May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Like many people, I too have suffered from mental illness. It's ok, don't be ashamed.  We need to #breakthestigma because we've all had our moments of insanity. My moments just happen to be filled with excruciating anxiety.

A huge victory in my battle came when I was 40 years old, going through a divorce and standing at the edge of the cliff of life...scared to death. What would I do? How could move forward while still in the clutches of my anxiety? I chose to use, it to help in my healing.

For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with anxiety. Moments when, out of nowhere, I would be overcome with fear and dread. I would feel as if I couldn't breath, my heart would race, my stomach would become nauseous and I would have the urge to run around screaming and yelling. My worst years were between 5-10 years old and then again between 23-40 years old. One of my best moments came at 40 years old.

Let's start from the beginning.....

From the time I was 5 years old I was a dancer. Yearly recitals would put me on stage in front of hundreds of people. In high school and college I studied theatre and performed in several productions. I was ALWAYS the performer. When on stage, I could become someone else, not myself. Of all of the things I loved doing on stage, the one thing I couldn't do was sing in front of anyone. Scared me to death! I would sing alone in my room with my radio, but NEVER in public! But, at the time that was ok. Little did I know that one day, a song would change me life.

After college, my days on stage came to an end when I married, in my mid twenties, and became a mother to a beautiful baby girl. Soon after the birth of my daughter, a feeling that had plagued me even in childhood returned in full force. It stopped me in my tracks. I couldn't even take car of my baby. I'm talking 23 hrs of dread and fear a day. It was debilitating. I was afraid to leave my home.

I HAD to get help. I found a great therapist and was diagnosed with a severe case of anxiety/panic disorder. At that moment, I started dealing with some serious issues in my life. One of the big issues for me was being sexually molested as a young child. I also learned how my body deals with stress. But, I was a long way from knocking out the demons.

All this time, no one around me knew how bad I was suffering. I could hide it VERY well. After all, I was an actress. I was so good at hiding it, during that time, I taught high school students about life, through theatre, and helped start a theatre company for their parents and others in the community. I even won awards for my impact on the community and my students. Nobody knew about my suffering, except my family and really close friends. I didn't want anybody to know for fear that they would think I was crazy. My anxiety was like a vice grip, squeezing the life out of me, until I was 40.

At 40, I knew things HAD to change. Life had thrown my a curve ball with my divorce and I knew I had to find myself again. I had to confront the bully that was anxiety.

Around that time, my theatre company was holding auditions for the musical, Chicago. I saw the musical as an opportunity to look anxiety directly in the face by doing something I had always feared, singing, by myself in front of an audience. It also offered a symbolic way of leaving my old life behind. So, I DID IT! I auditioned. The director gave me the role of Velma Kelly! What? She was the LEAD!!! I couldn't do that! Or could I? YES! I COULD!!

Opening night, before the show, I was nervous and shaking. I wanted to run but running meant going back to my former life. And, THAT was out of the question. So, I took a deep breath and walked up the steps of the set, stood behind the curtain ready to make my entrance. As I heard my cue, stepped out into the spotlight, started singing and dancing, it was at that moment, I got ME back. I owned that night...I again, finally, owned my life.

Cliff Ingram

I came out the other side, of Chicago, feeling victorious!! I was ready to start living again. Ready to move on from my past and step into a beautiful and loving future.

At almost 52, I feel happy, healthy and stronger than ever. The last ten plus years have given me continued strength mixed with challenges, like the passing of my mom and my youngest son's accident that almost took his life. Even simple daily struggles will sometimes throw me off. I realize that, even though I will always have Anxiety/Panic Disorder, but I CAN manage it. It's a part of me that has made me who I am. In a weird way, it has made me a better person.

Now, I focus on how blessed I am and not the way's my mind tries to work against me. I practice deep focus techniques, deep breathing relaxation techniques and I'm even learning Transcendental Meditation.

But, all in all, I just take life one day at a time, focus on the positive and love the life I'm living. And, YOU can too! Don't give up, don't suffer alone. There IS help. Don't let the bully of anxiety rule your life. Find out ways to manage your Anxiety HERE!