The end of the beginning
It was 1988, I was 24, and I didn't know what was happening to me. I was in my bedroom having yet another panic attack, though I didn't know what it was. I just knew everything was wrong and I was in pain, and that Doctors didn't know or care. I decided that if I couldn't live life the way I wanted to, then I didn't want to live. I have never been afraid of death, it is just a natural part of life, the final dirt-nap for us all. So I put my loaded gun under my chin, and thought about what it would mean to pull the trigger. I was suicidal (obviously), or about as close as you can get. As I sat there crying, thinking of all the people I would be hurting by pulling the trigger without an explanation, and of all the things unsaid (not to mention undone), I decided that it was unfair to pull the trigger. No matter how much pain I was in, I owed others in my life an explanation and it would be unfair to make my roommate clean up the mess.
I sat down and started to write everything I wanted to say to everyone before I could let go. Almost immediately, I found some peace and catharsis in letting go and writing it all down. I learned that writing was a way to relieve stress, and a way for me to think things through. Even in our darkest hours we can still learn things. My writing mind is different enough to help bring clarity to issues. I am still writing today, 15+ years later for both myself and to help others. It gives me peace. Sometimes, when frustrated, I just write something down to clarify it, and then throw it away just to let it go.
As I sat there writing about everything that I felt for everyone, I had an epiphany, a moment of perfect clarity. I allowed myself to be mortal; it was when I was close to death that I gave myself power over my own life. I realized that I didn't really want to go, I didn't have to be perfect or in control of everything. I had decided to prepare for "the end", but that gave me a new beginning -- all because I thought, "If I am going to die, then what is really important to me?"
From that day on, when I get conundrums or moral challenges I just think back to that time, and "if I was going to die tomorrow, what really matters?" It is amazing how much clarity that can bring. I borrowed it from the Samurai (Bushido) Code of living in the moment. When you're fighting with 4' long razor blades, you'll drive yourself insane living in the future and potential "what-ifs", so you need to live in the now, and think about what matters to you.
This realization was significant, and gave me perspective. These little panic attacks were nothing -- just the worst physical and emotional discomfort I had dealt with, but I could conquer that. The depression they caused could be dealt with too. My life sort of turned over and stood on it's head, and I liked it better that way.
The money issues weren't that bad, the "being the best" wasn't as important, all the other pressures I was putting on myself mattered less. The stress people were causing me was only there because I was willing to take it. People's who I could never please, didn't matter as much. I stopped living for others, and started living for myself. My mistakes of the past were irrelevant. Awards, trophies and recognition were no longer a goal in my life. I was one of the best martial artists in the system I was studying, but who really cares? Winning stopped mattering, my drive to compete disappeared. Title, money, status were irrelevant. I stopped worrying about the future, and starting living for that day and that moment; and found I like the present better than all the potential negative futures that I had been worrying about.
I also learned to forgive. I was suddenly able to forgive myself all my "flaws" and mistakes of my past. And believe me, we all make mistakes we wish we could take back. I could forgive everyone else all of the crappy things they had done to me. And believe me, I've had more wrong done to me than most. I lost my entire Italian upbringing in one fell swoop. I let go of hate and anger - what a waste holding on to that had been. I matured 20 years in a day. The epiphany was an instant, and took years to absorb fully. But humans can change.
Road to hell and back
It had all started with an inability to motivate myself to do anything. I thought I was losing my mind, but then physical illness; fever, swollen glands, many other symptoms had proven it was not just "in my head". The doctor had said "some virus that we can't figure out". It was sort of like mononucleosis, but not quite. It had my liver going wild, but wasn't hepatitis. It was like other various diseases, but wasn't quite the same. Just wait a few weeks and things should get better. They did, physically. But when the illness left, the mental anguish remained or got worse.
No one can explain a panic attack. The depths of the psyche, and the overwhelming feeling of immediate death is so beyond what I understood as "fear" that I didn't even relate the two. And the physical symptoms of the attack were real; heart racing, feeling feint, dizziness, sweating, nausea, and like you're on fire. You want to implode (and climb inside yourself) and explode at the same time. It is unique to everyone; but this is a complete breakdown of the bodies fight or flight system; with nowhere to run, and nothing to attack.
I'd seen doctors, and they gave me the helpful "you're alright now"; but never explained that what I'd just gone through was a panic attack. Or if they did, I wasn't in a place to hear it.
For weeks I became a shut-in, with my world slowly contracting. I could travel less distance from home with each passing day; at least not without absolutely debilitating attacks - I couldn't do all the things in life I had grown accustomed to doing. The pressures were crushing me. Finally, on this night it had gotten to the point where even home wasn't "safe" and I was having attacks just sitting there. My life had changed almost overnight, and would never be the same.
It was after the epiphany, that I sought help. Once I gave myself permission to be mortal, I saw a psychologist for a brief time. While there wasn't much the shrink could do for me, though they do help many, but it was still an important start. She did teach me that what I was suffering from had a name (agoraphobia), and that gave me a starting point.
I attacked the problem. I read a lot, listened a lot, and thought a lot. Then worked on myself a lot; and I remade myself in a couple of years. The things I taught myself to cope with the anxiety helped me be a better person. These are tools to deal with life. It is for this that I am thankful for what has happened to me, even if I would wish it on no one else.
I can offer no magic bullets, and I urge that anyone with an anxiety disorder to consider professional help. I also recommend reading and learning as much as possible -- knowledge is power. Different people handle things different. In Road to Recovery I discuss what worked for me. But for many, just knowing that they are not alone helps. It helped me.
It does get better, but it takes time. It was probably over 10 years later before I was thinking one day; "Wow, I can't remember the last time I had an anxiety attack". But I was getting them less severely and getting more control within weeks of addressing the problem - and they kept getting less powerful and less frequent for years.
Now I've done things I never thought I would do, and am empowered by the experiences. I found someone I love and got married. I went from not being able to leave the house and deal with crowds, to doing a martial arts demonstration in from of 12,000 people and on pay-per-view, and doing public trainings at trade-shows for 7 hours in front of hundreds of people, as well as presenting at board meetings or teaching University classes. I fly all over the place; I'm going to Grad School in a different State, and vacationed out of the country. To many people these accomplishments are impressive; to an agoraphobic these things are mind-boggling. But the point is that it does get better, it just takes time and patience.
For me it all started when I learned to yield to pressure, accept what is, and let things go. I couldn't beat them by pretending they didn't exist, or even by "fighting them". I had to yield to them, and accept them, and let them go. In Taoism this concept is, "yield and overcome". You can't fight a river or the tides, but you can use them to your advantage. When I did this, the attacks lost their power over me. I used the sickness against itself. I diverted all of its hostile energy, into positive energy. I made the attacks help me to learn and become a better person. Those attacks weren't my enemy, I was. By accepting what was, I became stronger and wiser. So keep accepting what comes. Don't fight against the tide of life; harness it, ride the waves and enjoy the surf. Each day is a new year.