I had my first panic attack when I was seven. I was watching a movie with my brother and parents when an invisible hand reached inside my chest, death-gripped my lungs and wouldn’t let go. The air I hadn’t thought about breathing my entire life was suddenly all that mattered; I didn’t even know what oxygen was, but I desperately knew I needed it. I was hyperventilating, hysterically crying and shaking uncontrollably as my hands went numb first, followed by my face and limbs. My muscles tensed up so severely that the smallest movement felt like I was ripping them to shreds. Everything my formerly rational young brain knew vanished completely, replaced only by thoughts of dying.
I can’t describe what it was like to truly believe I was about to die before my 8th birthday. At first the attacks were so rare that the doctors chalked it up to an ibuprofen allergy. But within a few years I was diagnosed with a panic disorder that became the background struggle of my adolescence and young adulthood.
You wouldn’t know that I have an anxiety issue unless I told you.. or you stuck around long enough to inevitably witness a panic attack. I’m the most carefree person I know. Anxious is the last word I (or anyone I know) would use to describe me. Give me a bridge to jump off or a plane to jump out of any day and I’ll do it with the biggest smile on my face. I thrive off adrenaline and adventure.
But isn’t that the tragic beauty of mental disorders? They’re silent wars that you try to fight alone. Until the inevitable overlap with the outside world occurs, and in those moments you just want to shake the people around you and scream, can’t you understand!?
It has waxed and waned throughout my life and it’s only in retrospect that I can attribute the attacks to extenuating circumstances… sometimes. Because I don’t worry. This may seem completely counter-intuitive, but let me explain. My conscious mind worries so little that my unconscious mind takes the brunt of the stress in my life. And since my conscious mind refuses to acknowledge the problems that need to be dealt with, my nervous system builds up the pressure until it erupts and my entire body enters a Red Alert. The panic attack is my body screaming to my brain, “Hello! We have problems!”
After college, I loved my job. I lived in the best city on Earth. I had amazing relationships and spent more time laughing every day than anyone I knew. But the attacks were constant. And the more I used prescription drugs to help, the more my body seemed to think it was okay to lose control.
So as much as I loved my life and was making the best of what I had, I realized I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I wanted to be traveling. For as long as I’ve had anxiety, I’ve also had an underlying desire to explore this world. So at 26 I quit my job and booked a one-way flight.
The only comfort I can take in my anxiety is knowing I have people around me who understand it and are mentally equipped to handle me at my worst. So leaving the country alone, with infinite unknowns ahead, was worrisome to say the least. I prepared myself for an onslaught of panic attacks as soon as my plane touched down. But what I experienced was the opposite.
I woke up my first day abroad and have never felt so calm. And then I woke up with that feeling every single day after.
As much as I loved my life back home, I wasn’t where I truly wanted to be and my mind knew it.. even if I convinced myself so believably otherwise. It wasn’t the delayed subway, laughably high rent, or 60+ hour work week that was causing my anxiety attacks; it was being tied down to the job, apartment and reliance on public transportation in the first place.
The “stress” of sleeping in an airport, or getting off a bus in a new city at 3 a.m. with a dead cellphone and no map, or being stranded without cash on an ATM-less island that you didn’t realize was ATM-less until it was too late. Or anything else off the seemingly endless list of backpacker problems… That’s the kind of stress I can handle. Because what’s important to me is getting on those flights to new places and exploring those remote islands. Occasionally feeling lonely is bearable when it’s a sacrifice to living life on my own terms. A dwindling bank account just means coming up with new ways to earn money that are just as satisfying as anything I could be doing back home.
Live the life you truly want to be living. The life you’ve always known you wanted. Maybe you want to start a family young, or climb the corporate ladder, or create a photography business. It might be getting your PhD, becoming an actor, or writing a NY Times best-seller. As long as you’re going to bed at night knowing you’re where you want to be- where you’re supposed to be- and waking up in the morning overwhelmingly thankful for your life, then you are living right. And there is no excuse to not feel that way.
You deserve the life you’ve always envisioned for yourself. Believe that. And expect the universe to give you nothing less than perfection. Because life shouldn’t just be good. And it certainly shouldn’t be bad. Life is perfect. Pay attention to your soul. Be grateful. Do what makes you feel the most love for life and you won’t have to worry about anything else. I promise.
Now, this isn’t to say I magically cured myself of my illness. But I will say that one panic attack per four month period is exponentially better than I’ve had since I was six years old. And I’ll take those odds.