Finding help and hope for a better life
Human beings are hardwired to survive.
Time and again, we hear incredible stories of people who come through horrifying ordeals—war, natural disaster, abduction, abuse—and live to tell about it.
Yet for every one of those headline-making tales, there are far more individuals who are fighting a different battle. They may not make the evening news, but their stories of overcoming are powerful, and worth celebrating.
One of those survivors is Cheryl Bryan.*
For years, Cheryl, 56, struggled with anxiety, but because she was able to hold down a job and maintain a fairly normal social life—and there was no history of anxiety or depression in her family—she didn’t think she needed to seek professional help. Gradually, however, her symptoms worsened.
She had trouble sleeping and often found herself crying for no reason. There were times she had tremors and shaking and felt like she couldn’t catch her breath. And then there were the panic attacks. Although some were quite severe, she still rationalized that they weren’t bad enough to get help. Her anxiety symptoms usually flared up when she was feeling upset.
Then in 2014, her world turned upside down when an accident left her physically injured and, even after healing, partially disabled.
“That experience pushed me over the edge. I was in bad emotional shape; it almost destroyed me,” Cheryl admits. “I’d had issues with anxiety for years before this happened, but even though I knew I had a problem, I was able to ignore it and go on. After the accident, I hit rock bottom. It triggered a lot of emotions, and I wasn’t able to get back to a normal life.”
Certainly, the way she was living then was not normal.
Not wanting to be alone, Cheryl moved into an apartment with two roommates but isolated herself from the rest of the world as much as possible. She’d already quit her job and rarely left the apartment. Her roommates would pick up her groceries because Cheryl felt too anxious to go shopping herself, let alone go to a restaurant.
“It got to the point where I thought everything was hopeless,” says Cheryl, who finally admitted she needed help when she started thinking suicide might be an option.
Cheryl called The Centers (thecenters.us), a private, non-profit organization with two locations in Citrus County and three in Marion County. Started in 1972, The Centers offers outpatient, inpatient and residential treatment services for adults, teens and children.
She began outpatient treatment, seeing a psychiatrist and therapist for evaluation and counseling. In addition to anxiety, Cheryl was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As is often the case, Cheryl’s treatment included both therapy and medication.
“It took about five to six months until I really felt like things were going to turn around,” says Cheryl, who felt noticeable improvement after the first month of being on medication.
“The time frame for recovery from mental illness is different for everyone; it really depends on the person. Many things can have an impact on the frequency and severity of symptoms,” explains Deborah Giles, M.Ed. a therapist in the adult outpatient department at The Centers in Ocala at the Airport Road location.
“I’m very thankful to have my therapist. This has been my lifeline,” says Cheryl. “I never in my life felt I could open up to anyone and tell them how I really feel. With her, I’m able to do that. It took some time for her to get me talking, but little by little, things started coming out. I still go to therapy once a week; knowing I can go in and talk to her really helps.”
“Cheryl has done really, really well,” says Giles. “At one point, she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue on with life, but she stuck it out. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to serve her, but I just gave her guidance. She did the work, and she gets the credit for that. She read material to get educated, answered questions and followed up with my suggestions. She didn’t just come in and talk.”
Giles emphasizes that this is essential for anyone to see lasting change.
“Some people think if they just pop a pill, that’s all they need to do,” she notes. “You can get a measure of relief from medication for a while, but the behavioral work is key to recovery.”
For anyone suffering with anxiety, coping techniques are invaluable. Cheryl learned breathing techniques that helped her feel calmer. She began keeping a journal and writing about how she felt if she got upset or anxious. Going back and reading over what she wrote helped her regain a sense of control over her life. For some clients, a change in diet also helps, but Cheryl was already eating healthy.
The anxiety that had dominated her life began to recede as Cheryl maintained her routine of therapy and medication. She found herself more at ease and able to relax and sleep better than she had in years. She was once again able to go to the grocery store, attend church or go to a restaurant. After not working for two years, she felt ready to get back into the workforce and now has a part-time job, which she truly enjoys. She even got her own apartment, which was a major step.
“For a while, I really felt like I needed other people around just to feel safe. Now I’m ready to do things for myself and live as normal a life as I possibly can,” says Cheryl. “I’m doing all the things I wasn’t doing before; I’m starting to live again. That feeling of hopelessness is gone. Every day is one day at a time, but I’m having a lot more good days and not many bad days anymore.”
Cheryl’s advice for others dealing with mental and emotional struggles: Don’t wait to seek help.
“If I had reached out for help a lot sooner, I wouldn’t have gotten in the shape I was in,” she says. “It’s nothing to be ashamed about. I think that is one thing that kept me from going for help for so long. I was taught to take care of myself and that you don’t need help from other people. Sometimes people don’t reach out for help because they think they can’t afford it,” she adds, noting that this is a misconception.
Many treatment options are available, and, in many cases, residential (live-in) treatment isn’t necessary.
“I want people to know there is hope and there is help,” Cheryl adds. “Without that help, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
“Many people are reluctant to get help because the stigma of mental illness is still there,” observes Giles. “People often wait until it’s really bad because there’s a sense of defeat and shame. We want them to know they can come as they are. Our goal is to provide appropriate care and services, treating everyone with dignity and respect. Whether it’s for children, teens, adults or seniors, there is help available.”
Diagnosis & Treatment
Cheryl’s story underscores the fact that many people with anxiety cope as long as they can—often for years—and don’t seek help until they have to admit they’re unable to live a normal life.
“Mental health professionals can diagnose the problem and treat it, but the person with the problem often doesn’t really care what the diagnosis is, as long as they get help with their symptoms,” notes Donald J. Baracskay II, MD, MBA, MSCIS, medical director at The Centers.
Although statistically speaking, anxiety is more common in women, the stereotype of men “toughing it out” and not seeking help appears to be changing, especially in younger men. The stoicism of older generations who believed in “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” is definitely not the outlook of Generation X and millennials.
“There’s a lot more attention paid to mental health issues today,” says Baracskay.
Identifying the causes of anxiety disorders is not a simple process, as they often include multiple factors and have even been shown to run in families. A significant event or trauma can trigger an anxiety disorder in an individual who has an inherited susceptibility to developing it. Research has shown that severe or long-lasting stress can actually change the way nerve cells in the brain circuits transmit information from one part of the brain to another.
There are several types of disorders that fall under the category of “anxiety,” including:
- Social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia)
- Panic disorder
- Specific phobias (intense fears of specific things/situations)
- Generalized anxiety disorder (excessive, unrealistic worry)
- Symptoms will vary depending on the type of disorder, but general anxiety symptoms may include:
- Feelings of panic, fear and uneasiness
- Problems sleeping
- Cold or sweaty hands/feet
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Not being able to be still and calm
- Dry mouth
- Numbness or tingling in the hands/feet
- Muscle tension
“For people with anxiety symptoms, there tends to be a pattern of the symptoms returning, but that’s not a guarantee,” says Baracskay.
Treatment for anxiety disorders varies depending on the individual and their specific type of disorder. Baracskay adds that, although some people hope medication alone will resolve their symptoms, the best way to treat anxiety is usually a combination of medication and therapy.
Treatment may include:
- Psychotherapy (counseling to address underlying emotional issues)
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (to help identify and change thought patterns and behaviors)
- Lifestyle and dietary changes
- Relaxation therapy
*name has been changed to protect privacy