I had what most people would call a ”normal childhood.” I grew up in a nice, clean house in Charlotte, North Carolina with two loving parents that were part of a large family. I was well-liked by children and adults alike (or so I was told). All I wanted was to share my love for life and Jesus with everyone I met, as a bright, curious little tyke with a vivacious personality and a love for hugs. That all changed once I got my diagnosis, which, sadly, didn’t have a name for more than a decade.
Suddenly, events and situations that I would normally be so excited about invoked unparalleled fear in my little 6-year-old heart. It was as if everyone else was moving on in the river of life while I was stuck on a riverbank in my own mind. Add to that the facial tics where I couldn’t even control the movements my body made and I was convinced that I was falling apart. I would get so frustrated that the only release after holding it together all day at school would be to lash out at those I loved the most. Temper tantrums and meltdowns became an almost daily occurrence, long past the age when those are deemed appropriate.
No amount of medication helped. I tried pill after pill with no luck because doctors thought I either had Tourette’s or severe A.D.H.D. Nobody had any idea what was really going on in my head or in my heart and I sunk into a deep, dark depression. I felt like I was a lost cause because none of the doctors I had put my faith in could agree on a diagnosis.
Having had to be pulled out of ”regular school” at a young age due to my developmental disabilities, jumping right back into that atmosphere as a high school freshman just about wrecked me. I use the term ”disability” very loosely because while I did have a learning disability in math, I didn’t fit the criteria for a student that needed special education classes. So, although I didn’t look or maybe even sound different from my peers, I was still on a different wavelength. I didn’t understand social cues at all and I didn’t know how to handle myself in such a structured academic world when I was used to being able to finish work on my own time when I was homeschooled.
My everyday life was riddled with anxiety and the horrible fear that I would be found out. I had no idea what I was doing or how to fit in. It was like I was a high schooler trapped in a middle schooler’s body. I may have been the same age as the people I interacted with for seven hours a day, five days a week, but I was nowhere close to them on even the most fundamental maturity level (which is not saying much since we all know how mature teenagers are…) I was bullied so much, I had to switch school twice and graduated with a class of virtual strangers.
It wasn’t until I received my diagnosis of P.A.N.D.A.S. at the age of 10 (it was virtually unknown at that point with only a handful of cases and little to no research) that I realized my body was not, in fact, a lost cause. I still had tics and yes, I was learning the hard way how cruel kids can be to anybody who is different, but at least now, thanks to a vigilant psychiatrist who believed in me and made me feel heard, I had hope for the first time in my life.
Because of the years I went untreated, I was prescribed a low dose antidepressant which I took through the end of high school to help with my anxiety. That, along with the renewed sense of hope I received from my doctor, helped me to deal with the feelings of hopelessness I felt before. It took a few more years of growing and maturing, but having that hope helped me to succeed later in life. I chose in that moment to believe that I could conquer anything I set my mind to and I don’t have to use my diagnosis as an excuse to give up. I learned how to accept myself for who I was, tics and all. Fun fact, I grew out of those for the most part. My face only twitches when I am extremely tired or concentrating on a difficult project now.
Nearly 15 years later, at the age of 26, I have not forgotten what I went through as a child and an adolescent. I can say with confidence that had I not experienced those difficulties, I would not be as strong as I am today. That realization didn’t come easily, but knowing that I had such an amazing support system behind me made all the difference. I am so thankful that P.A.N.D.A.S./P.A.N.S. is now recognized by the American Psychiatric Association because that means other people don’t necessarily have to go through the same things I did to find a diagnosis. A diagnosis is a much faster process today as more and more pediatricians are trained to recognize the signs of P.A.N.D.A.S./P.A.N.S. Children do not have to go an extended period of time without treatment or be subjected to years of taking antibiotics to fight the strep virus or antidepressants to try to reverse the extensive damage done to a developing brain.
I want to encourage all of you parents who are just receiving the news that your child has the same diagnosis: I know everything seems scary and confusing right now, but don’t give up! All your child really wants is support and love. Knowing that they have a support system is key. So, even when you don’t feel like it or your child is in the middle of a meltdown, keep encouraging your child that they are not alone in this. Tell them how much you love them, every hour of every day if you have to. And, above all, hold on to the hope that IT GETS BETTER. I am living proof of that. I hope someone hearing these words understands that this diagnosis does NOT define your family and you are so much stronger than you believe yourself to be.
“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” | John 16:33 (NLT)
Anna graduated with honors from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor’s degree in public relations in December 2014. She and her husband, Lee, along with their bulldog, Biscuit, currently live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Anna works as the client care specialist at a physical therapy office and serves as the marketing manager for her husband’s food truck on the weekends. Thanks to the amazing support shown by her friends and family, Anna is now 100% medication free and living life to the fullest!