You can't truly understand panic and anxiety until you've lived it. Rebecca Brown, a writer and editor at POPSUGAR, knows this better than anyone. Brown was diagnosed with panic disorder in her late teens, and her new heartfelt memoir, Stop, Drop, and Panic . . . and Other Things Mom Taught Me, chronicles her life as she struggles to overcome those anxieties and fears — some of which her mother passed down to her. The coming-of-age memoir is funny, relatable, and most of all, completely honest and authentic.
Brown shared an excerpt from the book with us that will leave you wanting more — and leave those who suffer from anxiety with the comfort of knowing that not only are you not alone, but you're normal, too.
On the author first being diagnosed with panic disorder:
I hated thinking about what was going to happen to me once I became dead, assuming that whatever it is, I'd have to live with that forever. Like a bad tramp stamp. Our first session ended and I went outside and into my car to call my parents. Dad answered.
"I need to come home," I said, before telling him anything about the session.
"We are so proud of you," he started. Mum talked over him in the background. Her voice carried louder than his.
I yelled into the phone. "I can't hear you over Mum."
"Sam, would you stop that?" he shouted. "Beki, I'm putting you on speaker."
I told them I wanted to go home. They told me they were proud of me for seeking help and that I needed to stay put. Mum said she'd come up to visit me soon.
"You're the toughest girl I know," she yelled.
Despite feeling that Dr. Schwinn didn't understand my perspective or my fear, he diagnosed me with something called a panic disorder and suggested that I pursue cognitive treatment with him. I'd never even heard of a panic disorder before, but I accepted his evaluation as fact and agreed to the treatment anyway. I was alone in a strange city experiencing strange sensations at night that were only getting increasingly worse. So much so that by the time I first visited him, I'd begun to fear nighttime completely. The awareness of the looming moon would unhinge me, forcing me to fixate on only the maudlin: being dead, or worse, my parents being dead. Living 100 miles away from them was a fact I could stomach during the day; at night, however, all it did was create a heightened awareness of being alone.
And alone was something I'd always dreaded. I was desperate. If Dr. Schwinn had told me an entirely different reason I was feeling this way I would have given him the same nod and signed up for the same number of follow-up sessions. I felt like flotsam in an unfamiliar, menacing ocean, and as much as I knew he was a stranger that barely knew me, he was the only person that had the potential to find me a lifejacket. Even if it didn't quite fit correctly. Two days later I went back for our second session and he gave me a "brain assignment" so that I could get back into the driver's seat, so to speak.
"I'd like you to sit on your bed during the day or during a time in which you feel safe and scribble everything that terrifies you about being dead," he said. "Here, write it in here." He handed me a brand new legal pad. "Everything that scares you about death, make sure you write it down. Once you have it all, I'd like you to read it back to yourself every single afternoon."
"That sounds awful," I shouted. Just the thought of doing something so twisted made me uncomfortable. "I don't want to do that at all."
"It's an exercise and I'd like you to try," he said plainly. "Do what you can and let me know how it goes."
I left his office and went home. I sat on my bed, locked the bedroom door, and began to write, starting with the most obvious. Being dead is forever. It never ends. Never, ever, ever. I'll never see my family again. I'll be alone. No one will come get me.
Whoa. The back of my throat started to burn and close up. I'd only written five lines down and I was already tormented inside. I had no idea where these visceral feelings were coming from — no one was sick, no one immediate had died. It was completely irrational, yet all-consuming. I put the notepad down and went to the bathroom to wash my face, returning later to finish writing. I pushed the pen hard into the pad, closed my eyes, and let it all pour out, writing faster and faster with each added thought.
When I came up for air I had two pages worth of notes. They were surreal; all about death and aloneness. It felt so unfair that I'd only get to be a participant in life for such a small interval of time. It was unfair and temporary, and if it was all going to be ripped away from me what was the point of trying to achieve anything in life; what was the point of trying to connect with anyone?
I didn't need to find the meaning of life, I needed to find the permanency in it. I cringed when I looked at my notes. Who would write such dark and demented stuff? This wasn't my handwriting; it had to be a journal from David Lynch. I would never write these things. Not "day me," at least. Each sentence teetered between brutally pithy and deeply existential, as if I believed if I wrote a sentence enough times I could think of a way around death and perhaps even outsmart it before the sentence had to end. Before my life had to end.
I glanced at the words in complete horror and hid the notebook under my pillow, embarrassed at what I'd even written down. There wasn't a person in my life, not Mum, not Dad, and not Charles, that knew these thoughts were swirling in my head, but they were there, consuming all my quiet moments. I rarely acknowledged they were up there, but as I sat in my bed I saw them, staring back at me from a lemon yellow notepad, written with an ugly grey ink pen that I'd thought was black when I bought it from the school bookstore.
The next afternoon, I sat in bed and read my obsessively dark memo back to myself. Then I did it the next day. And the day after that. Sometimes I'd cry and wail and throw the notepad against the wall and pound my fists into my bed until I was too exhausted to cry any more, other times I'd end up with my knees pressed against the bathroom floor and my head hovering over the toilet bowl fearful that I'd have to throw up. I usually didn't. Sometimes when the homework got too intense or the afternoon crying left my throat burning from all the heaving, I'd call Mom just to hear her voice. I'd tell her that I didn't have such a hard time sleeping when I lived at home. This would all go away if I transferred schools. Maybe city college would be better for me the way it ended up being better for Molina Modina, I'd add. Although, I had no idea what the hell happened to Molina Modina.
I was infuriated when Mum told me not to make any decisions without speaking to Dr. Schwinn. Every week or so I went back to see him to talk about my homework. I'd tell him how much I hated it, and about the abdominal stress. The anxiety made me empty out my insides until there was nothing left of me.
"You are undergoing exposure therapy, and this is all normal," he explained.
Normal. I liked being told I was normal.