At The Art Of Healing, we talk about the process of healing as if it was an art form. But art takes on a much different meaning with this healing story. That’s what Marissa discovered when she began to struggle with disabling anxiety and experience frightening panic attacks.
By: Mary and Marissa Pryor
“Mom, I think I’m having a heart attack.”
I’ll never forget the night my teenage daughter woke me in the middle of the night because she thought she was going to die. There are some things you are never prepared for in life and watching your daughter experience a full-blown panic attack was one of them.
Marissa was struggling for years with a silent disability. And while we saw some symptoms, we attributed them to typical teenage angst. It wasn’t until she was diagnosed with anxiety disorder with panic attacks at 15, we knew it was serious and had to do something about it.
Her anxiety became so bad it was documented as a disability at school. Getting through a typical high school day was a constant struggle. A routine day could turn upside down at any given moment. Nothing was ever ‘normal’ again.
My husband and I were heartbroken and confused. We didn’t understand why this happened or what we could do to help. Did we do this? What could we have done to prevent this? Were we bad parents? We felt alone and helpless to heal our daughter.
While we tried everything to help her, in the end, our daughter found her own therapy for relieving her symptoms. Marissa discovered art was her coping mechanism to deal with anxiety and panic attacks.
In Marissa’s words: Panic attacks are different for everyone. It took me a long time to recognize my symptoms for what they were. Some people have attacks triggered by something, but mine were uncontrollable and random.
In the beginning, I felt intense nausea. It was crippling nausea that made me feel like I was going to get sick, but I never did.
Most of my attacks happened at night. I would go right into a panic attack after waking up. The sensation felt like a sudden rush of nausea and adrenaline. It was very intense and lasted at least 20 minutes.
On top of experiencing nausea, my hands and feet would begin to tingle and on some occasions go numb. My heart rate would accelerate, and during my first initial panic attacks, my heart beat was fast enough to make my chest hurt.
Before I realized what I was experiencing were panic attacks, my episodes would last about an hour. This was because I didn’t understand what was happening, which made me panic even more. Nausea made me panic the most since I have an intense fear of throwing up. The dialogue going on inside my head was, “This is not good,” or “This is really bad.”
Anxiety and Panic Attacks. It’s All In Your Head.
Of course, my husband and I read everything we could on anxiety and what options were available. It began with her Pediatrician… who recommended a Psychiatrist… who recommended a Counselor. Marissa went through numerous Counselors who specialized in anxiety for teenagers. We went through years of visiting different counselors. We heard “it’s a chemical imbalance in the brain,” “it’s genetic,” and “it’s part of her psychological makeup.”
I’ll never forget Marissa’s first visit with a Psychiatrist. After one hour, the doctor wanted to put my daughter on medication. I was so angry when I walked out of the office. How could this person decide that a mind altering drug would be the best option for my daughter after one hour? We went to get a second opinion, and a third, and everyone told us medication was the only relief for her symptoms.
So, we broke down and put our daughter on Prozac because there didn’t seem to be any other option. We were miserable because we were afraid of all the scary side effects and she was miserable because she didn’t like the way it made her feel.
In Marissa’s words: I have discussed this with many people during my years of struggling with anxiety. Medication can be very beneficial for some people. But my experience with medication was generally uncomfortable. I experienced a huge lack of energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and emotion.
Most days I struggled to get out of bed if I made it out of bed at all. I felt as though I would collapse. I could sleep all day and still be exhausted. I never had much of an appetite and slept most of the days when I was at home. I became discouraged because I also gained weight as a side effect.
The one symptom that bothered me the most was the one that was the hardest to explain. Inside my body, I felt as though there was a subtle vibration. The vibration would get more or less intense throughout the day. It was on my fingers where I felt the vibration extend out past my fingertips about half an inch and stagnate. That sensation of the vibration not being able to continue any further felt like a spot of bunched up, intense vibration just beyond my fingertips.
This feeling caused me to feel extremely uncomfortable in my own skin. I depicted this in several of my sketches in which I was peeling my skin off to be more comfortable. I felt if I could peel off my skin it would resolve the issue and let the vibration just past my finger tips be set free.
