Since my book about healing from a panic disorder has been published, I've tried to stay focused on all the positive feedback I've been getting. But when one reviewer called me "likeable if rather self-involved," her words hit home.
"How can you write a memoir without being self-involved?" friends remarked when I worried about the review.
What does it mean to be self-involved? I wondered repeatedly.
It wasn't news to me that my attempt to devise my own healing program, to search for the best teachers, therapists and techniques I could find, might be considered self-indulgent. I'd tried to joke about my pain over the years, no matter how much I suffered, aligning myself with Woody Allen, Richard Lewis, and other famously self-indulgent neurotics. "Forget Physician Heal Thyself," I'd written in the first chapter of my book. "My new mantra will be ‘Neurotic, Heal Thyself. And please stop complaining!"
My panic disorder had surfaced when I was a teenager, and haunted me for decades, rearing its ugly head during my high school and college years, throughout my various careers, during my pregnancies and adult life...
Panic had made me very self-involved. The loop of anxiety that ran through my brain put me in the center of the universe. I was constantly thinking about myself, no matter where I was, who I was with, and how I was engaging in the world. Would I panic at a job interview? Would clients sitting opposite me in a conference room see that I was terrified during my presentation? Would I fit in with people at a party? Stand out when I grew light-headed and panicky in line at the DMV? Would I impress people or make a total fool of myself? Would I ever get a decent night's sleep? Walk down the aisle as a bride? Be able to have a baby? Fly in a plane without fear? Take an express subway to Brooklyn?
I was always on high alert, monitoring my body and brain for any sign of weakness, fear or panic.
When I set out to meditate my way from panic to peace, I received an advance from my publisher that enabled me to sign up for retreats and treatment. But many experiences were relatively inexpensive or free. "You can buy a CD or sign up for a meditation workshop for slightly more than the cost of a movie and popcorn," I wrote to one reader looking for "help on a shoestring budget."
Still, I bristled when a reader suggested that my experience had been a costly one. I'd suffered for forty years. Couldn't I indulge myself for one measly year? I didn't fly off to India to find inner peace. I hadn't spent a week at a spa (just 3 days in the care of a Ayurvedic healer.) I'd spent a lot of time meditating and crying on the floor of my bedroom. My trip wasn't always fun, glamorous or intellectually stimulating.
But it worked. And in some ways, that seemed the most self-indulgent part of my experience. I became happy.
When you grow up in a family where people struggle with mental illness, unhappy marriages, financial woes, and health problems, seeking to escape from that life into a happy, fulfilling existence can indeed seem selfish.
I didn't want to leave the people I grew up with, despite the fact that my memories of their lives were disturbing. I didn't want to soar. I wanted to stay attached to my panic, even as I was learning to move away from it.
I assembled a tool kit full of helpful self-regulation techniques like Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, meditation and guided imagery. I learned how to interrupt the loop of anxiety running through my brain and replace it with a calm, healing ability to let go. But when I began to feel that I was truly different, truly healed, I became lonely and depressed. I felt too different. I felt too new.
"We can get hooked on our suffering," says a wonderful Buddhist teacher named Tara Brach. And I know just what she means.
But now I'm beginning to be hooked on happiness. And it turns out that becoming happy is not a selfish act. For me, at least, it seems a bit selfless. My own well-being has ceased being of constant concern to me. "You're alright," I tell myself now. I've let go of longing to find peace. I've stopped taking my emotional temperature every few minutes, of monitoring my pain, my joys, my strengths and my weaknesses.
And instead of focusing on the few negative comments my personal memoir has received, I'm focusing on the people who are reading and engaging with me - adolescent girls who developed panic around the same age as I did, men in their sixties who are trying some of the techniques that worked for me, people from Louisiana to LA who are coping with their pain courageously and want some relief and support.
The world is a big place. I'm a tiny speck in the universe. And my happiness is something I am learning to live with. It's not as sexy as the dark, secretive life I've left behind, where panicking made me feel alive. It's not something I'm dying to write about (it took me three months to do this post.) Living as a happy human being, it turns out, is a quiet, reflective experience sometimes. It's not all hot fudge sundaes (although I am eating a lot of brownies.)
When I think about all the time I spent worrying about myself, missing joyful experiences that lay right in front of me, the biggest conclusion of my experiment is clear to me. The results are in.
It's selfish not to seek happiness.
Priscilla Warner's memoir, "Learning to Breathe -- My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life", is published by Free Press. Follow her on Twitter on Facebook or on her website.