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First Person: How Jackie Got Her Life Back

Learning to manage separation anxiety

“Something went off in my head. I ran out. I wasn’t breathing. I didn’t know why it was happening.”

Jackie’s panic attacks at school brought her life to a standstill. Then her father passed away suddenly and turned her world upside down. Frightened by her own thoughts and confused by her physical symptoms, she finally opened up to her mother and got help. Today, Jackie has taken control of her anxiety though therapy that put her — not her anxiety — in the driver’s seat. Now a young woman who was so anxious she could barely go to school is speaking at student conferences and enjoying her life again.

You told me you had an issue with separation anxiety. When did that start for you?

Jackie: I’ve had separation anxiety since I was younger but it definitely escalated in the past, like, three years. I remember one time I was on the bus coming home from school and I was trying to get in contact with my mom. She wasn’t picking up the phone and I got super nervous and I started to cry and I couldn’t breathe and my heart was beating really fast. When those kinds of things started happening repeatedly was when we realized that it was getting to be a bigger issue.

Was it scary?

Jackie: Very. I was in a constant fear that my mom wasn’t okay or she was in danger and that was scary because anxiety makes you believe that what you’re thinking is real. I would start to shake and my heart would beat really fast. I would pace back and forth. I would cry. I didn’t know why this was happening. I didn’t know why I had the physical symptoms that I had. So I just kept it to myself and then finally my mom started to notice. She said: We need to get you help.

“There were endless nights I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t go to sleep. Finally, my mom said: We need to get you help.”

What was the journey like last year when you lost your father?

Jackie: Losing my dad made everything a lot worse. I knew obviously why I was anxious and sad and it was really hard. Everything happened so quickly. He went into the hospital on Monday and passed on a Thursday. It was so crazy! My world got turned upside down and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I would get so nervous, you know, because to see my mom and my sister and everybody in pain was just hard for me cause I just wanted to keep them happy.

Why do you think you held it in for so long?

Jackie: I think I held it in for so long because I felt like I was weird. I didn’t feel normal. I’d never been exposed to that kind of illness and I didn’t know much about it at all. Even to tell my mom, I didn’t want to worry her and I was, like, hopefully it will go away. I thought maybe it is just in my head. Maybe this isn’t real, which wasn’t true.

What became the turning point for talking about it?

Jackie: I was sitting on the couch one day and everything around me was fine. But I wasn’t at peace and I noticed that I never was. I couldn’t be just calm, and I realized that I was living my life avoiding certain situations. I realized that it wasn’t a way to live. I had to put my pride aside and tell my mom what was going on. When I told her, she understood, and she told me that she did notice it. She said she would get me help for it.

Once you asked for help, how did you make progress?

Jackie: A family friend told us about the Child Mind Institute. I’d been to other psychologists before and none of the experiences had been great. But as soon as I came here and talked to the doctors I was, like, okay they’re willing to help me. The doctor said: You’re in charge and we’re here to guide you through this process. I think him saying that gave me a sense of control that I never felt I had anywhere else and it put me at peace. He said we are going to get you better and I felt like they were going to do whatever they could do to get me better.

“I went in and talked to the doctors. I knew they were on this ride with me. Until I got better they weren’t going to stop.”

How did it feel when you started to get better?

Jackie: I was in school one day and the teacher had given us an assignment and normally I would have gotten nervous because we had to finish it by the end of the period and that was something that was triggering for me. I used the breathing exercises ’cause I felt myself getting worked up so I told myself it’s okay, I can deal with this, I am capable. And where normally I would have not been able to control my anxiety, I did, and I realized it was working. It made me want to work harder and learn more tools so I could continue to get better.

We understand you spoke at a conference recently? That is amazing.

Jackie: Yes, I worked with a program through my school and toward the end of last year, they asked me to go to this conference for five days in Tennessee. My mom couldn’t go and my sister couldn’t go. Never in a million years could I imagine leaving for five days to Tennessee — and then on top of that, speaking in front of people. I couldn’t even speak in front of my English class much less 100 adults. And I did it! It felt amazing. It felt like I proved myself wrong. I never thought things could be different. I was stuck in such a horrible place for so long and I didn’t think things would change. The Child Mind Institute gave me my life back.

“The Child Mind Institute gave me my life back.”

What would you want to say to a young person who might be dealing with these issues?

Jackie: You are not weird. If you are feeling this way, you are not the only one. There are so many people who go through it and when I was in your position I thought that I could never get better. I thought I could never chase my dreams because of this mental illness that was so debilitating. But you can do it. It’s not going to be a quick fix but things won’t stay like this forever.

This article was last reviewed or updated on December 29, 2022.