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The American Dream Gave Me Anxiety Attacks
Abdouramane Barry
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As a teen boy in my home country of Guinea, West Africa, I didn’t have the same worries as many of my peers. Most parents sent their sons to school just long enough to learn the basics, and then they sent them to work to help their families financially.

But my father was in the United States, where he was earning about three times what he would have made in Guinea. Besides this, my father has only one wife and five kids, while plenty of fathers in Guinea have four wives and more than 20 kids to support. With most of my needs met, the only things I worried about were going to school, eating, flirting with girls, and acting like I was the king.

I knew I would one day join my father in the U.S., but I never thought about the responsibility this implied: that I would eventually have to contribute to the support of my family. Nor did I understand how difficult my dad’s position was. I used to be mad that he didn’t send us more money. I believed, as most people did in Guinea, that if you lived in the U.S. you could afford anything.

When I was 15, my father arranged for me to move to the U.S. My friends told me I was blessed, that I’d be rich soon, and that they wished they could follow in my footsteps. They were even more excited than I was.

Like my friends, I thought I would be the happiest person alive once I got to this country. I was ready to have fun and become well-known and successful. Yet almost as soon as I arrived, I realized that I was totally mistaken about life here. Gradually I discovered something I hadn’t experienced before: anxiety.

Dad’s Sacrifices

My father is 47. He is diabetic but works long hours, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., without resting. He has no choice because he supports all our family and relatives living in Africa, whether in Guinea, Senegal, or Ivory Coast. He is a simple taxi driver who earns just a few dollars a day, yet he has overwhelming financial responsibilities.

When I arrived and saw how hard he worked for us, I felt sad. I never knew that my father was living in a single room here; in my country, my family owns three houses and two cars, all bought with the money my dad sent home. It was precisely because he gave us everything we needed that I thought he must own many properties here, too. I never imagined what my dad was sacrificing to give us the life we enjoyed back home. Literally, he would rather die of hunger than let us starve.

I also felt sad because most of my family members back home still had the misconceptions I’d had. They called him often, asking him to send money or other things. I wanted to blurt out that they should find themselves jobs and leave my father alone, but I knew my father would be mad at me if I did that because he doesn’t want anyone to think badly about us.

Dreary and Uninspired

I never showed my father my sadness. Instead, I became troubled in my own mind. I suddenly understood that if I didn’t study hard and become successful, I would be loaded with his same financial burdens and never enjoy life. I also wished I could help my dad out immediately. The boy who’d never thought of making money now wanted a job right away.

I don’t think the stress really kicked in, though, until I heard that one of my friends back in Guinea—who was only a year older than me—had started a successful import and export business. He wasn’t stopping there; he planned to expand his entrepreneurial activities by building houses and opening stores in some neighboring countries.

With all of the money he’d made, he’d been able to help his father with family expenses and was even getting ready to send his mom to Mecca. (Mecca is an Islamic holy site in Saudi Arabia that Muslims are supposed to visit if they can, but many are too poor to afford the trip.)

I couldn’t feel happy for my homeboy who was working hard to achieve his goals; instead I was jealous and dying to do the same. I started to compare myself with my friends both here and in Guinea. Most of my Guinean friends in New York were full of ideas about how to make money—whether it was to buy a taxi and rent it to a driver while they were in school, or to send money home so business partners there could open stores or other enterprises.

How was everyone else so imaginative and determined, while I was dreary and uninspired? As this question took over my mind, it made me even less likely to think creatively. I was so busy critiquing myself that I couldn’t see opportunities. Once my younger cousin in Guinea asked me to collect used, unwanted phones here and send them to him for resale. Instead of getting excited about this business idea, I blamed myself for being less entrepreneurial than even my little cousin.

image by Freddy Bruce

No Job, No Money

I decided that I wouldn’t ask my father for anything anymore. I felt bad every time I asked him for money to buy clothes, food, or a movie ticket. My friends had found retail and food service jobs and had their own income. They were all a year or two older than me, which made it easier for them to get hired. But this was no consolation; I felt younger, weaker, and lower than my friends. I would look at them and think, “I can’t even buy my own underwear.”

I told myself that I had the advantage of living in the United States with papers, something that many people dream of having, and it was time I made the most of it. “I will not let any of my friends get ahead of me,” I said to myself angrily.

The school year was almost over, so I decided to look for a job. I went into it with the same pessimistic mindset: I felt useless and always thought of what I didn’t have to offer, instead of my advantages. But even if I’d been optimistic, it probably wouldn’t have helped. I was 16, and everywhere I went, people told me that I was too young.

My father tried to discourage me from getting a job at all. He worried I’d stop studying and focus more on earning money. He wants me to get the best education possible so that I don’t suffer as he does, working hard for little benefit. Though I wanted the same thing for myself, I ignored his concerns and my own, because I couldn’t get past the pressing desire to take care of my own expenses and relieve my father’s burden.

As my self-esteem shrank, I started getting panic attacks.

About to Die?

