Believe me, I know exactly what you’re thinking. I’ve lost count of the times I zoned out of conversations like these to imagine face punching whatever sorry soul dared suggest I take responsibility for my own life. The amount of anger this suggestion brought about is indescribable. One by one, without their knowledge, the people I loved and who loved me most joined the not-to-be-trusted list. Sadly, in my world it was only acceptable to agree that I was a victim, I was definitely not in control of this mess, and there was no chance in hell I was choosing this kind of life for myself. How ridiculous.
I was diagnosed with General Panic Disorder at 16. At 18, a multiple-choice test revealed Borderline Personality Disorder. By 24, I was taking anti-psychotics to fight what my doctor and therapist agreed to be Major Depressive Disorder with Bi-Polar tendencies and panic attacks as a side effect. I believed them. I hung onto the words of every medical professional I ever encountered. I needed someone to answer the one question anyone who suffers this way can’t help but repeatedly ask.
“What is wrong with me?”
In November of 2016, I attended a three-day seminar in New York. It’s the first of a lengthy series designed to empower transformation. I was skeptical, of course. Again, only agreements of my victim status were acceptable at this point in my life and anything encouraging a challenge to that was not my cup of tea. However, I’d reached some kind of rock bottom and knew something had to give. So I walked in nonetheless, thinking I knew exactly what I needed to gain from the experience and emerged days later an incredible butterfly from a cocoon I’d never even seen.
On the second day, we were asked to participate in an exercise described to allow anyone and everyone to “disappear” something from their lives. The days were long, the chairs were uncomfortable, the lights were bright, and the tension in this conference room, filled with over a hundred people, was definitely high. It was almost undeniable that everyone in attendance was experiencing a headache, fatigue, or in many cases a lovely combination of the two. After asking for a show of hands, the seminar leader selected one lucky member suffering from one or both to sit up on stage with her and demonstrate this magical disappearing act for the rest of the group.
I sat down terrified, but excited and 100% prepared to debunk this crock of shit.
She clipped a small microphone to my scarf and asked me to close my eyes. I chose to focus on the headache, as it was more consuming than my tired feeling. She told me to get as comfortable as I could and then proceeded with questions.
She first asked me for the story I had about my headache. (The first day, we’d learned the difference between our “story” and our reality. (i.e., My father abandoned me vs. My parents got divorced.) It sort of takes the sting away from what’s actually happening in life. Identifying this difference lets you get to know the facts, as opposed to wallowing in your feelings about the facts.) My story about my headache was simple at first.
“The lights are bright,” I said.
She was totally unimpressed, “Is that all?” I thought about it, and sure enough, there was more.
“I’m tired, I haven’t had enough water, I don’t have my glasses, your voice…” Everyone enjoyed my honesty, including her. The chuckles settled and she fired her next question. “What does it feel like?” Followed by “Where do you feel it?” and “Can you rate it on a scale of one to ten?” I answered these questions as honestly as I could. Then she asked them again. And again. And again.
With the minutes passing, I forgot people were watching. It almost felt like I had this woman all to myself in a pair of headphones, while laying in bed trying to relax or something. The fourth time she circled back to the part where I was asked rate the pain from one to ten, I opened my eyes, looked at the people sitting in front of me and laughed uncontrollably. My headache was gone. It had completely disappeared and I powerful shared it with the group. “It’s gone!”
The people were in disbelief. And what I mean is, I don’t think they believed me at all. I wasn’t even sure I believed me. “What did you do to me?” I laughed. They applauded me back to my uncomfortable chair. She then talked the entire room through the same exercise. By the end of it, more than half of the people there felt they, too were able to disappear their headaches or fatigue. Everyone looked around at each other like,”Whaaaat the fuck is happening?” And she’s all smiley and like, “Look.”
She explained that the things we suffer from in life persist when we fight them. It is only through allowing the thing to exist, acknowledging it completely and letting it be present without judgment that we can control it, and therefore disappear it.
It started to make sense to me. When I have a headache, it’s usually a reoccurring thought. Doing the dishes, changing the laundry, omg my head hurts. Brewing coffee, making breakfast, why does my head hurt? Drinking some water, getting dressed, ugh my head. I haven’t had a single headache IN MY LIFE that wasn’t accompanied by complaints about it, a resistance of it. It’s human nature to fight a freakin’ headache, right? I mean… it hurts.
I’m one of those annoying people who believe everything happens for a reason.
So I knew why I was called up to that stage. I hadn’t accepted it as truth just yet, but I wondered if I could use this exercise to rid myself of a panic attack. Of course, it wasn’t long before the opportunity presented itself. I was on the subway, just a day or two later, with my dad who’d also attended the seminar. I started to panic. I don’t remember now what about, I’m sure something silly. My dad had seen this behavior enough times that he knew what was about to go down. He caught my eyes and bravely said, “You can disappear this.” For the first time in my life, I felt empowered when faced with fear instead of small and worthless. Before that moment in time, it was all about being a victim. I’d become sickeningly comfortable in never taking responsibility because I never truly saw myself as strong enough to have a say in the matter. In that moment, I had a choice to make. Suffer? Or take control?
If you’d told me a year ago I’d be panic free or medication free today, I would have laughed you to the nearest exit. If you’d challenged me to try harder than I already was or softly hinted toward any tiny thing I maybe hadn’t yet tried, I would have melted right in front of you; furious and sure that no one would ever understand what it was like to be me.
I had to practice that exercise a total of two times before my panic attacks stopped completely.
I don’t know that I can describe how this new reality of mine exists with any words other than these: By fighting my anxiety with every fiber of my being for every second of almost a decade, I made it worse. I fed it by pretending to be so helpless underneath it. It was my blanket, my act, my comfort, my reason, my excuse, and everyone’s burden. It was my choice. By choosing my anxiety as a part of me, by accepting it as an expression of something inside of me, by relinquishing every story that came along with it, I got to see it for what it really was.
And I am free to choose. Every second of every day for the rest of my life.