Credit to Phoebe Primeau

In the 2016-17 school year, English teacher Jani Wilkens took a leave of absence after she developed debilitating panic attacks. Wilkens continues to keep a positive outlook in life after looking back at how she changed during her leave of absence.

English Teacher Jani Wilkens Keeps a Positive Outlook While Dealing with Panic Attacks and Seasonal Depression

Published: October 3, 2018

She woke up in the morning and started to get ready for the school day. She headed to the shower, when suddenly on overwhelming sense of panic consumed her. Her heart started racing and her breath was shallow. ‘What is going on?’ She stumbled into the bathroom, crying and threw up. Confused and upset, English teacher Jani Wilkens wondered what’s happening and why is she not able to power through it.

During the 2016-17 school year, Wilkens took a leave of absence lasting from October through December due to debilitating panic attacks that kept her from being able to come into work.

 “I’ve been able to look at it pretty clearly,” Wilkens said. “When I’m in a good place, I get a lot of clarity about it. So, I can easily say now that there were a lot of warning signs that I wasn’t paying attention to in my body. I would get stressed more easily. I wanted to sleep a lot as opposed to doing things. I would get kind of edgy and short with the people that I love like my family and kids. When it’s something that could dramatically affect me, I was pretending it wasn’t happening. I don’t think I realized how bad it was until the panic attacks started.”

Wilkens has suffered from seasonal depression since her junior year of high school. This makes it more difficult for Wilkens to cope during the darker times of the year like fall and winter. She would try to stay busy, which resulted in more stress and panic.

“I really tried to hide [my attacks] from my kids,” Wilkens said. “I didn’t want them to see that I was a mess. So I would call in sick, and it got to be a thing where that same feeling of tension and of my heart racing and feeling like I was being squeezed. But it got to the point where I was missing enough work that I was feeling even worse about it because it’s really important to me that I don’t let people down.”

After calling in sick multiple times, Wilkens decided to take a short-term leave of absence through disability due to mental illness. She started her path to healing by seeing a therapist through her church two times a week and going to a doctor. The hardest part for her was admitting that she needed help.

“I’ve always bitten my fingernails. Recently, I was listening to one of her podcasts that was about stop telling yourself promises that you’re not going to keep. And so I said, ‘I want pretty nails and I have the power to have nice nails, so stop biting them.’ It’s that simple.”

— Jani Wilkens

“When you’re already in a bad place, it takes an enormous amount of strength to even make the call to make an appointment because you’re admitting,” Wilkens said. “You’re admitting ‘I can’t do this by myself, and I’m going to need someone to help me. I can’t get out of this by myself,’ which is really hard.”

Two months went by and it was the start of a new semester; Wilkens returned to her classroom, as ready as she would ever be for the start of the last half of the year. She came back with a lot of encouragement from her colleagues, who even went to her room and prayed with her.

“When she was out, I tried my hardest to make sure she did not have things to think about,” Shelly Parks, English teacher and friend, said. “I remember going up to her room the first morning that she came back and I just sat at the desk and held her hands and prayed. I wanted her to know that we were for sure supporting her but there was somebody who was much greater than us who had her back.”

With all of the love that she was feeling, she still felt guilty about taking leave. While she knows that she had to take care of herself, it was still difficult to do so when she wanted to take care of others.

“The hardest part about coming back was knowing that I had let people down by being gone and, even though my students were very kind, especially when I was willing to share a little bit of why I was gone with them, I knew that I had let people down,” Wilkens said. “I had to own up to it, and I didn’t want to. That’s still in the back of my mind a lot, the people who were in my class that I felt like I really let down, like maybe I could’ve given more of an effort to them. But that was all I had to give, and I have to be okay with that.”

While she was doing better last year, Wilkens learned of the unexpected passing of her brother-in-law in Boston. So, she dropped everything at work and went to help her sister with anything she needed. Wilkens took over just about everything, resulting in a lot of emotional and mental stress.

“I got home around midnight on Wednesday night, and I was going to come back to work on Thursday, but I don’t think I made it back to work until Monday,” Wilkens said. “Part of it was I just slammed into the ground emotionally. I was scared, I was scared that it was all going to come back, all the panic. I had all of these great kids here in my classroom who I wanted to be there for, and I said ‘Nope, I need to get this together before I get back there.’ I feel like even last year, I want to say I was treading water, but I think I was doing better than treading water, more like a doggy paddle.”

With the help from her friend and Bible study group member Heather Brewer, Wilkens was able to express her thoughts and feelings about her trip to Boston to another person, rather than bottle it up inside.

“She is very real with it,” Brewer said. “She’s able to see that if she’s vulnerable with it, it helps others and it helps her, too. She doesn’t have to pretend. She can be honest with her feelings. She’s very realistic and I think she’s grown so much in realizing that every person has their own individual journey. It gives her outlook on how people struggle and just because you may or may not understand it doesn’t make it any less real.”

Wilkens learned a lot about herself from this experience. With the help of her colleagues, her family and friends, her therapist and the people at her church, Wilkens was able to grow as a mother, teacher, friend and person.

“I think I’ve come out on the other side and realize that I can’t please everyone,” Wilkens said. “And even though I want to please everyone, because I feel like I should be able to, it’s okay if I don’t. I am who I am. If people don’t love me or appreciate me for who I am, then I might be better off without those people in my life, which has meant I’ve had to say goodbye to some things.”

She makes sure to keep up with her self-care and to keep an eye on her mental health. One of the things that she likes to do is to read different books about a variety of topics. One thing she learned from her one of her favorite authors Rachel Hollis was to set reasonable goals for herself and to stop promising herself things that she wouldn’t promise to her best friend. She found this beneficial because she was able to set smaller, more attainable goals and achieve them, without feeling as stressed. With that in mind, Wilkens was able to accomplish a life-long goal: growing out her fingernails.

“I’ve always bitten my fingernails,” Wilkens said. “Recently, I was listening to one of her podcasts that was about stop telling yourself promises that you’re not going to keep. And so I said, ‘I want pretty nails and I have the power to have nice nails, so stop biting them.’ It’s that simple.”

Looking back, Wilkens is able to see all the ways in which she has changed for the better. Her goal is to help those who may be feeling what she felt, by listening and supporting anyone and everyone.

“I think if you’re in the middle of it, you have to reach out for help,” Wilkens said. “And that is not an easy task. Because the minute you reach out for help, or admit that something’s not going the way you would like it to be in your life, you are admitting that you can’t fix it yourself. That’s really hard. I think that after you’ve gone through something, make it matter. I feel like I have to make it matter that I went through that. Maybe you make it matter by telling your story. Maybe you make it matter by helping someone else through a similar situation, because you get it. Maybe you make it matter by giving to others what you wish was given to you, or what was given to you, like kindness, or something that was helpful. You have to own your experience so that you can then turn and make it matter that you went through it.”

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