Surviving near fatal anxiety: A personal essay

By Nora Heyser |

When people pass by the scene of a car accident, there are a few moments of time in which you are suspended, by both empathy and fear, visual elements taking over the senses. Flashing lights, heavy traffic. Perhaps it’s raining, and you remember to slow down. Maybe it makes you a little late to work, or you shake your head, overcome with the feeling of sympathy for whoever had their day ruined with a slip of the wheel or the mistake of another.

For me, it’s a completely different experience to pass a car accident. Have you ever experienced riveting fear? Tumultuous tension, stemming from an invisible spot in your spine?

Everyone knows of the presence of anxiety. College students have a higher rate of anxiety than ever before, as student loans, career opportunities, and familial tension accumulate in a short amount of time. When someone is starting college, four years seems like a lifetime, especially after going through four years of high school. When someone is starting college and they have anxiety, it feels like you’re looking out over a precipice. There’s no knowing where you will go or what will happen, even after the first month. Even after the first ten minutes.

I began my freshman year of college in 2014, having already experienced anxiety in early childhood that showed itself in the form of panic attacks with no warning. I thought that college would be different, and at first it absolutely was.

Truthfully, I was wrapped up in the idea of being free, living on a college campus away from home, and having a long-distance relationship with my at-the-time fiancé. In the first semester, I made excellent grades, made friends, and took part in extra curricular activities like I never had in high school. Everything would be OK, I thought.

It didn’t last, though. The spring semester rolled around, and I slipped into a kind of frenzy, that had everything to do with the pressures of school, of family, relationships, friends and the pressure to grow up. What they don’t tell you about college is the amount of pressure you have financially, considering loans and books and everything else that makes people’s hearts beat a little faster. I knew it was something I’d get through, but I began to lose control of the anxiety I had been doing so well to press down. I put everything on my plate, whether it was hanging out with everyone or making sure I did the best in every class I had. I had to have it all, or I felt like I wasn’t doing enough.

My very last day of spring semester, April 30, 2015, I turned in my final paper, and met with friends from my home town in Orlando to show them the beautiful town of St. Augustine. That night, we got in my car to drive back to my apartment in Jacksonville I had just signed the lease to, to have an end-of-year celebration. Driving down US-1 is the last thing I remember.

I woke to a bright room, with about twelve doctoral students staring at me, one plastic surgeon standing in the corner, and my mother holding my hand. My mind went blank, and even though I had no recollection or idea of what could have brought me to this sterile room where I couldn’t seem to move, my first question out of my mouth was if my friends that were in the car with me were OK. When I learned they went home and were fine, I suddenly didn’t seem to care about anything else. I learned the rest of the story slowly, over time.

What had actually happened was I was driving too fast down a dark road, singing with my friends, exhausted from the semester and of trying too hard for too long. My friends told the EMTs and everyone else that an animal had run out in the road, and that I swerved. My car over corrected and began flipping, each time crushing me in the driver’s seat. My final appraisal showed that I had fractured my arm, fractured three parts of my face, and fractured my skull, causing brain hemorrhaging. Moreover, I had broken my neck in three places. To this day, I can’t remember any of this happening. I can’t remember the pain, but I also can’t recall literal days of my life, and that’s the scariest thought of all.

I ended up recovering from the injuries in two and a half months, without any surgeries and only minor various therapies to recover speech, cognition, and physical capabilities. Yet, my engagement fell apart, I had to move back in with my parents over that summer to assist me with things as simple as showering, and at the end of the day, I had to start completely over in the duration of those two months. I moved back to St. Augustine July 19, 2015. From that time onward, I began my mental recovery, an ongoing process in which I am still having to work every day to fully get control over.

While my anxiety has turned into a manic-panic disorder, and a compulsive tic of planning everything I can to have my days under control, it has also become a beautiful journey of trying to look at the world through new eyes, and to understand that some things need to be let go, and some things need to be held close. I am now about to graduate with my bachelor’s and having gone through so much in such a short amount of time, it feels as though I’m winning a lot more than just a college graduation.

Though anxiety tried to kill me, I was able to take back control, and to better understand what it takes to see what is controlling the mind, to accept it, and to then push through it. It’s the giving and the taking, the estranged relationship between loss and gain, that one must battle through when they have anxiety. Realizing this has removed a weight from my chest as I can breathe a little easier knowing that if I hadn’t lost my memory of a few days, and lost control, I would never have gained the strength and determination that it took me to get through the next three years, and to walk across the stage and accept my diploma with a smile.

To anyone suffering with this kind of debilitating anxiety, I need you to know you aren’t alone, and there is all the strength in the world to gain from understanding that you’re allowed to be defeated. You are allowed to feel pain and sorrow, and to give up things to recover. With all of that being done, you can overcome the loss, begin to fight, and finally… finally… stand up.

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