Nearly 40 million Americans struggle with anxiety every year. And I am one of them.

It's not that I just freaked out for a day or was worrying way more than I should. For me, anxiety and panic attacks look like hives covering my body; it's shaking so hard I can barely walk, it's sobbing in the corner because I feel this overwhelming amount of fear. When COVID-19 descended, it didn’t just bring sickness, it brought fear, panic and chaos. It sent me on a downward spiral, and triggered an episode that would land me in the emergency room.

This story is my journey, what I learned, and how I came back stronger. And finally, what I learned from talking to a therapist for this piece in in hopes that it might be of help to others.

My name is Ashleigh, I am 30, and I live in Rural Hall, North Carolina. I have battled anxiety and panic attack disorder for six years. I grew up with insomnia and anxiety, but they didn’t affect my life greatly. Every now and again, I would be short of breath, but my dad helped me work through it pretty quickly. He also had anxiety, so he was able to relate and help me cope.

Beaver family birthday
The Beaver family celebrates a birthday.

He died when I was just 17, and I wondered how I would manage without him. And then, my anxiety went dormant, and I was able to live my life without the fear and debilitation. I became a missionary and traveled the world. I visited places like China, Thailand and Ukraine. I served in orphanages and helped support women stuck in prostitution. I felt so at home, even though I was so far away.

That all changed when anxiety roared back into my life without warning at 25. I had no coping techniques and was unable to be on medication. I thought this was just my new life and that I would have to just deal with it the best that I could. Shortly after, I got married and added a baby to the mix. My son became my saving grace, and my anxiety calmed down once again. Then COVID-19 arrived.

I went into lockdown with my husband and two children, Liam, who is four, and my little girl Saylor who is three. It wasn’t too bad at first. But with a husband who left every day to go to work, my little ones became my only form of human contact. The news outlets and kid babble became my whole world. My mental health began disappearing like water down the drain. I didn’t know how to ask for help, and honestly, was afraid to.

What if I sound crazy? What if people see me as unstable? My fear told me to hide. That if I could just appear to be “normal,” eventually, my anxiety would go away. But it did not go away this time. And it was getting worse. I wasn't eating, wasn't sleeping, I turned to unhealthy ways to cope because I had never learned how to cope with panic. I would drink a glass of wine to relax, stay out of crowded places, and avoid anything that could possibly trigger a panic attack, but I learned this was no way to live or cope. I couldn’t depend on a glass of wine to relax, and I couldn’t stay in my home forever. But, what else could I do?

I desperately wanted my husband to stay home to protect me and never wanted to leave the house for fear of having a panic attack in public. I lost 15 pounds and my nutrition was so poor I became dehydrated and landed in the ER. I sat in front of the doctor, tears streaming down my face, feeling so defeated and so ashamed. I’d let my anxiety convince me that I was a bad mother, that all this was my fault. I was deep in a hole with no way up and out.

That doctor looked at me with so much compassion in his eyes. He assured me that we are all struggling and that we are all feeling the stress of the pandemic. He did not shame or judge me. Somehow, Dr. Tariq Shihabuddin (we meet him at the end of this story) gave me the confidence that I needed to seek help.

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The ER team help me connect to counselors who introduced me to healthy coping mechanisms. Over the weeks and months, I was slowly learning how to redirect my thoughts and get to the root of my fear. I started doing things that anxiety made me fear, like flying on a plane, riding in an elevator, being out in public where there are lots of people.

In hopes of helping other people who may have had similar struggles, I spoke with Richard Maas, of Novant Health Behavioral Health, and he made me understand the importance of ongoing care. He explained that our mental health wasn't a one-and-done type playing field. I couldn't just take a pill and be fine. I couldn't just go to a few counseling sessions and be “fixed.” I had to take responsibility for my mental health and show up for myself every single day.

The unhealthy coping mechanisms that I developed, like needing my husband with me at all times, weren't realistic. But gaining the confidence that I could be OK out in public without him by my side and taking control of my disorder and not allowing it to control me was a big revelation for me. My panic felt so big, but by accepting responsibility for myself and taking the initiative to take small steps every day eventually turned into bigger steps.

I’ve become more active, eat nutritional meals and limit social media. I get outside! I am learning to listen to my body and recognize what I need and what my triggers are. It’s essential to have a great support system, but it is my responsibility to do the work and apply it.

Back in March 2020 I looked at my husband and said, “I don’t know if someone like me can thrive in a world like this.” I felt so alone, and broken.

That night at the night at Novant Health Clemmons Medical Center saved me. The doctor told me that I could do this, and I was given resources that I didn’t know existed.

Today, I am no longer that young mother in the corner weeping through a panic attack.

I became a real estate agent, and I love being out in my community. I am a leader with an international nonprofit, called Moms In The Making, for women going through pregnancy loss or infertility. I lead a group locally. I take my children to parks, and we play in the sunshine every day. Next month, I’ll face my fear of getting on a plane.

My disorder is still a part of me. I still have attacks, but I can manage them now. I changed my thinking and learned the importance of showing myself grace and affirming myself with positive thoughts. I get ongoing counseling to help me stay on track.

I know what it feels like to be in the thick of a disorder and wonder if it would be better for everyone if you just ended it. I know what it’s like to wonder if that’s your only option.

But I learned there is always another option, and there is no shame in asking for help. That is not failing, but the bravest and best thing you can do.

Meet the doctor on the other side of this story: Dr. Tariq Shihabuddin

While we know the ER is there to treat people who’ve had accidents, injuries, or sudden, serious illness. The reality of providing care there is much more complicated.

Dr. Tariq Shihabuddin
Dr. Tariq Shihabuddin

“We treat everything that walks through the door, whether it’s a broken arm or a broken heart,” said Dr. Tariq Shihabuddin who treated Ashleigh Beaver at Novant Health Clemmons Medical Center. “You do your best to take care of patients in every possible way. Listening is key. It’s the most important thing because it helps us figure out what is going on.”

And indeed, Shihabuddin (pronounced she-HA-boodin) said, he’s being doing a lot of listening in the ER as COVID-19 turned the world upside down. “I worry about everyone. I think we’ve all seen it. Whether it’s our friends, our families or our colleagues."

He credits the nursing staff — and all other team members who staff ER’s around the clock — for helping deliver exemplary care in nearly impossible circumstances.

“It’s not easy, but it’s very rewarding,” he said. “We can get through anything if we try to take care of each other.”