Twice in the past couple of years I landed in the emergency room, convinced I was having a heart attack. I just knew I was going to die.

This was my initiation into the world of panic attacks.

All I wanted was the assurance I’d never experience something like this ever again.

I wanted to talk to people about their challenges with mental health for Mental Health Awareness Week. I was struck by their openness, self-awareness and healthy approach to staying well.

I sensed, from my conversation with each of them, that they did not allow their mental health challenges to define who they are.

With humor and smart strategies in place, they face their daily lives like most any of us do — one step at a time.

Below are excerpts from our conversations about their mental health stories:

(Julie Elman for The Lily)
(Julie Elman for The Lily)

“The biggest thing that gives me anxiety is death. But it’s in this weird way. I will be hanging out with friends. … And while we’re doing something that I really, really like, and something that makes me really happy, my brain suddenly is like, ‘One day you’re gonna die.’

“You know that feeling when you’re in a roller coaster? Your stomach moves? … That’s how I feel — like I cannot breathe very well. And I’m thinking, ‘Everything that you’re experiencing now is not going to happen when your life ends. Everything is just gonna be a darkness and a void.’

“When I’m around friends, and this is happening, I try to breathe through my nose and just concentrate on whatever is in the room.

“But if I’m home watching TV, and suddenly my brain is like, ‘You’re gonna die,’ I’ll start crying. I can let it ride more easily, because there’s no one around to see that I’m having a tiny panic attack.

“I’m trying to be more open about my struggles. Since I’ve always been an outgoing and always joking kind of person, I want people to know that that attitude doesn’t mean I’m without a worry — and even those who seem happy can be hanging by a single thread.”

Faby, 28

Phoenix

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(Julie Elman for The Lily)
(Julie Elman for The Lily)

“I have a son — he’s 16. He started showing signs that something was going on with him when he was about 3. He’s just had increasingly difficult issues and problems, and he is, I would say, pretty over-the-top mentally ill.

“It’s gotten to the point that sometimes he’s so furious, that I’m afraid he’s going to hurt me. He can’t control himself, even though he’s on medication. … He’s at about a 6-year-old level. But he’s a very big, strong kid. Sometimes when he’s angry, he’ll throw things. He threw a big chair at me one time.

“At times I’ve thought, ‘I’m afraid he’s going to kill me.’ … He gets in such a rage that his eyes don’t register anymore. It’s kind of like, he’s not there. And it’s a really scary experience.

“It’s something I have a hard time talking with anyone about, because I feel like they judge the situation. I’ve already had people tell me they don’t want him coming to their house. Or they say, ‘You need to put him in a home.’ It’s crushing when somebody says that to me.

“I’ll always be responsible for him, and I’ll always take care of him, but honestly, it’s kind of a burden. … I feel guilty, and I feel shame. … What does this say about me? Did I do something wrong to make this happen?

“I feel a lot of compassion for him. He’s really not a bad person. … But could he harm somebody? I don’t know. And that really weighs on my mind.”

M’s developmentally disabled son has also been diagnosed with autism, and, at times, is suicidal.

M., 53

Athens, Ohio

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(Julie Elman for The Lily)
(Julie Elman for The Lily)

“Anxiety is really infused in everything that I do. … On the most basic level, my body’s really tense a lot of the time. … It’s something I’ve dealt with my whole life. And I didn’t realize it until I was in college. But then once I did, I got on medication, and things got a lot better all around.

“I remember during ninth grade, I was so terrified to speak, that I didn’t have friends for the entire year, because I was just scared to talk to strangers, or even people I knew.

“I have been in therapy my whole life, since I was like, 9, for various things that, looking back, were all related to anxiety. I had a really terrible spell of insomnia when I was in eighth grade — it was terrible. It was for a whole summer.

“I think that my anxiety is something that will fill whatever form exists. If there’s some sort of shape to fill, it will go there. … It doesn’t matter what my conditions are — it’s gonna be there. It’s probably good to help improve the conditions, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to fix the voice in my head, so I should just try to focus on that voice and fix whatever it’s trying to say.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m ‘successful,’ in the professional world, and I sometimes wonder how much of that is because of anxiety, and not just in spite of it. I think about that a lot.”

A., 25

New York City

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