It’s Not Just “An Attack of Nerves” – My Battle With Anxiety

"I was 19 years of age, and in my third year of college when I had my first panic attack."

By Nicole J. Butler
January 27, 2020

Most people have at least a passing familiarity with depression, but only a vague understanding of depression’s mostly-ignored sibling, anxiety. As a result, those of us who live with chronic anxiety get short-shrift when what can be a crippling condition is reductively described as “an attack of nerves.” 

As someone who makes her living in front of a television camera (see video below) , I am not the image that comes to mind when you think of someone with an anxiety disorder: I’m not shy. I travel solo. I have many friends and acquaintances, and I enjoy a host of activities that take place outside of my home. 

I also have panic attacks and times when I am unable to interact with other people without great difficulty.

I was 19 years of age, and in my third year of college when I had my first panic attack. My three-year romantic relationship had become abusive, and while ANY measure of abuse is unacceptable, I told myself that since the altercations were “minor” I couldn’t consider myself a “victim.”  I considered myself to be handling things just fine, just like I thought “strong black women” were supposed to do. One day after an argument I found myself gasping for air. I felt pins-and-needles tingling in my extremities and my lips were numb. I went to the university hospital emergency room and was told that I was having an asthma attack, given an inhaler, and sent back home. I had been asthmatic since infancy, so I knew this was different, but I didn’t have the language to explain how.

The very next night, seemingly unprovoked, I had another episode, and went back to the ER. This time I was correctly diagnosed as having had a panic attack. I was given a paper bag to breathe into, a prescription for Prozac, and encouraged to seek therapy, which I did. In time I also realized that if being a “strong black woman” meant I had to declare myself impervious to abuse, it was a title that I was unwilling to hold. I exited the toxic relationship, but the anxiety disorder and ensuing panic attacks persisted. Years later, a scan of my family tree would show a predisposition to anxiety disorders, and that the relationship had been the trigger. After the diagnosis, I rode on a merry-go-round of SSRI medications that quelled the anxiety, but came with undesirable side-effects. They would also stop working every 12-18 months and I’d have to switch to a different drug in the same class.  After 17 years, I decided I’d had enough and quit cold turkey.

Do not quit cold turkey. 

For weeks I felt like my brain was being shocked by electric pulses.  Thankfully the shocks eventually subsided and I eased into what I hoped would be a med-free normal. I went to yoga, I meditated, and the anxiety stayed away for several years, which was just long enough to give me hope that it was gone for good… and then it came back with a severity that made it difficult for me to function. I couldn’t focus, the smallest tasks exhausted me, and sometimes even the thought of leaving home caused me to hyperventilate. I was not ok.  I went back to therapy and also spoke to my primary care doctor, who prescribed one of the few SSRI drugs that I hadn’t previously taken. Familiar annoying side effects (and a few worrying new ones) reared their ugly heads, and a friend referred me to a psychopharmacologist. He prescribed a medication from a class called “anxiolytics,” and I’ve been taking it for the past two years. It isn’t a panacea for all things anxiety-related, but it takes the edge off just enough that I am able to manage. 

Mental illness, though common, carries an unfair stigma, and people whose lives are most markedly affected by it are often the most marginalized. Because my career is one that comes with a large degree of visibility, it is my privilege to tell the truth in hopes of easing the way for someone else who is struggling.  

Here’s my truth:  
My name is Nicole J. Butler, and I have lived with an anxiety disorder for almost all of my adult life. It’s not a lot of fun, but it IS manageable. And there’s nothing shameful about it. 

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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