I am definitely very suspicious of people who see life lessons in every terrible thing that happens to them. So, when people would suggest that my anxiety attacks could be a learning experience, I couldn’t see it. The only thing I learned when I spent entire flights dry heaving in the putrid smelling lavatory during a major panic was to check for tissues stuck to my shoes before disembarking. And what was the big lesson when I could barely get out of my house due to crippling anxiety attacks? There’s no place like home? The outside world is overrated? No, I wouldn’t call my anxiety attacks educational—destructive, for sure, but not instructive.
However, getting to a place where I can fly comfortably and leave the house without fear, has taught me a lot. Managing my anxiety—now more successfully than ever—has increased my confidence and hopefulness. But the anxiety itself—yeah, that was just miserable.
I remember believing that I would always suffer from anxiety attacks. At best, I thought, I would have a very challenging life (much of it dry heaving) trying to avoid the terror of being in the “real world” when the panic set in. I would have to figure out how to ride the subway while feeling like I was going to faint or concentrate on work while I was having the obsessive thought that I was going to die. Every single day, my goal would be getting through the anxiety. Living without crippling fear seemed an impossibility. I never imagined I could actually get to a place where anxiety symptoms would not be part of my daily life.
Moving from constant anxiety attacks to just a regular, anxious person was no easy feat. For me it involved medication, yoga, acupuncture, did I mention medication? and behavioral therapy, which focused on reducing my fears by making me face them. I had to do things like ride my elevator in my high rise from the penthouse to the lobby for one hour each day. I was sick, sweating, and dizzy, but I stayed on for the whole hour. You can imagine my embarrassment when I tried to explain the situation to my doorman, who peeked in on my huddled, shaking body every third or fourth trip down. I offered a teary thumbs-up before pushing the PH button and shutting my eyes against the terror. This went on for weeks until I could make the whole trip standing up. However, little by little, my fears began to subside a bit. Some days they’d come roaring back like it was my first time riding the elevator, and I’d be reduced to the heaving mess elevators traditionally made me. But, more and more often, the rides would be uneventful and I would even keep my eyes open the whole time. I took on all my various fears in this manner—it was a “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” summer, but without the laughs. And yet, that therapy taught me to live with anxiety, and to live with it well.
The greatest challenge in my life is no longer managing my panic attacks and intense phobias. Overcoming them—that excruciating process—made me realize that I have a superpower: the ability to reach out for help. By getting support and not going it alone, I can do anything. Except go into an airplane bathroom…
So here’s what I learned from my anxiety attacks: Don’t go it alone!!!