I still remember my first panic attack. I was in the middle of health class during sophomore year of high school and was suddenly overcome with an intense feeling of dread and panic. I felt like I needed to run far away, or hide, or do both. I quickly excused myself from the classroom and ran downstairs to the nurse's office, spending the remainder of the afternoon hyperventilating while screaming that someone needed to call an ambulance. "You're just having a panic attack!" the nurses told me. "It will pass shortly."
The panic attack eventually passed, but the disorder stuck around indefinitely. I would get bad anxiety and panic attacks practically anywhere — on public transportation, while attempting to eat at restaurants, watching movies in theaters, and even just sitting in classrooms. I spent a lot of my time trying to avoid places and things that would trigger my anxiety, and as a result I cut myself off from a lot of activities that I had once enjoyed.
During the beginning years of my mental illness, I spent a lot of time alone, even though I was always very involved in extra curriculars and school clubs. When I was out and in social settings, I would do my best to pretend that I was fine and enjoying the moment, but more often than not, I would be silently hurting inside.
Because of this, I only found total comfort at home, using my time alone to explore different hobbies and interests — one of them being beauty and fashion. I would spend hours upon hours cutting out beauty editorials from magazines and collaging them onto the walls of my closet. Summer mornings were spent visiting the public library across the street and checking out magazines by the stack so I could read up on the newest beauty trends. Evenings were spent at the drugstore down the block buying the new products I had read about earlier in the day. When I read through every magazine available at the local branch, I would take the bus out further to another library to see what collection they had. My appetite for reading was insatiable; it made me feel whole again.
A few years later, therapists eventually discovered that what I was experiencing was not just generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks, but also post-traumatic stress disorder (also known as PTSD) as a result of traumatic experiences that had occurred during my adolescence. My moods and behaviour finally began to make more sense to me, but I was still overwhelmed and didn't know exactly how to process all the surplus of emotion. I would go a few months feeling just anxious or mildly depressed, not the usual earth-shattering, life-altering anxiety I had become so accustomed to a few years earlier, but these phases were always fleeting. It always reverted back to extreme panic.
I was ashamed — I had so many interests, so much curiosity for the world around me, yet I could not enjoy it one bit.
When I was entering my senior year of college, my PTSD came back full force to the point where I became agoraphobic. For over two years I silently struggled with leaving my apartment. A walk even to the corner deli to pick up lunch made my chest hurt and my thoughts spiral. I would dread the weekly trips to the laundromat, and getting on public transportation made me disassociate. I was ashamed — I had so many interests, so much curiosity for the world around me, yet I could not enjoy it one bit. I spent months trying to figure out what I could do to help remedy the problem, and one day I finally figured out a baby step: beauty.
I remembered how much beauty routines used to make me happy — how my trips to the drugstore to pick up the newest mascara or my visits to the hair salon, inspiration pages ripped from a magazine in hand, would make me feel confident. So I began to rework my days. Slowly I introduced little beauty routines again into my daily life. I would walk eight blocks down to the nail salon, something my agoraphobia never let me do, and get a manicure and pedicure. I would travel back to my apartment, feeling accomplished and wanting to show off my polished nails. I would take time in the morning to style my hair; the act of brushing and applying products to it was my own form of meditation. When it came to makeup and skin care, I would experiment with different mascaras and serums, creating a whole sequence of steps before I would leave for the day, my own version of breathwork.
Over time, my daily beauty routines grew, and before I knew it, my world began to expand again. Instead of just going to the local nail salon, I would get on the train (!) and visit a specialty one a few neighbourhoods over. I even ventured out to another area of the city, two bus transfers away, to get a haircut. I was slowly rediscovering myself.
I know that the feeling of dread and anxiety may not ever completely go away, and that I will probably carry them within me for years to come. However, I do now know that even though I cannot control every facet of my emotions, I do have control over the routines I hold every day that make me feel like me. And that alone gives me hope.