Healing With Art – A Coping Mechanism
I am blessed with two very artistic daughters. While both girls love to draw, my oldest daughter Ashton was the one with a passion for photography and crafting.
But it was my youngest daughter, Marissa, who was constantly drawing. It was as if she couldn’t stop. She was always sketching on any piece of paper she could find including napkins in restaurants, scrapes of paper, and even the walls in her bedroom. We invested a small fortune in buying sketchbooks for her, and she covered every one of those pages with her drawings. I could often tell when she was having a bad day by the pictures she drew.
As she drew more frequently, her skills improved and we encouraged her to continue drawing. When I would mention how talented she was and how she should pursue it as a career, she said she preferred to keep her drawings to herself. She liked to draw when she felt like it and to sketch whatever she felt compelled to at the moment. It began to dawn on me she was using her art as her outlet to help her cope with her anxiety, and I couldn’t be happier.
While she was on Prozac (and other medications), we noticed she didn’t draw as much, and she said it was because she didn’t feel creative. She became frustrated because she had artist’s block all the time while on medication. The pills also made her constantly exhausted. She just wasn’t the Marissa we knew from before.
When Marissa got older, she had enough of the side effects of the medication. She wanted to stop taking the pills. We agreed, and there was an immediate change. She began to draw more and had more energy. And while she still experienced symptoms of her anxiety, managing it was the same as when she was on the pills. And, as her drawing increased, her symptoms subsided.
Taking Baby Steps
When Marissa stopping taking the pills, I began to notice a difference in how she coped with her anxiety. She began to push herself harder to work through her struggles. When faced with an obstacle, she would drive herself to work through it as far as she could go without having a major setback.
I would tell her to take baby steps. Marissa said this helped because she didn’t feel like she had to push herself to the limit each time she was trying to improve. Even a small move forward was exciting to her. She knew she was making progress. When her panic attacks began to get shorter each time, the idea of taking baby steps helped her work through them.
Now I tell her, “You will never get the easy button. Things will be harder for you. But each time you push yourself, you’ll find it’s easier next time.” Now with a better understanding of what anxiety is and how to cope with symptoms, she takes it upon herself to find new ways to deal with them on a daily basis, but her artwork continues to be her best coping mechanism.
In Marissa’s words: The most positive escape for me is Drawing. Drawing gives me the ability to tell a story I can’t express in words. Sometimes, in situations where I experienced something I had never felt before, I found words didn’t seem to convey enough, but illustrations did.
I believe that drawing helped me express my anxiety symptoms people might not understand if I tried to explain them in words. Drawing gave me the ability to visually depict what I felt.
Not all of my art is focused around this concept. Sometimes drawing or being creative is simply about creating something that is much more beautiful than what you’re experiencing.
Art is always a positive outlet and a very therapeutic tool when you can’t express what you are experiencing through words.
I used my drawing and painting as both, even when I was in a state of panic or anxiety. If I sat down to draw, it didn’t always have to be about expressing how I was feeling at the moment. Sometimes it was simply making another world for me to go into when I wasn’t comfortable in my own space.
Art and creating is a home away from home, where you can really focus on making something beautiful and not focus on any negativity in your life.
Marissa has come a long way and continues to improve with each passing day. I am not suggesting anyone who has anxiety shouldn’t listen to their doctors when they suggest medication. Anxiety medication can help people and is a viable option. The medication did help my daughter when she was younger, and we listened to her doctor’s advice and followed it for many years.
But our daughter was lucky enough to find another option that worked even better for her. Her coping mechanism is creating beautiful pieces of art, and we couldn’t be happier for her or more proud.
Move forward.. even if it’s baby steps,
Mary & Marissa
Mary Pryor is the Editor for the Art of Healing. Her daughter, Marissa, works as a Manager at a small retail business, freelances and sells her commissioned artwork to clients. She hopes by sharing her story it will inspire others who struggle with anxiety to never give up and to keep moving forward.
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