I was eighteen and my mom got a call. She was crying profusely, I thought her current boyfriend, who had cancer, had died. I held her to console her. I was shocked what came next. It turned out my father had died. Suddenly. He was 39. He seemed to be in relatively good health, but he was found dead on his couch.
My first reaction was shock. For several months I went completely numb. Of course, this couldn’t last. One day, while I was playing drums, I started to feel a strange sensation in my left arm. I shrugged it off and returned to my playing. But there was more. I started to feel dizzy, lightheaded, and I had a sense that something terrible was about to happen to me.
It dawned on me that numbness in the left arm was a warning sign for a heart attack. My other symptoms were so intense that I started to wonder if I was about to have a heart attack. I knew that sounded ridiculous, I was 18, in good health, and I had no reason to believe I could have a heart attack.
But I couldn’t fight the feeling anymore, I left the drums and walked towards my computer. The dizziness became so intense that I started to hold the wall for balance. I thought at any second I might pass out, and never wake up.
I looked up the symptoms, and sure enough, I had all the symptoms of a heart attack.
My panic escalated, I ended up in an emergency room. I got numerous tests and strangely, they all came back negative. My EKG was fine, my bloodwork was fine, my vitals were fine. Everything was… fine.
But it wasn’t. I had my first panic attack. If you haven’t had a panic attack, it can be hard to relate to, but if you have, you know it’s the most intense experience you can have.
Imagine how you would feel if you dove underwater, but before you came up, you felt a hand holding you down. You would try to come up for air, but no matter what you do, you’re still being held underwater.
That’s roughly what a panic attack feels like.
After my first panic attack, I developed panic disorder. This led me to try a variety of medications, see a several therapists, psychiatrist, and to read self-improvement books about anxiety.
None of it cured me, some things helped, but not much.
For a couple years, my life was mostly defined by my anxiety. I was living in a nearly constant state of terror, fixating on when I was going to have another attack.
The rest of my energy went towards finding a way to get better. I was willing to do anything to overcome this unnecessary suffering.
I took up exercise, read countless books, started studying Psychology, and became obsessed with self-improvement- all because of my anxiety, because of what the shock of my father’s death had done to my emotional health.
Over the course of many years, that paid off. I became a different person. Whereas before I was passive and meek, I had become assertive and courageous. Whereas before I was a follower, I had become a leader.
The death of my father, although horrible, was also a blessing in a very real way. It made my pain so severe that I could no longer tolerate it.
Before I was anxious, I was unhappy, I was not living up to my own expectations; but my pain was in the background. It was there, but it wasn’t so intense that it consumed me.
It was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and it was also the best thing that ever happened to me. It taught me to take responsibility for my life, because I had no other choice.