Learning to Breathe

My quest to bring calm to my life.

A Letter to My Fifteen Year Old Self

What I would tell my younger self about panic.

When I first heard that I'd be blogging for the anxiety section of Psychology Today, I got anxious.

Why?

Because I'm not a psychologist, I don't work in the field of health care, I'm not comfortable on the floor of a psych unit, and I can't prescribe meds.

In fact, I can barely remember what it feels like to have a panic attack, although I've had hundreds of them in my lifetime.

But maybe that's the point. Maybe I've truly healed from the panic disorder that haunted me from the time I was 15 years old. Maybe I've rewired my brain, connecting it to my body in a powerful new way. Maybe I really do have something to teach people.

I certainly hope so. Especially since I wrote a whole book about my experience and am about to go onto the Today Show to discuss it. I'm about to go out into the world telling everyone how much better I feel, how much healthier I've become, how I transformed myself from a neurotic Jew into a serene Tibetan monk. Or at least a suburban monk in a minivan, now able to shop in supermarkets without fear that buzzing fluorescent lights will set my central nervous system on fire.

I used to be afraid to live my life without a disaster plan. I used to carry a flask of vodka around with me in my pocketbook, in case I felt a panic attack coming on. When the telltale signs - pounding heart, closing throat, galloping lungs and sheer terror - snuck up on me, I could duck into a bathroom, take a swig of fiery vodka, and wait for a warm glow to bathe my petrified lungs and slow my entire body down.

Temporarily.

I suffered my first panic attack when I was a fifteen year old waitress. Of course I didn't know it was a panic attack; nobody ever uttered the word back then. Nobody talked about anxiety disorders or spilled their guts on national television. So I had no idea what was happening to me when I showed up for work and then almost died. One minute I was serving dinner to college students in a cafeteria, and the next minute a bolt of electricity clobbered my heart, lungs and central nervous system. I broke into a cold sweat. My whole body shook. My pulse raced so fast I thought my chest would explode.

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And I couldn't breathe.

I was sure I was dying, although I was only fifteen. A terrified teenager. A girl who didn't even know the meaning of the word anxiety. A girl in need of a good therapist, a wise healer, and some effective medication.

I was lost.

Over and over again, for the next forty years, I tried to find my way out of a panicky, terrified body and into the world of healthy, happy people. Into a world where those people joked about having a panic attack when they didn't see their favorite item on a restaurant menu. Into a world where alcohol was used to celebrate happy occasions. Into a world where people could go to classes, run errands, sit through business meetings, movies and dinner parties without being afraid they would go crazy. A world where people could enter a subway, car or an airplane without worrying that they would die. I longed to live in a world where a bottle of pills was not the only thing I could rely upon to keep me sane.

Pills helped.

Librium, Valium, and Klonopin.

Oh my.

So did talking to a therapist. Or two. Or three.

So did a wonderful husband. Healthy children. Kind friends. A successful career.

And the book I wrote about learning to breathe.

Never in a million years did I think I'd ever write a book about my journey from constant panic to true inner peace.

And if you'd told me I'd be writing anything for Psychology Today about anxiety and panic, I would have laughed.

Or panicked.

But now that I've been healed by skilled therapists, teachers, and my own educated brain, I'm going to write a love letter to my fifteen year old self.

On this blog, I'm going to write about all the things I wish people had told me when I was young and scared, when I was sure I was a freak, the only person on the planet whose body betrayed her, whose mind was a mess, and whose soul was in need of a hug.

I'm going to teach all the terrified women and men out there - young, old and in between - how much we can all heal.

This will be fun.

You can read all about my journey from panic to peace on my websitetwitter or facebook.

Thank you for coming along with me.

 

Priscilla Warner co-authored The New York Times bestselling memoir The Faith Club and the forthcoming Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life.

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