Courtesy of Olivia Hinebaugh

'This Is Us' Portrayed Just How Devastating Anxiety Can Be, & For Me, It Was Achingly Familiar

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I'm totally hooked on NBC's This Is Us. There has been a lot I've related to as a mom: I may not have triplets, but I was right there with Rebecca as she struggled with new motherhood and the overwhelming upheaval that it brings. I've loved Kate discovering that she deserves love, and Kevin realizing he has a lot to do to be taken seriously. And Randall's blossoming relationship with his dying biological father is heartbreaking. But in the most recent episode, Randall's storyline suddenly became the most relatable on the show for me. This Is Us tackled what it's like to live with anxiety and panic attacks, and it was all too familiar for me.

All season, the show has been hinting at Randall's previous mental health issues, but aside from a constant drive for perfection, we really hadn't seen how Randall's anxiety took such a huge toll on him. He seemed to be handling so much. His father's illness, his demanding job, raising two young daughters, being involved in his siblings' personal dramas. And somehow he was keeping it all together. Any father with that much going on would likely snap at his kids, his wife, or his boss (who just doesn't seem to trust him!), but Randall keeps it all together. In fact, he keeps it all in, until he reached his breaking point in the recent episode. And that episode was a perfectly illustrated example of what it's like to live with anxiety.

The episode opens with Randall running. As he jogged through his neighborhood, he kept dwelling on all of the things that were causing him stress. He pushed himself harder, until he had to sit down to get his breathing and heart rate under control. And I know that feeling so well. In fact, I sort of hate running for exercise because the heart pounding and gasping for air can feel an awful lot like an anxiety attack. As someone with a history of panic disorder (which means I had frequent, terrifying panic attacks), sometimes all it takes for me to go into an anxious tailspin is to have a bodily sensation similar to those I experience with panic. Randall got it together in that first scene. He chalked it up to running too hard and he went about his day.

But I just had this sinking feeling as I was watching. I had a familiar, heavy rock in my stomach. Because that was not it for Randall. On an important conference call, one he had been preparing for, he totally tanked. And, again, I knew just how he was feeling. He couldn't seem to get the words out. He had all of the information in front of him but it didn't seem to make sense to him. The pressure of everyone watching him just made it more difficult. Anxiety attacks are more than just feeling scared; at least they are for me. Along with the barrage of physical symptoms, there is sometimes this sense of unreality and dissociation. The volume on the things around you either gets turned way down or way up. In a really intense panic attack, I once felt like I was crying or screaming or both, and to this day, I'm not sure if I was or not. It was like Randall wasn't hearing anything, except maybe his heartbeat, or his intrusive thoughts.

I started fearing leaving the house, so I didn't. As a result, I got depressed, because my life had gotten so much worse in the span of about a month. I had a lot of trouble falling asleep, because my fears had my body on a constant state of alert. So I was sleep-deprived. I lost weight because I was afraid of eating food that might make me feel sick. My struggle with anxiety became all consuming.

At the end of the episode, Randall was in a real mental health crisis, and his brother Kevin arrived just in time. I don't think anyone watching that scene could help being moved (let's face it, your eyes probably weren't too dry). Kevin recognized that his brother was in real trouble and real pain and he knew that what he could do was sit there with Randall and let him know he wasn't alone.

Randall was having a real panic attack, and the anxiety just wouldn't abate. It was affecting everything, from his shaking hands to his ability to think clearly. And aside from the feels I got from Kevin swooping in, when, historically, he hadn't been that great of a brother to Randall, I was completely overcome with just how many things This Is Us got right.

I was so grateful that This Is Us took Randall's anxiety so seriously. I was so glad that they didn't portray him just to be a nail-biting, neurotic, silly character. He is a strong man. He is a smart man, a compassionate man. And, yet, even he could be laid low by this particular mental illness.

Before I ever had panic attacks or anxiety, I could not understand how anxiety could be a mental illness up there with depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. It just sounded kind of annoying. Like, you're nervous, so what? I heard the very flip, "OMG, you just gave me a panic attack," when someone was startled. I laughed at Buster's panic attacks on Arrested Development. In fact, when I did first start having panic attacks, I had no idea they were anxiety. Like many sufferers, I assumed the problem started in my body. People go to the ER convinced they are having a heart attack. I was sure I was going to pass out or that I was coming down with a terrible stomach bug, the nausea and stomach cramps and lightheadedness were so intense.

The anxiety I experienced bled into every aspect of my life. I started fearing leaving the house, so I didn't. As a result, I got depressed, because my life had gotten so much worse in the span of about a month. I had a lot of trouble falling asleep, because my fears had my body on a constant state of alert. So I was sleep-deprived. I lost weight because I was afraid of eating food that might make me feel sick. My struggle with anxiety became all consuming.

I was so grateful that This Is Us took Randall's anxiety so seriously. I was so glad that they didn't portray him just to be a nail-biting, neurotic, silly character. He is a strong man. He is a smart man, a compassionate man. And, yet, even he could be laid low by this particular mental illness.

I'm sure lots of people watching that episode could empathize with what Randall was feeling. Probably even more, like my partner, could empathize with what Randall's family might be feeling. I look forward to future episodes, because I have a lot of faith that this show will handle his recovery well. I hope that people who haven't experienced anxiety will gain a little insight into just how painful and debilitating it can be. I wish I had seen a portrayal like this all those years ago when I thought anxiety was no big deal. I now know what it's like to be paralyzed and trapped in your brain when it isn't making much sense. I know how much it has meant to me when my friends and family have slid down that wall to sit next to me and let me cry. This Is Us just totally nailed it.