I had my first panic attack when I was around nine years old, crouched in the back of a mini van after a birthday party thinking I was going to be sick. I was full of soda and pizza, and home was an unexpected 40-minute drive away. The sickness was only in my imagination, but that night I felt something in my body and my mind that I eventually feared more than sickness.

Emily Brooks as a child

As a child, I had always been fearful. The same imagination that gave me several imaginary friends also gave me nightmares. I saw spiders in shadows and felt the presence of monsters under my bed.

As I grew older, my fears became more focused on how I felt rather than what was around me. For some reason, I was terrified of throwing up, which had never bothered me before. When my body reacted to this fear by making me feel sick and hyper-aware of my surroundings and every physical sensation, I began to fear the fear itself.

As a child, these feelings were new. I didn’t know what they meant or how to deal with them. I became agoraphobic, terrified of leaving the house in fear that I would have a panic attack away from the comfort of my home. I feared vacations months in advance, dreaded birthday parties, and missed a lot of homeschool tutorial days. On bad days, I couldn’t eat, and I was always thin. The best medicine was playing with friends or doing something I feared, but I didn’t always want to do that. So I stayed alone a lot, reading and writing and taking care of the animals on my parent’s mini farm.

I think I was around ten when I started taking anti-depressants for panic attacks, and around twelve when my parents decided to take me to a counselor. The medication seemed to help, but I wasn’t ready for counseling. I remember lying my head in my mom’s lap while what seemed to me like a very strange and ignorant man tried to figure out what was wrong with me. While I’m sure now that the right counselor would have helped me, this was something I would have to learn when I was ready.

But anxiety wasn’t always present, and I had a wonderful childhood and teen years. I had good friends and did well at school. I discovered my love for writing and wrote my first fantasy novel. I went on many memorable vacations and conquered even more fears. Because anxiety runs in my family, I was supported by people who understood me. But sometimes I still felt alone, envying the other girls my age whom I saw as fearless.

Anxiety became my identity and my enemy, but it wasn’t until I graduated high school that I feared that it could beat me. My fears had still been small. I believed, somehow, that I could overcome them, or at least avoid them. But with college looming over me like a rugged mountain, I finally wondered what it would look like if fear broke me.

What if I couldn’t conquer it? What if I avoided it forever, hiding away at home, never growing into the person I wanted to be? I wanted to write books. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to travel without panicking. I wanted to be brave, or at least normal. And I believed that college was the first step in becoming that. If I couldn’t go to college–if I couldn’t handle cafeterias and dorm rooms and fixed schedules–then I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do.

Anxiety gripped me so hard that it turned into something deeper, and I finally understood the meaning of depression. The word literally implies a deepening, or a pressing down. Years of anxiety had slowly cut away at my hope, like water into rock, until there was nothing but a pit. This, I know now, is what it means to despair.

In the year before I started college, I started seeing a counselor and learned with more clarity what had been going on with my body and mind since my childhood. She equipped me with the tools that I needed to move forward. I learned that I was normal, and that I could be helped, but I also learned that I was dealing with something that wouldn’t just go away with a pill or a single treatment. I was overwhelmed, feeling completely beaten when I started classes the first week of college. But I fought anyway. I forced myself to attend events, even if I left early or didn’t eat. Even while I stared into the pit, I knew I had to either leap or give up, and I didn’t want to give up. So I leapt.

Three years later, after moving into my college apartment for the final semester of college, I wrote my first blog post, “When the Fear Does Not Subside.” In the moments of writing that post, I realized how much I had overcome. Not only was I living the future I had feared, but I was thriving. I was loving my life. And all I could feel was grateful.

I didn’t know that an even deeper despair than I had ever felt was waiting to press in on me that winter, or that I would later write “Breaking Through Despair” to describe how I wrestled through it.

happy college student graduating with honors and overcoming anxiety

After graduating, I still didn’t know what the future looked like, but I was more hopeful than I had ever been. I got a job at my school and had great friendships. I was also finally accepting being single and being comfortable with that.

Little did I know.

That fall, God surprised me more than I could have dreamed when I fell in love with my best friend.

The next year, I was engaged and beginning a master’s degree in creative writing at school in Kentucky. I also went on my very first plane ride to be a “groomsman” (groom’s-maid?) in my friend’s wedding.

In 2018, I got married and moved out of my parents house for the first time. My second flight was to our honeymoon spot in Colorado Springs, where I stood on a mountain thanking God for how far I had come. I later taught my first college classes as part of my MFA program, which is something I never thought I would be able to do. But the stress of everything made me lose weight and develop a restricted diet, which lead to me being told that I needed to go to a facility to be treated for an eating disorder. Thankfully, I was able to recover at home with cognitive behavioral therapy and increased medication. I eventually was able to open up about this and share how I gained ten pounds and, more importantly, confidence and strength.

Christian couple in church pew

In 2019, we moved back into my parents house to save money. I continued to travel and make friends, and I graduated that fall after writing a full-length fantasy novel.

I have anxiety sometimes. I am sad sometimes. But I am stronger. When my counselor told me years ago that I would probably always have anxiety, I couldn’t have known that this was what she meant–that I could have an occasional sense of dread and fear, but that I could learn not to fear it. When I was a child, anxiety was like lifting a weight I couldn’t carry. Now, my muscles are stronger. I can lift more and more each day.

I am grateful to be where I am, but I know the journey isn’t over. It’s a constant war with minor skirmishes mixed with long, difficult battles. But I know now that the pit is not so deep, and the distance is narrow, and I am not alone. I never have been.

I would love to keep in touch with you!

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