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John Tessitore is the Founder of the JCK Foundation, a non-profit devoted to ending the stigma of mental illness.

Men in the Spiked Steel Boots: Living My Anxiety

Men in the Spiked Steel Boots: Living My Anxiety

The pain

Panic attacks creep into my existence when I’m sixteen. It starts with shooting pains in my chest — feels like hundreds of tiny men wearing spiked, steel boots are stomping on my heart. Each step sends piercing pain throughout my chest. The pain alerts every sense I have. What is that? Acid reflux, indigestion? Why can’t I figure this out? No aspirin or ibuprofen will help. The more I question what’s going on, the worse the pain gets. Then, a ball of I don’t know what forms in the base of my throat. The ball gets bigger and bigger, expanding in my airway. It travels the length of my esophagus closing my windpipe. I gasp for air. This is intensely scary. The first few times I ball up in fetal position and clutch my heart until the pain passes.

I begin to have these weird attacks more frequently; through my parent’s divorce, after my high school boyfriend kisses who was supposed to be my best friend, and when the pressures of being a television reporter begin to pile up. The men in spiked, steel boots come marching during every major event in my life and everything stops. I can focus on nothing but the pain.

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Something not to talk about

When I finally explain to my mother what’s happening, she takes me a doctor. I barely remember anything he says. Just the little bottle of blue pills I’m ordered to take. He says what I am experiencing are called panic attacks, and it’s my body’s unhealthy way of dealing with high levels of stress. It all seems perfectly normal and until I talk to my mother. She gently affirms what the doctor says with an added warning about discretion. She tells me tell no one needs to know about the little pills or the anxiety disorder that is interrupting my life. It was between us, she says. It wasn’t a doom and gloom conversation about how talking about anxiety attacks would affect my life negatively, it was just something I was told not to talk about.

At school I remember hearing my girlfriends talk about everything from heavy monthly flows that required them to go on birth control early to multiple sclerosis. They talked about their disorders, and illnesses with pride. But no one was talking about having anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts — things I was struggling with. Their silence reinforced what my mother said to me about keeping the little blue pills and my anxiety a secret. While I am sure my mother meant well when she vowed me to secrecy, my silence soon turned to shame.

In my mid-twenties I was determined to cure myself of anxiety attacks. Many nights I would pray for God to cure me. When I survived weeks without an anxiety attack, I’d convince myself that I was cured, and stop taking my little blue pills. I didn't realize that the reason the attacks had stopped was because of the pills.

I was working at my first television station as a reporter, and the stress was overwhelming: deadlines, multi-tasking, tons of responsibility. I was off the pills for about two weeks when the tiny men with spiked, steel boots reared their ugly heads again. They invaded my space before work, during work, and sometimes when I was all alone.

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Stepping out of the shadows

For most of my twenties, I suffered in silence with crippling anxiety attacks, debilitating depression, and suicidal thoughts. I found help talking to a therapist about the triggers of my anxiety and depression. After an anxiety attack sent me to the hospital, and out of work for five days, I finally accepted I needed medication. But, it wasn’t until I stepped out of the shadows of silence that I finally felt free, and able to live with a mental illness.

It started in the psych ward where I shared in group therapy how alone and sad I felt. As I shared my story, I could see people nodding their heads in agreement. That affirmation showed me I was not alone. The acceptance I felt in the psych ward gave me the courage to eventually share my story on my blog Good Girl Chronicles. Now I’m a motivational speaker who uses her story of surviving suicide, depression, and anxiety to inspire others to accept their mental illness. Never in a million years did I think I’d be so open and transparent about living with Major Depressive Disorder, but when I started verbalizing it, the pain of silence began to fell away.

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The men with steel, spiked boots don’t come as often. I learned coping skills, breathing exercises, and was prescribed medication to help. But when they do come, I don’t hide in silence. I speak up to my therapist, to my doctor, and to myself that I need help.

I encourage anyone reading this today to know they are not alone in their struggle. Help is out there and attainable when you speak up.

Editor's Note: E Pluribus Unum

Editor's Note: E Pluribus Unum

How I (sometimes) Overcome Mental Illness

How I (sometimes) Overcome Mental Illness