There was a time when basic things—like driving, climbing a flight of stairs, taking a shower, or going through the checkout line at the grocery store—landed me somewhere between mortal unease and full-throttle terror. It all began with a single panic attack that seemed to strike out of the blue. Mistaking it for a heart attack, I called an ambulance, but I quickly learned that there is no ambulance for an alarm of the mind.
After the first panic attack, I was terrified another would come. And of course, another one came. Once again, the pounding heart, tunnel vision, shaking hands, and inexplicable fear for my life made me feel like there was no safe place in the world. So I began to avoid things that seemed to trigger my panic attacks—exercise, being in confined spaces, being in open spaces, being in crowds, driving on the highway, etc.—but it didn’t matter: My panic would stop at nothing. I even panicked in my sleep.
Within weeks, I had gone from a fully functional adult with a family and career to a trembling wreck who could barely function. So I went to the bookstore and bought an armload of anxiety books, then panicked my way through their suggested visualizations, meditations, and affirmations. Deciding I needed something more, I enrolled in an anxiety institute that uses cognitive behavioral therapy to help people gain control over their anxiety. With a 95 percent success rate, how could I fail?
Turns out, I was the unlucky five percent. In fact, during my sessions, my panic attacks worsened. I began to think I was hopeless, that this was my new life and I would have to accept it. Except, it wasn’t a life at all.
So I continued to search for ways to ease my panic—acupuncture, massage therapy, crystal healing, energy work, breathing exercises, a handful of therapists, a personal gym trainer, smile therapy, and retail therapy (I even attempted to hire a dog sitter to sit with me)—and while some of these things offered their own small reliefs, I was still besieged with panic attacks.
Something happened, though, during all of my searching: I started to believe in myself—just a little, but it was just enough. So what if I failed a therapy that works on most people; I would find something that was right for me. And what I found was a strength in that—in knowing I could trust myself to simply not give up. So I kept going.
It wasn’t easy, but months later I found a gentle therapist who identified my panic disorder as part of PTSD stemming from my childhood. We began EMDR to process some of the trauma, and within weeks, the fear that had been consuming my life slowly began to recede.
Today I’m grateful for so many things. One is that I am no longer stricken with panic attacks. But more deeply than that, I’m grateful for the experience of my panic, because it taught me that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to panic and anxiety. Instead, we all have our own unique questions to ask, and our own unique paths to the answers.
Rita Zoey Chin is the author of Let the Tornado Come, the critically acclaimed memoir about her young life as a runaway, her journey through panic disorder as an adult, and the unexpected relationship with a horse who teaches her about fear. Rita lives in the Boston area, where she teaches at Grub Street, mentors at-risk teenagers, and surrounds herself with animals.