Ten. Nine. Eight.
They say that when you get worked up about something to count down from ten or repeat a mantra to try to calm down. But what happens when your chest gets so tight that you can’t think about what comes after seven? What about when you stomach is lurching up your throat at what feels like 1,000 miles an hour? How are you supposed to remember a mantra when you are trying to stop your eyes from darting from right to left, constantly in search of something but you’re not sure what, all while you are trying to figure out how to escape your shirt that is inexplicably and suddenly trying to pull you inside out?
I had my first panic attack when I was 17. I was sitting in my AP Stat class, third row back, fourth seat from the right. It was a crisp early October day and I remember the vivid fall colors adorning the trees outside the windows to my right: burnt orange leaves with the veins dyed deeper orange hues, blood red, perfectly symmetrical foliage interspersed with faded green stragglers — the colors you’d associate with a picturesque fall day in Princeton, New Jersey.
My teacher was coming around to check homework — homework that I obviously had not done despite being up all night the night before. I was trying to come up with an excuse as to why I didn’t have it today. Maybe I left it in my locker. Maybe I’d rifle through my backpack and tell her to come back to me later and hope she forgot.
The closer she got, however, the more it felt like I was being pulled back into my head; like my consciousness was getting further and further from my eyes. In the next moments, I felt my chest get tight and I started to sweat profusely. I didn’t know what was happening but I could not stop thinking about how the girl sitting next to me smelled so strongly of cigarettes it was burning my brain. My breaths got shorter and shorter and shorter until I felt like I was breathing in a coffin. I got up from my seat and, without any explanation, rushed as calmly as I could — which was not very calmly at all — to the nearest bathroom, locked the door of the first stall behind me, and threw up.
After a few minutes, I took the shirt I had brought for football practice later that day and tried to get as much of the sweat off of me as I could to little avail; it was like I had stepped into a shower that was too cold and quickly bounced out to wait for it to heat but got wet nonetheless. When I did as much as I could to clean myself up, I walked back into the classroom, tightly strolled to my seat in the third row, fourth seat from the right, next to the girl who smoked too many cigarettes and started taking notes.
Seven. Six. Five.
Being a student-athlete at a place like Penn is a completely and utterly unique experience. There is nothing in the world that can truly prepare a seventeen or eighteen year old to be thrown right into competing in the classroom and on the field here. People often talk about the new, exciting level of independence that comes with a college experience, but no one ever talks about the isolation that comes with that new, overwhelming endeavor and the pressure and anxiety feeling that you must be doing something wrong because you’re not happy and these are supposed to be “the best years of your life”.
For me, that pressure, that isolation, that immense sense of loneliness hit hard. I felt like I wasn’t spending enough time on the field to be successful in playing and not spending enough time with new teammates and hallmates to be successful in making friends and not spending enough time studying to be successful in my classes and, all of a sudden I wasn’t sleeping. Naturally, that made me worse at all three and the stress made me stop eating. I always used to muster a dry laugh when people would talk about the “Freshman Fifteen” because I lost eight pounds in my first two weeks at school.
At first, I thought time was my real limiting factor in feeling comfortable at school. After a certain point, though, it just felt hopeless. I was drowning. I was spiraling. You name the metaphor, that was me. I hardly went out, and when I did, I became the Wayne Gretzky of the Irish Goodbye. I couldn’t go out, really. By the end of my first semester it had become so exhausting, so draining to be myself — making jokes, talking about the NBA to anyone that will listen, and perpetuating the conspiracy theory that Stevie Wonder isn’t really blind — on a minute to minute basis, I often felt like I needed to completely shut down at random times throughout the day. I was existing somewhere between being awake and asleep, more of a passive observer of my day to day life than an active participant.
Four. Three. Two.
A few things happened that helped me when I got back to school for the second semester. First, I finally started realizing that my friends here cared about me and were willing to help me out, even if that just meant walking two long blocks to Wawa when it was 10 degrees outside to get a free cup of water because they could tell sitting and doing work for hours was driving me insane. There is no discernible reason that I started noticing these things, but it was a revelation for me. Slowly, I realized, cliche as it sounds, that I didn’t have to carry this load myself.
Second, I started taking medication for my anxiety and depression. As wary as I was that the medication would make me a personality-less zombie, I figured that’s exactly what I was at the time without it so might as well give it a try. I still take the medicine to this day and, while it is certainly no substitute for a cure, it has helped me keep things just a little bit more manageable. If nothing else, it at least helped me to eat my heart’s desire of Hill dining hall food second semester and get myself back up to a healthy weight.
Third, and probably most importantly, I was starting to understand what it meant to be a part of team. Being a part of a team didn’t just mean that I had the responsibility to not let everyone else down, but it meant they were going to help me live up to that responsibility.
Something that I’ve had to fall back on my whole life is sports. The competition gives me an emotional outlet and it gives me a comfortable, illusory of control: there are rules that don’t change, clear winners and losers, right and wrong, action and consequence are right after one another, a known, common enemy, and, most of all, a team.
Clapping out my last rep in the weight room, helping me get in touch with all my professors when I had a kidney stone issue, laughing at the fact that I was 18 on my second kidney stone, and making sure I was always invited when they were going to do things — these things made me feel like I was a part of something bigger. That team became and remains the backbone of my identity at Penn.
So, how does this article end?
Honestly, it doesn’t. Of course I still get down sometimes. I have days where it’s really difficult to get out of bed, or where it’s really difficult to eat. But those days have gotten fewer and farther in between. I still have panic attacks that make me sweat through my shirt in minutes and get my heart jamming against my chest. But those come less frequently now, and I am better at managing them when I feel them coming on. I’m still a work in progress and that’s ok.
It doesn’t end because there are other people here on campus who are still hurting too. My story is just one, small part of the story of mental health here on campus and for people in all kinds of other communities.
Unsurprisingly, I do not have any one step cures to the problem or any incredibly insightful policy suggestions for the administration to help deal with this problem on a large scale.
But I do think we can always try to do more in our everyday lives to just be kind to one another. It doesn’t cost any time or energy to smile at the person walking into Van Pelt as you’re walking out. No one will ever be worse off if you tell your friends you love them just a little more often. Ask a friend how they’re doing. You may not know it, but that person might breathe a whole lot easier because of you.
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