I sensed the hostility through my skin, crawling up my spine, reaching my neck and devouring me in a burst of heat. I was hot. Hot and upset. I felt offended and did not know how to react with indifference. I felt their pitying looks, and it was demeaning. I hated them. I didn’t deserve them. I felt like yelling in their faces that I didn’t need their compassion, but rather some silence. Time to be alone.
It all began October 20, 2005. I was riding my bike up on Niva Road, in Boulder, Colo., on my way back home from a short spin before dinner, when I suddenly felt uncomfortably tired and short of breath. My legs went numb and I started to feel a lump in my throat.
A couple of hours later, while lying on my couch sipping a beer, the innocuous lump in my throat grew into an uncontrollable sensation of choking. I started coughing to relive the pain, but made it all worse. My heart began beating like a hammer on my chest walls as if trying breaking through my body. I started sweating profusely. Images of my family began running in front of my eyes.
I was scared. Helpless and scared.
Was this the end? Was it this easy to die? I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wasn’t ready yet. No there, not at that time. Not without my mother’s hand comforting me.
Then my heartbeat reached 187 beats/min. And that’s when I knew something was really wrong. I was 23 and had been a competitive swimmer and a triathlete in high school and college, and my heart had never beaten that fast. And I wasn’t even exercising. Where was the scam?
Was my mytralic valve prolapse suddenly failing? Not likely. I’d lived with the condition since I was three years old and it never gave me problems. I also had it checked a few months ago at the cardiologist, and it was fine. That could not have been it. But then what? How come I could think so clearly and walk and talk as if nothing was actually happening, yet feeling so helpless and in pain?
My confusion grew stronger and I suddenly felt faint.
The more I tried to figure this out, the worse I felt. So, devoured by fear and in need of a second opinion, I screamed at my roommate to feel my chest. He put his hand right where I felt my heart pounding. He looked at me terrified, and said “I am taking you to the emergency room.” “Now,” he added, “let’s go.”
A few minutes later we were in the car. But we were too late.
By the time we arrived at the E.R., my symptoms had disappeared: I felt fine. Now, how was I supposed to explain to the nurse what felt like a heart attack if my temperature was fine, my blood pressure pristine and my palpitation non-existent? So, I accepted the pill she gave me without questioning her and felt more relaxed after few minutes. But I was still angry and frustrated not to have an answer. So I sent my roommate, who was still in shock for all the traffic lights he ran to get me there on time, to ask the nurse what my diagnosis was.
“She is very stressed, that’s all,” she said.
A few minutes later she sent me home recommending that I see a cardiologist first thing in the morning.
“I was only stressed, but she wanted me to see a cardiologist?” I thought to myself. “Why did she want the cardiologist’s opinion if I were fine and only stressed?”
Needless is to say I was not able to sleep for many nights after that. The fear of feeling that way again did not leave my memory for months. Even after my perfect bill-of-health visit to the cardiologist (where I learned I have a bigger ventricle than that of a normal person), I was petrified with fear every time I started feeling a little bit dizzy and the lump in my throat reappeared.
My first encounter with panic attacks was definitely the most traumatic, but unfortunately not the last one. I continued having episodes daily for six months when finally, after two more visits to the emergency room, I was sent to an ENT specialist who literally told me “you needed a hug and everything will going to be OK.”
Initially, I thought he was joking, making fun of me, because he thought I was crazy describing to him my lumpy-throat syndrome. After all, all he saw when he looked in my throat, all he saw were perfectly healthy tonsils… Then I realized there was pure, humble truth in his words.
Was a hug going to take it all away? No, of course not, but maybe learning to shield myself from my pain was the answer.
The next day I called a psychiatrist and scheduled an appointment.
The psychiatrist’s mood-swing test made me realize that I hadn’t have a good and happy thought in a while, but the diagnosis, “panic attacks with mild depression,” came unexpectedly, since I never before considered myself as a depressed person.
The prognosis hit me harder than the diagnosis: Start taking Lexapro, a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) for anxiety and depression and go to “the shrink” for some psychotherapy did not suit my all-organic food, vegetarian-only, athlete’s life.
“Am I really so sick that I can’t fix this by myself?” I pondered.
I did not like that idea, but I surrendered to the circumstances: I hadn’t slept peacefully in months and my eating habits had become like those of a drug addict. I promised myself I was going to take the pills only until I could figure out the reasons for my problems, and then I would get off the meds, no matter what.
My weekly chats with the university “shrink” often ended up in reassuring predictions that stress was just taking over me, and these episodes were the natural expression, my body’s way of asking me to make changes.
So change I did – I hung up my running shoes and bought a Yoga mat.
I had heard Yoga was the best cure for overly active minds like mine. Reluctant to let the meds do all the work, I took charge of my mental life as much as my physical one. Three months later I had enrolled in the Yoga Teacher Training program. I was $2,000 in debt, but happier than I had been in months.
At the end of the training I still wasn’t panic attacks-free, but I was learning to control them and to react to them less fearfully as I did before. I felt stronger and more “in tune” with my inner self. I knew exactly what my body was going to feel at each Yoga pose I was holding. I could finally feel my lungs expanding with ease at every breath. And I could relax my limbs almost fully while pushing the air slowly through my nostrils, avoiding the lump in my throat.
It was incredible how Yoga helped to understand that panic attacks were not an extraneous enemy to my body, but rather a complementary element necessary to the spiritual path of getting to know myself. Had I not experienced the attacks, I wouldn’t have strived to search inside my psyche for answers. I wouldn’t have understood the reasons I was stressed were more than manageable and solely dependent on me. Yoga opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about and knowing myself.
The path that Yoga led me to brought up hidden sentiments of dissatisfaction in my college career, unknown hopes from a love relationship gone sour and a lot of repressed anger for lack of self judgment in choosing the wrong friendships. I remember weeping uncontrollably in the middle of Yoga class – more than once. I felt inappropriate and very uncomfortable for letting it go in public, but I was unable to stop it. But it felt so natural.
Yoga’s innate power is to help people seek their true selves by annihilating the duality between mind and body is REAL. Yoga awoke me to my true self by showing me why I was in pain. So, I acted upon what I was hearing on my Yoga mat and gained the self-confidence to change in my every-day life.
My Masters degree in Journalism in Washington D.C., the internship at the National Geographic magazine online, and the new job as a reporter all came along after that.
Thanks to Yoga, a new path unfolded magically in front of my eyes, once I left behind the thoughts of the failed medical career, the dishonest boyfriend and the realization that to be happy I had to be different. Thanks to me, the struggle to be panic-attack free no longer consumes my thoughts. Instead, I learn and grow and became wiser every day.