Community needs to get a mental image

July 7, 2011 at 2:07 a.m.

There I am, enjoying one of my favorite burger joints back home and it hits me - I need to get out of here.

"Let's go," I say in a panic to my dinner companion.

A knot strangles my every breath, the room is closing in and I feel like I'm walking through quicksand, melting into the ground, about to collapse, pass out.

I feel a million beady eyes on me but once outside the restaurant, a sense of calm washes over my psyche.

"It's all OK," I say. "It was just another panic attack."

I find that every time I write a column, I discover a little bit more about myself and I have no fear divulging it for all to read.

My goal is to have readers relate.

Covering health is such a broad beat. There is fitness health, primary health and mental health, just to name a few.

I've also had an interest in the latter.

My very first panic attack happened when I was a junior in high school and its arrival had no real source.

I was at home, enjoying a relaxing day when suddenly, I felt anxious. That anxiety quickly turned into what psychologists token "fight or flight."

I remember pacing through the bedroom I grew up in, on the verge of tears. I felt death, or so I thought that's what I felt.

My heart was racing so fast and I felt like I was about to storm out the door and run through the street screaming hysterically.

"This is a heart attack," I remember thinking. "I'm going to die."

Then, as quickly as my "brush with death" came, it was gone.

While I've never been clinically diagnosed with panic disorder, it doesn't take much to realize what has happened.

What's my point, you may ask?

Most panic attacks can be controlled with medication (which I've never taken and am not very fond of) and/or therapy.

It affects more people than you may think and it is considered a mental disorder but, obviously, on a much lesser scale than say schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Even though it's more common to have a panic attack, you feel made fun of and misunderstood.

Through self-therapy I've managed to not have a panic attack in several years.

My last one was actually during a very stressful final exam my sophomore year in college.

But the times I have had one in a public area, I feel those beady eyes staring at me; and in my mind, I hear the thoughts of those around me.

"Look at him, he's crazy."

I'm not.

And believe me, mental disorders affect more people than you may know. We're everywhere.

About one in five people in America live with some mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

I really feel for people who suffer from a mental illness that is so bad they are legally disabled and at times criminalized for their actions.

The stigma against those with mental disorders run rampant.

To date, without thinking about it, my anxiety rises while eating in public. Not being in public, just eating. Mine is very manageable, but for many others, their disorders are not.

The community needs to see just because people may not have physical disabilities does not mean they are not suffering.

As a whole, we need to educate ourselves and stay vigilant for those who walk amongst us.

J.R. Ortega is the Advocate's health reporter. Contact him at 361-580-6504 or at



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