I don’t know why I was surprised to discover that the panic attack in Cuba was not an isolated incident. The symptoms that had come on so suddenly that night, only to disappear by morning, returned with a vengeance only days later and worsened with each passing mile that brought me closer to home. There was a constant clenching around my heart, I was out of breath, and my pulse felt thready and irregular. I didn’t feel anxious or sweaty or panicky…I just felt sick, like something was really, really wrong. I felt certain I was about to die, and even started leaving messages in my travel journal for whoever might find me in the morning.
Anyone who has felt the relentless grip of anxiety would probably not be surprised by these symptoms. But I was completely blindsided when it seemed I had gone from never experiencing a single episode, to suddenly having a full-on anxiety disorder.
I had initially planned to go home for a few weeks in the middle of my travels to see friends and family, celebrate my birthday, get some much-needed rest, and repack for the second half of my journey around the globe. It was meant to be a fun, relaxing break. Instead, my first night home was spent nearly collapsing by my mom’s front door, calling for her to feel my pulse because I was positive my heart was giving out, then slumping on the floor before I could pass out, while she held pressure points on my hand and rubbed my back. Not exactly how I had pictured my return. “I didn’t know you had these,” she said softly. Yeah, me neither.
Symptoms only got worse as the days passed. I wasn’t sleeping, and was exhausted to a level I had never experienced before. Friends wanted to get together, and I made excuses for why I couldn’t meet up. I had no energy to socialize, and was afraid I’d have another anxiety attack out in public. It was obvious I didn’t know how to deal with briefly being “home” while still living this backpacker life.
One night, while putting together a puzzle with my niece and nephew, I nearly passed out with my little nephew on my lap. Finally, big sis talked some sense into me and we were on our way to the ER. No huge surprise, my heart was fine. I was fine. Only I didn’t feel fine.
“Do you need to talk to someone?” my dad asked, concerned for my mental health. But no, I didn’t need to talk to anyone. Once I had time to reflect, it was obvious to me what had happened.
I’d been on an extended break from yoga, and my body no longer knew how to communicate with my mind. I had severed that vital tie. Yoga, my one and only salvation from the pressures of my job (and my life) for the past seven years…I thought this break was a healthy one; during the months leading up to my travels, I had begun to feel disconnected from my practice. I was going through the motions, but I felt numb inside, and I didn’t know how to unthaw.
And now, without that space on my mat to breathe and clear my mind, communication pathways had closed and my brain had rewired itself to deal with my stress in an entirely different, and unhealthy, way. My body was a stranger.
A quick fix would obviously be to begin my practice again…but I couldn’t. I felt like there was something hiding in my heart that I wasn’t quite ready to expose. And until I was willing to actually feel something again, this anxiety would have me in its web.
So it followed me as I crossed the ocean to New Zealand, and stayed with me for weeks, leaving me weak and defeated. Until one day, while hiking the most lush, verdant trail I’ve ever seen, on the spectacular west coast of the South Island, I was able to release it…for the time being.