Calm After the Storm

May 20th, 2019

Elle has had her share of panic attacks and anxiety. But she has chosen to face them head on and learn from her struggles to help others by becoming an art therapist.

NAME — Elle MacMurray

AGE — 23

OCCUPATION — Future Art Therapist, Starbucks Barista

HOMETOWN — Portland, OR

FUN FACT — Elle once shaved the side of her head

How would you define yourself?

“I’m pretty quiet, but once you get to know me I can be a chatterbox. I’m introverted and thrive off of alone time. I can’t handle big crowds very often. I’m creative and an artist. I like to think I’m really funny with a great sense of humor — if you’re lucky enough to get to know me, that is. I’m a coffee addict. 4w5, INFJ. I’m a listener and auditory learner. I’m a planner, which may or may not be related to my anxiety. Spontaneous is not a word to describe me. I’m basically blind. Oh, and super awkward.”

What is your experience with mental illness?

“It started around my sophomore year of college, maybe in between freshman and sophomore year. I went to a therapist who diagnosed me with generalized anxiety (GAD), social anxiety and panic disorder. I don’t have depression, but I’ve had some depressive episodes more recently. I always thought I had social anxiety since I’ve never liked big crowds. I originally thought my internal panic in crowds was simply my introversion.

I had my first panic attack on campus. I had no one to eat with or go to the cafeteria with one day, and my mind told me I was going to starve and die because of that. I remember calling my mom to tell her I was going to die because none of my friends were free to eat with me. I was still very new at Lipscomb University and didn’t know many people.

My panic attacks got worse and more frequent. I noticed that they usually occurred for similar reasons — no friends to do things with, eating alone, fast food would make me fat, and so on. I tried various coping methods: meditation, counseling, and everything in between. Transitions were hard on me because any kind of change from my routine triggers me. Change was definitely a trigger for my depression. I would have panic attacks when flying because everything was all out of my control. I rarely experienced that feeling for school things, though.

I can tell the difference between stress and anxiety when most people can’t. I’ve had moments when a friend would want to do something spontaneously, and I would have a meltdown because I hadn’t planned. I could technically do it, but my body told me otherwise. That just made me feel terrible, and that cycle would continue.

Moving back to Nashville from Portland after graduation was a tough transition since I knew it would only last for a year and provide few opportunities to visit home. I had one of my strongest depressive episodes triggered by that change — I’d say it’s still present, but some days are better than others. I sometimes feel sad that I’m not ‘past it’ or ‘over it’ yet, but I’ve learned to better recognize and hone in on it.

For example, I was supposed to start a second job but called in to quit before even starting. I couldn’t take out my nose ring and began to panic, thinking that I wouldn’t meet their standards or fit in. My mom is my go-to person to call. She also has anxiety and knows how to talk me down since my head usually tells me the problem is bigger than it actually is. I was anxious before even starting the job and then felt guilty because of how kind they were about the situation. My head told me that they hated me. I was drained after and spent the day practicing self-care.”

Have you ever gone to counseling? If so, what was your experience like and what would you tell others about counseling?

“I have, but my first counselor wasn’t the best fit for me. I learned that it’s always trial and error. I went to student counseling my sophomore year and really connected with the counselor. It was one of the best things to have happened to me. We dug deep to discover my triggers and the causes of my panic attacks. I began taking medication for my depression and anxiety.

I think everyone should go to counseling. If you’re interested in becoming a counselor, you have to go to counseling, but anyone can benefit. It’s more than venting. It’s them helping you understand what and why you feel things. It’s especially helpful when things get tough and you don’t want to put your burdens on others. I always felt my issues weren’t big enough to tell my friends.

It does takes time to find someone you trust and can be open with. I’m personally more comfortable speaking with a woman. My first counselor never seemed to be completely honest with me and was short with her answers to my questions. My second counselor and I simply clicked from the start. Sometimes you can just tell when you’re comfortable with a person and you slip things in because of that. I don’t go anymore, though, since she graduated, and I didn’t want to start over with someone new.”

Why are you passionate about mental health awareness?

“I’m passionate about helping others; that’s why I want to be a counselor. I want to show people how I’ve been helped so they can experience healing, too. I’m going to grad school for art therapy where you don’t have to sit down to talk about it but instead can let it out creatively. I want to be there for people and help them believe that they can make it through. It’s ok to handle mental illness as long as you’re not going through it alone. Mental health awareness is important now more than ever. It’s starting to be taken more seriously, and I want to be part of that change.”

What do you want to change about mental health and awareness of it?

“I want to change how much I speak about it. I want it to be taken seriously as a form of illness because your brain is the most important part of your body. If your brain is broken, you need to tend to it. Treat it the same as a concussion: seek help and medical attention. Don’t rub dirt on it and walk it off. Mental health is serious; it’s not like a paper cut that quickly heals on its own.”

Even though you struggle with mental illness, that doesn't define you. What would you want others to know about yourself?

“That’s a tricky question because I’m not usually super vocal about mental health. I’ve posted related things on social media maybe once or twice. It’s not because I’m embarrassed by it, though. I learned that when I talked about it on social media that people gave me more attention for it, and I don’t want that. It’s important to know that you’re not alone. I want people to know that when I talk about mental health, it’s me telling them that I’m here for them and not looking for attention.”

What do you want others to know about mental illness?

“I want them to know and believe that it’s okay to feel. If you think what you’re going through isn’t a big deal, that’s not the case. I lived that way for a long time, thinking I needed to suck it up since others had it worse. But that’s never something you should do. What you’re going through is as important as anyone else’s challenge. Your feelings are valid. It’s hard letting someone know your struggle, but you’ll feel a weight lift off your shoulders when you do talk about it — especially with someone you trust and are comfortable talking to. That person won’t judge you but will sit with you through it. Even if it’s scary to open up, it’s worth it. Also, never skip a meal because you’re scared to go to the dining hall. LOL.”

My name is Elle, and I am not defined by my struggle with mental health.

You're Not Alone

Panic Disorder affects 2.7% of adults in the U.S., affecting twice as many women as men.

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