About eight years or so ago I suddenly started getting panic attacks. I didn’t know what they were at first. I had just taken a directorship position at a major research university, and had moved close to downtown Los Angeles. Both my office and my apartment shared a wall with a major freeway, and at first I thought my shortness of breath was a result of the high smog levels.
On one particular day, I was sitting at my desk at work, when suddenly I felt like I could barely breath. This sensation made me gasp for air which ironically made the sensation worse. I went to the bathroom and locked myself in one of the stalls in hopes that the sensation would pass before any of my coworkers noticed. Eventually though, the sensation became so bad that I thought I might need an ambulance. My anxiety level was so high at that point though, that a scene caused by an ambulance and all of my coworkers in a ruckus would have been far more than I could physically handle. I feared losing consciousness. I then decided to call my brother and ask him to take me to the emergency room.
Upon arriving in the emergency room the nurses checked my lung capacity. To my surprise it was 100%. They told me that I was most likely having severe anxiety and offered an injectable sedative. The thought of an injection increased my anxiety even more, so I declined. At the time, I could not fully accept what was happening to me. I rationalized a possible misdiagnosis, still believing that the bad air was causing my breathing problems, and perhaps too much coffee was causing my anxiousness. I had never had anxiety issues in the past, let alone a panic attack. I thought myself to be rational, levelheaded, and over all put together. I viewed panic attacks and anxiety issues as disorders of people with mental/emotional problems. I had no real idea of what was happening to me at the time, and my only coping mechanism whenever I felt the shortness of breath coming on, was to drive to the beach, look at the ocean and deeply take in the fresh air. I thought that clean air, in contrast to the smog where I lived and worked was causing me to feel better. Little did I know that was only one small factor.
As crazy as this sounds to me now, I eventually got used to the constant shortness of breath. Eventually my ex-girlfriend and I moved to a quiet suburban neighborhood lush with trees and things got better. About a year later though, we moved into a large apartment complex, in a more urban setting, right next to the freeway. My anxiety and shortness of breath returned, and I once again attributed it to the smog. I became resentful of my ex-girlfriend for not fully understanding my perspective. She suggested that my issues were psychosomatic, which upset me. In hindsight, I believe she was right, but that didn’t make them any less real to me at the time. Things began to fall apart at work and I became increasingly disillusioned with life in general. Even the one thing I did for myself, play guitar, became a chore. I wanted desperately to leave my job, but no other work opportunities sounded appealing to me. There was nothing I wanted to do. The one vision that kept replaying in my mind, was a fantasy of traveling the world, living in different countries for long periods of time, and learning the local language and culture. This had been replaying in my mind for years, but I thought it was too late in my life for me to make such a drastic move. My life had already taken a specific trajectory, and I thought I needed to stick to it. To make matters worse, I got a new boss at work who was charged with making some radical changes to our department. I could no longer at least settle into a comfortable boredom, and my stress levels soared to an all time high. I knew I needed to get professional help. Moreover, my relationship with my ex-girlfriend was suffering. She had her life aspirations completely mapped out, and was happy and successful at her job as a pediatrician. I on the other hand was completely lost. I found it increasingly difficult to communicate deeply with her, and we grew apart.
Eventually I reached a boiling point and knew that if I didn’t leave my life situation I would mentally crack. I told my ex-girlfriend I was quitting my job. She didn’t receive this news well and found it completely contradictory to the plans we’d made together of eventually buying a house and starting a family. She thought I was going crazy and figured it would be better off if we parted ways. Deep down inside I too knew this was the right decision but had difficulty facing it. I loved her deeply and we’d built so much together. Yet there was no reconciling our differences in aspirations. We’d tried for years, even when I first started getting an inkling of my discontent, to figure out a life situation that would be suitable to us both, but were always unsuccessful. We thought too differently, and wanted different things out of life.
I sent in my resignation notice at work, and began to focus on self-care. I started surfing daily because I found this to be immensely therapeutic. I also started seeing a therapist so I could have the opportunity to talk about my issues, and organize my thoughts and decisions. Conveniently the lease had ran out on the townhouse that my ex-girlfriend and I were renting, and we painfully went our own directions. One of the last things she asked me was “what are you going to do now?”. I responded, “I’m going to Bali”.
In the two years that followed I traveled to 5 countries: Indonesia, Singapore, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. It has been the most amazing period of my life so far, one of unparalleled personal growth, where I had the opportunity to witness indescribable beauty and experience enjoyment and bliss like I’d never experience before.
Recently, I saw a psychologist as part of the regular talk therapy sessions I find so helpful in my life. I asked him what would have happened if I didn’t go away when I felt like I was going to “crack”. What does it mean exactly to “crack”? He told me I probably would have had a nervous breakdown, which leads some people to be put in an institution on psychiatric hold for a few days. The objective of such institutions is simply to withdraw an individual from all the stressors in their lives – stressors that cause a sort of system overload. The psychologist said I basically withdrew myself voluntarily, escaping to a much more fun and pleasing environment to allow myself time to heal. Personally I’d choose a tropical surf town over a padded cell any day of the week.
I haven’t had a panic attack in about 8 years, since the days described at the beginning of this blog post, nor has the shortness of breath ever returned. I attribute my overall comparatively more calm mental/emotional state to my conscious effort of placing myself in environments that are therapeutic – natural environments where I can feel reconnected and at peace. For me it’s the ocean, for some it’s the forest or the mountains. In all circumstances though, it’s an environment where the mind can rest and the individual can once again feel reconnected at a deeper level.
(photo taken on Gili Trawangan, Bali, Indonesia with a view of Mount Rinjani on Lombok in the distance, circa June 2015)