Looking from the outside in, you would never know that I am in a constant battle with my thoughts, with my mind. When I’ve shared that I suffer from anxiety, the most common response is “no way, really?” I think like most anxiety sufferers, I hide it well.
What has the last 25+ years felt like? If I were to come up with one all encompassing description – it felt like I was trapped in hell. On certain days, it still does.
As the disorder progressed, and I began having more and more attacks, I began to develop specific phobias. If I had a panic attack while driving, I would do everything possible to not take that same route for fear that it would happen again. I had this happen often enough that I stopped driving on the highway all together. This becomes a challenge when your job requires you to travel. In fact I had a commute to my office that took over an hour each way via highway. So how did I manage? I drove the side streets all the way to work despite the fact it was taking me over 2 hours each way. My quality of life deteriorated. The time I used to dedicate to a balanced lifestyle was now being spent in hours of traffic. Next, it was airplanes and elevators. I developed claustrophobia that grew over time, to the point that any time I boarded an airplane or had to get on an elevator, I would feel like I was suffocating. I would anticipate all the things that could go wrong weeks before I had to travel. By the time I hit the actual airplane, I would have worked myself up to such a degree that the panic attack was inevitable.
During one business trip, I actually boarded the plane, saw how small it was, and turned around and disembarked. I needed to be in Rhode Island the next day for a meeting. I needed to figure out how I was going to get there. So I re-booked a flight on a larger plane into Boston first thing the next morning. From there I took the train from Boston to Rhode Island. A trip that should have taken 45 minutes took me 3 hours and a huge amount of energy. I was burnt out by the time I arrived at the meeting, but I did it without having to deal with the panic. If I’m required to stay in a hotel, I will request a ground floor room or will climb endless flights of stairs to avoid the elevator. That is the extent that I will go to in order to avoid that feeling. Or should I say, that was the extent that I used to go to. I actually enjoy flying now, and I have for the last few years. I’m still working on the elevator. More to come on that.
My life has revolved around finding ways to avoid anything that triggers the anxiety. The problem with that? You narrow your life to the point of not having the ability to do even the day to day activities that you used to enjoy. About a year after my first panic attack, I began to fear even leaving the house. What if something happened while I was in a social situation? How would I manage it? Or what if it happened while I was driving? How would I get help if I was in a remote area? What if I suddenly couldn’t breathe during a customer meeting or a presentation? It became paralyzing. I needed to figure out what was going on or I was in danger of not only losing my job, but more importantly, my entire life.