I didn’t want to have something “wrong” with me. Certainly not a mental disorder.
March 1984, The night I opened the doors into a big hotel lounge in Dallas, filled with friends, mostly strangers. All just having a good time. My heart started racing. My hands were sweaty. The walls of the room seemed to cave in where all I could see was a mass of people. No specific faces. I couldn’t breathe.
I turned around. Practically ran out.
I was having a panic attack.
Not my first. I had had them for at least 3 years. I didn’t want to admit there was a problem.
My 1st? Occurring when I had a solo in my hometown church. I was working at the time as a professional jingle singer. Justified that one by saying that I hadn’t sung in church in a long time. Must have been a weird case of nerves.
The 2nd. Auditioning for a solo in a studio. My legs started shaking. I remember the producer looking at me curiously. “You all right?”. “Just tired”, my response.
I didn’t get the solo.
I was in my mid-20’s. The typical time for panic attacks to begin. They started happening not just at times I was truly “performing”. Other times when I would feel somehow, irrationally, pressured. A need to do something incredibly well. Even if that was just to listen to a friend.
I needed to be all things to all people. Never disappoint. Always be at top performance.
Interestingly, this all began occurring when the reality of my life was far from perfect. Divorced. Living a more chaotic lifestyle, with a relationship that wove in and out of my life that was confusing and belittling. I seemed addicted to choices that led to my own unhappiness.
I had been in therapy. But had never admitted the full extent of the panic. I went to 3 different therapists in the end. One used hypnosis, which I think now would have worked, had the rest of my life been a little less provocative. I didn’t really give his techniques much of a chance.
The second therapist was just bad. A nice enough guy. But we never got down to anything concrete.
Finally, I got to Larry. I remember distinctly what he said.
Me: “I want to get rid of these attacks. I hate them”.
Larry: “The more you hate them, the more power they will have. You have to try to have compassion for the part of you that shakes. That trembles. She is just as real as the part of you that you find acceptable.”
I didn’t like hearing what he said. But suddenly it made sense.
Acceptance. Of all of me. What a novel idea.
I am sure that I no longer remember his exact words. I have now said something similar to so many patients, that I probably am quoting myself. But his message made a strong impact on me.
Basically, I could quit trying to be all things to all people. To be somebody I was not.
Some kind of perfect human being.
My mother had full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder. From some newspaper clippings I have found, it sounds like my paternal grandfather had panic attacks. So I was genetically set-up to have anxiety.
It’s just what I have. I no longer feel shame about it.
I wish that I would take the time, like Dan Harris details, to learn a technique like meditation. I would probably lick the attacks themselves. He has written about his journey in the excellent book “10% Happier”. I don’t think he would define it as a technique. More like the adoption of a lifestyle.
Maybe I will get there.
It can be awkward if it happens. Irritating. Like getting a cold on vacation. But I don’t hate it any more. It’s just something that I manage. I cope with.
I fairly frequently realize I haven’t “panicked” in a situation where I might have, in earlier times, automatically grabbed for the beta-blockers I keep in my purse. My “just in case” meds that can be helpful in a pinch. (It should be noted that this class of drugs is not for everyone and is no cure for anxiety. It’s a quick fix. A short-term solution.)
The more open and honest I am with myself – the less I am invested in being something I am not – the less anxiety I have.
Plain and simple. So the perfectionism – the anxiety – is not running me anymore.
And I am not running away.
You can read more of Dr. Margaret @ http://drmargaretrutherford.com! Or email her with question and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. And please, it you are experiencing symptoms of panic or anxiety, either reach out for the help of a therapist or take steps to address them yourself. You can feel better!
Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist who has been practicing in Fayetteville, Arkansas for over 20 years. She began blogging in 2012, coining the term “NestAche” for her empty nest experiences. She launched Dr.MargaretRutherford.com in 2014 and now can be read on the Huffington Post, Boomeon, BetterAfter50, Midlife Boulevard, BlogHer, WeWantMoreNow and other online magazines.