July 11, 2011, the night that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2 releases. I am sitting in the middle seat, fourth row from the back when it happens. My breathing becomes shallow and I notice that my arms are numb. Then, my face follows suit, and my heart rate increases to such an extent that I am waiting for it to pop out of my chest and sprint down the theater hallway. “I am excited? No, I am dying? Yes, I am dying. I need to get out of here now RIGHT NOW GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT WHAT ARE YOU DOING GET UP GET OUT OUT OUT”.
I jump over the couple next to me and run to a vacant restroom stall, if I am going to die I am not going to do it in front of everyone in the theater. I lay flat on the bathroom floor, doing everything in my power to still my shaking hands just enough to be able to accurately type in 3 numbers…”921…NO CMON…91111…NOO…811…I CAN’T do it…”. This is my tomb, a vacant stall at Regal Cinema in Dublin, California. But then, my heart slows down. I slow down…“Am I dying? No”. Feeling returns to my extremities and my breath provides oxygen to my aching lungs once more. I had just experienced my first panic attack.
The following year revolved around weekly experiences like these, along with a plethora of doctor’s appointments with cardiovascular specialists, respiratory PHDs, Hematologists, and almost any other doctor one can think of. Finally, I went to a therapist (ironically in the same shopping center as the theater), where I was diagnosed with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and Panic Disorder.
I remember looking at the therapist at the time and thinking “This guy has no idea what he is talking about”. I was about to graduate high school with honors, had recently gotten into a reputable university and was the captain of both my club and school’s soccer teams for the second year running. If I was able to accomplish all of that and be fine, there was no way that seeing the last Harry Potter film was going to put me over the edge, right?
But things got worse, and before I knew it, the mere act of stepping out of my house was enough for the familiar shaking and numbness to return. It took everything I had to go and meet friends for an hour or two, and I would hardly speak a word, too apprehensive of the potential of another attack to pay attention to anything else. It was about a month before I was supposed to be leaving for university when I realized that I had not left my house in three weeks. I was full-blown agoraphobic.
It was at this point I knew that I had two choices: I either had to accept and face what was happening to me, or I was going to lose everything. This was also the moment when the perceived enemy that I had created inside of me started to become a source of Motivation, Connection and Openness that would push me through every big moment up to the present day.
Anxiety is a powerful name. It is a name that affects 40,000,000 adults in the United States every year (roughly 18% of the population), and a name that is known to everyone, but is spoken about by almost no one. There is a stigma that comes with Anxiety, as there is a stigma that comes with depression, bipolar disorder, and many other complications of the mind. What I quickly began to realize, however, is that Anxiety has many other names as well, if one is willing to take the time to understand it.
Anxiety is Motivation. Through the process of understanding and controlling this new piece of who I was, I quickly realized that, with the right strategies, I had the power to shift anxiety in such a way that it drove me to adopt a work ethic that I had not previously been able to attain. Anxiety can be mentally exhausting, as two common pieces (and one of the main components I tend to experience) are excessive worry and overthinking. These two components on their own are disruptive and draining, but when I was able to shift them into determination and drive, I quickly found that this new part of me had provided the potential to manifest surges of motivation in all areas of my life. I was able to harness my Motivation to excel in my university classes, maintain an active and healthy lifestyle, shine in my first job, as well as many other things, and I know that I am better today for that.
Anxiety is Connection. In my experience, there is something powerful about discovering that you a have self-perceived “shortcomings” compared to the person you thought that you were. Before Anxiety became a part of my life, I grew up in a very fortunate situation with great parents in a safe neighborhood. I was an athletic, confident kid. I felt I could take on anything, but I also had an innate sense of superiority towards a lot of people and did not care much for developing sincere connections with others. My Anxiety was the catalyst that led me to look at myself in a fractured light for the first time in my young life. It was in this fracture that I was first truly shown Connection, as I began to understand meaning behind the phrase “everyone is fighting their own battle”. The phrase has always had meaning, but I had not found my battle yet. My Connection paved the way for some of the most meaningful relationships that I have to this day, and continues to be a very integral piece of how I interact with others on a day-to-day basis.
Anxiety is Openness. In today’s culture, it is very easy to close off from the world. With the prevalence of social media and the ease at which is can be accessed from anywhere, it has become almost easier to create a façade to hide behind than it is to come out from behind the curtain and show the world who you are, in all of your glory. At first, my Anxiety created the opposite effect in me, as I felt the stigma and shame that is unfortunately still associated with any complications of the mind. I did not want to leave my house, afraid that people would slowly come to realize I was no longer the mask that I had become so accustomed to wearing. I refused invitations from friends, skipped parties, practices, and many other things all in fear that once people saw me for me, then I would no longer be seen at all.
After several weeks, I decided to tell my best friend what was going on. I decided that he deserved to know, even if it meant that things would no longer be the same. It was during this conversation that I found my Openness. I told him everything, from start to finish, prepared for the worst, and I will never forget what he said to me in the seconds that followed…“Dude, you are the man, we love you, come play basketball and don’t wear that Hawaiian tank top”. Nothing was different. I went with him, where I told the rest of my friend group, and again, nothing was different. I was exactly who I was, and the people that loved me were not going to be scared away and still haven’t been.
My Openness developed further in the following weeks, as slowly, a couple friends came to me, saying they were feeling similar things and were hoping I had advice to help them out. Me, the person that was going to be forgotten as soon as he told the truth, was now the person that could help. It was around this time that I realized how important it could be for both others and myself moving forward if I treated my Anxiety as an open and important piece of who I was. Every day since, this is exactly what I have done. I take pride in my Openness, as it provides others with the chance to be open as well. I hope that my Openness provides others with a similar opportunity that I was given during my experiences, to understand that who you are, is a whole lot more important than worrying about protecting who you may be pretending to be.
It has been about seven years since the day that I was introduced to this new piece of myself, and each year has come with new benefits and new challenges alike. Today, I am a college graduate with aspirations of becoming a software developer. I am surrounded by the best friends and family one can ask for, and my panic attacks are much fewer and far between. Through all of my experiences, the single most important discovery I have made is that underneath one’s perceived greatest weakness, there lies strength, bravery, and meaning in staggering abundance. The weakness lies not in the name itself, but rather in the fear of acknowledging that name as an essential piece that makes you the awesome person that you are, so stand tall and show the world how proud you are of you, and be proud of every single piece.