I had my first panic attack on a bus driving from Zakopane to Warsaw, Poland in the winter of 1997. The bus was filled with 50 or so colleagues from a consulting firm I had joined a few months prior, having moved to Warsaw from Philadelphia to start my career abroad. The firm had taken us to Zakopane for a weekend skiing and networking event. I hadn’t felt well during the weekend. My mind raced with thoughts about how leaving the US was a mistake; how I had lost everything for the move; how I had committed to living in a foreign country for at least 2 years and how alone and isolated I felt in this strange country.
Describing a panic attack is difficult. Let’s pretend that someone locks you in a closet and tells you that as every 60 seconds pass, 10% of the oxygen in the closet will be depleted. So, unless you somehow manage to break out of the closet, you will run out of oxygen in 10 minutes. Then you will suffocate to death. Just imagine this scenario for a moment. What would you do to get out of the closet?
This is how I felt on that bus. I honestly believed if I didn’t get off the bus, I would suffocate. I began sweating whilst shivering. My heart pounded. I gasped for breath. In front of 50 new colleagues, most of whom were Polish, I rushed to the front of the bus and told the driver he had to pull over and let me off. I practically fell out of the bus, tears streaming down my face. The HR manager ran after me with concern in his eyes. When I say concern, I mean the kind of concern that says, “Oh shit, we’ve just hired a complete nut job”. I looked back to the bus and could see many bemused faces staring at me out the windows. Crazy American.
This was the beginning of my life with Generalized Anxiety Disorder or “GAD”. The UK NHS describes GAD as:
GAD is a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event. People with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed. As soon as one anxious thought is resolved, another may appear about a different issue.
I have lived with this condition for many years now, even after leaving Poland to move to the UK. I was fortunate to be able to see various psychiatrists, countless psychologists, life coaches, acupuncturists, hypnotherapists. I have also taken many different forms of medication. My life became a game of survival. “Just get through today”, I used to tell myself, “Just get through today”.
Over the years, I’ve gone to great lengths to hide my mental illness, especially from my employers. I worried disclosing my disability would harm my career, and indeed in those early years it probably would have. I’ve never phoned in sick because of any mental health concerns, although I have gone into work many days feeling I couldn’t survive the day. I simply soldiered on, performing in my job no matter the costs to my own mental and physical health.
Yoga provided the keys to my closet of panic. This did not come overnight but from the very beginning of serious practice I began to feel better. I had seen Cognitive Behavior Therapists over the years who tried to teach me to see my thoughts differently, but I just didn’t get it. The funny thing is – and this is the thing I marvel at daily – is that the answer was inside myself all the time. All those professionals I sought desperately for help and I had the cure inside my own body.
I established Yogaward for every person who is struggling with any type of mental health challenge. I understand the pain that you feel, I truly do. I understand that you believe that no one on the whole planet could feel as much pain as you feel. But they do. Honestly, they do. My hope is that we will find each other for support. My hope is that we will practice yoga and that you will find the answer that was inside you all along.