It was happening again.
My chest started to tighten. It felt like bricks were being laid across my body one by one. I gripped the subway pole until my knuckles turned white, and squeezed my eyes shut.
Shit. Shit. It was actually happening.
I walked myself through the all-too-familiar breathing technique I found during my late night Internet searches, but I still felt my mind begin to race. I was currently straddling the seconds between a minor freak out and a full-scale panic attack — in the middle of a crowded subway train.
It all started with a routine doctor’s visit.
I had noticed a painful bump a few days before, and thought I’d mention it. I told my doctor almost as an afterthought, completely naive of this comment’s weight.
My doctor’s response was just as nonchalant. She couldn’t pinpoint the cause in that moment, but told me to contact her if it was still there after the holidays.
The holidays came and went. So did January. It wasn’t until early February that I remembered to check.
It was still there.
I called my regular doctor to explain the situation with a little more concern in my voice, and she suggested I come in for a look. “A look” morphed into a test, which turned into more tests, which turned into the scariest prognosis I’ve ever received: It could be Cancer.
I got the call when I was at the movies. My mind began pulsating with staccato thoughts: I was twenty-three. Twenty fucking three years old. I was just starting to live. I had so much life left in me. I had so much learning to do.
Until the tests came back, I couldn’t breathe.
Before that moment, I didn’t know what a panic attack felt like. I thought “having anxiety” was the feeling you get when you think about having kids — not the paralyzing fear that strikes at random.
Because, I had always been The One Who Is Down for Anything — whether it’s rock climbing in the boondocks of Brooklyn, or booking a last minute trip to Tulum. I’d never thought twice about going skydiving, or traveling solo. I thrive off of adventure.
So, when I say that Anxiety took over my life one random day, I do mean it quite literally.
As I waited those test results, I tried to be as normal as I could. I forced to spend the Super Bowl at a friend’s apartment.
One moment, I was sitting on the couch, sipping a beer, and the next — I felt like I was in the twilight zone. The colors around me were spinning and my chest was so tight I could barely let air in. Everyone continued to laugh and talk and drink, while I was in full panic mode. I remember looking around and wondering, can anyone see me?
But, I couldn’t get any words out. My mouth felt zipped shut.
I was invisible.
Then, like that — it was over. I could breathe again and the world stopped spinning, but I spent the rest of the night in a state of shock. I didn’t have the words to describe what had just happened to me.
A few days later, I learned that scare was for nothing — the mysterious bump was benign. But, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it might have been Cancer. I could have died.
And, in that moment, I went from someone who was fearless, into someone who feared the worst.
All of a sudden, it seemed like my life got muted with a shade of gray. The most random events would set me off. It could be a look from some stranger, or getting stuck underground in between subway stops. And, I never knew when or why or how these changes would happen.
But, the feelings were always the same: Difficulty breathing. Heart beating rapidly. Palms sweating. Chest constricting. Out of body experience.
These panic attacks started to happen so often that I could pinpoint the exact moment before they would begin. I began to talk my mind out of it while my hands were shaking and my chest was tight. I would beg my brain and heart and hands to just stop.
Over a period of months, I found myself spiral into this world where Something Bad Could Happen at any time. I was constantly thinking about the Worst Case Scenario, no matter if I was taking an elevator or crossing the street. And those thoughts, I couldn’t make them stop.
But, Anxiety is invisible.
So, from the outside I still seemed like a Normal Girl — the same girl who spent a week alone in Belize and jumped off cliffs in Greece. But inside, I felt different. I felt scared.
I didn’t know who I was becoming.
At the same time that fear seemed to be infiltrating all parts of my life, I pushed myself to do crazy shit.
Like climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest point.
Even though I could no longer control my breathing in elevators, I forced myself to climb 19,000 feet above sea level. I wanted to feel that semblance of who I once was.
But, I almost quit. I almost let that fear control me.
It happened while I was only about 20 minutes into our Summit Night climb. My chest started to tighten. It felt like bricks were being laid across my body one by one. I gripped my trekking poles until my knuckles turned white, and squeezed my eyes shut.
Shit. Shit. It was actually happening.
My body and my mind were in a state of panic. Those all-too-familiar feelings started to take over.
I nearly told my team I had to turn around. I almost stopped because of fear.
But, I took a deep breath. I convinced myself that I could make it.
“I am not a quitter,” I said with each step.
As we continued our trek to our final destination, nothing could lessen the gleam in my eye — not the icicles forming on my eyelashes, or the wind taking away my breath. Each step I took pushed me further than the person I knew, and closer to the person I wanted to be.
And then, I finally saw It. The sun was rising and the wind was howling and I didn’t give a fuck. I made it. I did it.
I just climbed a mountain. I broke through the fear, and I did something I never thought I could do.
And suddenly, I couldn’t control my emotions. The tiredness and worry wiped away, because here I was. I was on top of the world — or Africa at least. I was laughing and crying and smiling and overwhelmed with love and pride all at the same time.
I wasn’t the least bit scared.
While on that trek, I forced myself look at myself deeply. To come face-to-face with my fears. And, my fear of being stuck in an elevator paled in comparison to my fear of being stuck on top of the world.
But, it took climbing a literal mountain to see that things weren’t so scary after all.
Almost a year after my anxiety attacks began, I was able to prove to myself that I accomplished this really scary thing — and I wasn’t dying. And, it was the most liberating feeling in the entire world.
I haven’t looked back since.
Since I’ve been back at sea level, I’ve felt a type of freedom I haven’t experienced in a long time. And, while I’m sure that there will be moments in my future when I’m struck with that paralyzing fear, whether I’m on the subway or crossing the street — I’ll know that it’s only for a moment.
But, to that I say Bring It On. I’m in control now.