The first time I experienced a panic attack, I thought I was about to die. I was in the computer lab after school, doing my history homework. Suddenly I was trembling and cold; my heart was beating so fast that I thought I was having a heart attack. Everything around me looked blurry.

I got up from my chair, so dizzy that I knocked a garbage can over as I left the room. I held on to the wall and walked down the hallway, wishing I could lie on the floor. Feeling weak, I struggled up the stairs to the school nurse’s office.

She made me sit there while she called my father, who came and took me to the emergency room. They gave me tests and two X-rays, and told me that they didn’t see anything wrong. I never knew you could be sick without anything being wrong with your body—certainly not as sick as I was feeling. I was afraid I was losing my mind.

We went home, but over the next few weeks the panic attacks kept coming. Some lasted as long as four days. I would get dizzy and short of breath whenever I left my house. I didn’t feel like myself at all; I had an almost out-of-body experience, like my mind was somewhere else, dreaming what was happening to me. This strengthened my impression that I was going crazy.

I wanted to stay at home forever and never go outside again. I talked to my father about what was happening. He took me to three more doctors, and they all said exactly the same thing: “He is fine,” as though they could feel what I was feeling. I wasn’t faking sickness, but in one way, they were right: Nothing was wrong, except that I expected too much of myself and wanted more than what God gave me. My thoughts were changing my reality.

Not So Simple

One of the doctors talked to my father about anxiety and the symptoms it can cause, and suggested that he try to talk to me. So in the car on the way home from the hospital, my dad asked in a concerned voice, “How are you feeling now?” He looked sad and was driving slowly.

“I don’t really know how I am feeling right now,” I replied.

image by Freddy Bruce

“Do you know what you should do?” he said.

I looked at him puzzled, wondering what he’d say.

“Listen carefully: I am going to tell you the best medicine you could ever get for these panics,” he said. “You should eat well, the way you are supposed to, and not care about what others have that you don’t.” He looked at me and continued, “You cannot defy your destiny. It is the way God wants it to be, and none of us can do anything about it. Go to school and study as hard as you can. That’s the only way you can change your actual life.” He took a deep breath. “If this doesn’t change things for you, tell me and I will prescribe something else. OK?”

“OK,” I murmured. I felt confused and tongue-tied. I doubted that curing myself would be as simple as my dad suggested. Every time I tried to concentrate on other things, like school, my head would fill with the same obsessive desire for enough money to buy what I wanted, let my dad retire, send my parents to Mecca, and help my family.

Relaxed and Real Again

My guidance counselor knew that I’d gone to the school nurse and that things were not right with me. When I started missing school regularly because of the panics, he questioned me about what was going on, and I told him how I was feeling. He referred me to the school psychologist, who referred me to a psychiatrist (a medical doctor who treats problems of the mind).

The psychiatrist, after talking to me about my panics, prescribed me medication which I began taking last March. After being on the medication for four or five weeks, I started feeling relaxed and real again. I am still taking the medication and talking to the school psychologist.

When we meet, she always asks how I am feeling. Since I started feeling better, I’ve usually responded, “I’m good—busy with college stuff.” So at this point, we usually spend our time talking about and researching colleges and scholarships. I’ve found her very helpful; she always gives me something to focus on.

By making me calmer, the medication allows me to appreciate the wisdom of my dad’s advice. Even if there are some things other people have that I don’t, there are other things I have that they don’t. For instance, I’m lucky to have a good father like him; many of my friends don’t get along well with their parents. I also know I am smart and learn fast, I’m good at sports, and I have friends who like me a lot and tell me how nice I am at least once a day. Now I try to better appreciate myself and what I have.

After taking the medication for a while and talking to the psychologist, I’ve also found that I have a different view of the world I live in. Life is uncertain: You can wake up today with your loved ones by your side as easily as you can wake up tomorrow without them. There are many things we can’t control. Even though this sounds bleak, I’ve found that I feel happier and less desperate when I reflect that I’m not in control of life, because I’m convinced that God rules.

Managing What I Can

Now, I’m glad to say I am more focused on my education than my financial situation. As my father told me, through schooling I can get everything I dream of, and I try to keep that in mind always. My problems haven’t disappeared, but I feel much better physically, and better able to manage school and responsibilities.

I sometimes experience symptoms like shortness of breath and dizziness, even now that I’m taking medication. But I’m able to calm myself down using my psychologist’s advice: I close my eyes, breathe in and out 10 times, and remember that anxiety by itself never killed anyone. Now that I’m used to the physical feeling of panic and know what is happening to me, it’s easier to stay cool. But eventually I’d like to get to the point where I can manage my anxiety without medication.

Each day I try to focus on what I can take care of in the moment. Right now, that means doing my best to graduate with good grades and get accepted to a good college. One day, I hope, I will realize everything I dream of: helping my family out and giving them the life they never had.

But I’ve come to recognize that no one should expect too much from themselves. Since we are not in control of the future, we should live moment by moment. We should do our best every day we wake up, and see what comes next.

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(NYC-2011-11-18)

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