” She takes a seat in the chair and writes notes on a sheet—my “file.” She lovingly brings her hands together like reuniting best friends. “So, what brings you in today?”
“I am anxious,” I say. “For the past month, I haven’t been able to take a full breath. I feel like I’m teetering at the edge of a breakdown all the time. I panic at the most random times, and then I’m on the phone for hours with my grandmother and aunt.”
“Hmm. You find a sense of security in them?”
“My grandmother helped raise me, so I would definitely say I do.”
She scribbles notes. “What else?”
I gaze out the window into the field behind her and thought of how to turn my feelings into words like connecting the dots without the numbers.
“Last week, my friend asked me if I loved myself.”
“And what did you say?” She never looks away from me. And she nods her head and listens with affirming yeahs.
“I said that I do, but she said she didn’t believe me. I spend so much time taking care of other people and making sure their needs are met that I don’t know how to spend time with myself.”
“Do you believe your answer?” She tilts her head like a puppy who’s heard a strange noise.
I shut my eyes. “No.”
“No what, Andrew?”
“No,” I take a deep breath. “No, I don’t love myself.”
“And why is that?”
“I don’t like what’s happening to me and how it makes me. I hate being alone all the time and I hate that I have to spend all of my time with me. And I hate feeling like what I want for my life isn’t good enough for my family, and I hate that I spend all my time talking about how anxious I’m feeling or if I feel safe and not doing things or eating things that have suddenly become triggers for all of it. And I hate feeling like people are annoyed with me because I give so much to meet my friends’ needs and it feels like no one is willing to care for me the way I need to be cared for.” I wipe my eyes. There’s a difference between knowing something about me and speaking it out, but when I say something, it’s true. It’s looking at your feelings saying, “I know you exist.”
“Wow,” she says.
“One more question before we move on if that’s okay.” She leans forward. “Do you feel like there’s something wrong with you?”
I look out at the window again and watch a little girl with a balloon tied to her wrist run around and around in circles.
“Yes, I do.”
“Andrew, let me tell you something. This anxiety you’re experiencing doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. It’s just your body’s way of telling you something’s wrong. Your brain’s function is to keep you alive and do it well. Your brain doesn’t understand that anything would be going wrong inside of your body, so it equips you to handle conflict externally. Does that make sense?”
“So far, yes,” I say.
“The blood rushes to your fingertips in tingles. Your heart beats hard and your breath tightens to get the blood to your feet quicker so you can run away from the danger. The important thing to remember is this—It is not that type of fear.”
“It’s not that type of fear,” I repeat. “I love that.”
“Yeah,” she says nodding and smiling. “And anxiety is fear of something unknown. And right now you don’t know yourself.”
“That’s beautiful.” I feel the cushions beneath me. Feel the air from the vents. Look out across the expanse of the field. I’m grinning, knowing that my anxiety comes from a lack of love and misinformation about my body, my feelings, and what my brain has learned to believe, and all this can be cured with a little love for myself.
She notices me smiling and she bares her teeth and cocks her head. “You love that, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I really do.”
I have problems, but it’s nice to know they’re not the kind of problems I thought. I am a house that’s a little messy in all the hidden places. Anne Lamott, in Bird By Bird, says, “[C]lutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground—you can still discover treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip.” I am a house that’s been dusted and vacuumed, but it’s been cleaned like a man’s cleaned it. What it feels like my counselor and I are doing is lifting up the sofa cushions, pulling the sofa away from the wall and collecting the trash and vacuuming up the dust bunnies. With each particle we pull from between and underneath the cushions, we examine it and remember how it got there and also try our best to not let it happen again. And we do this in every room, in every cabinet, in every drawer, until I love myself for who I am.
Andrew Hahn is a graduate of Liberty University and currently lives in Woodstock, GA. You can find him on Twitter @andyhahn1.