How It Started
In 1993, I was living in Santa Monica, California, and I was going through a very stressful period. I was starting a new business, working 16-hour days and getting deeper and deeper in debt. I had started a super-intensive weight-training program at the gym. And on top of all this, my closest friend was very ill and slowly dying.
One day, during a very heavy workout at the gym, all of a sudden, I began feeling lightheaded & dizzy, and my heart started racing. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was having my first panic attack.
I saw my doctor the very next day. He gave me an EKG and said everything was fine. I felt very relieved… until one week later, when I had my second panic attack. I felt dizzy, faint and terrified. I was sure I was going to pass out any second; I was afraid I was about to go crazy; I was afraid I was going to die. It was the worst experience of my life. At that point, I would have done anything to not have that experience again.
I saw a psychiatrist, who gave me Klonopin. The medication helped, but my anxiety and panic were going to be “center stage” for the next 5 years of my life.
I started intensive psychotherapy, three times a week. My therapist was very bright and very caring, but he was not trained in the anxiety disorders. I worked my tail off in therapy, but instead of the gradual improvement I expected, my condition actually got gradually worse.
If you’ve ever been to the Los Angeles area, you know it’s the land of freeways. One day, I was driving on the Santa Monica Freeway, and I had a panic attack. After that, I could not go back on that freeway. Then, a few days later, I had a near-panic on another freeway. So, to avoid panic, I stopped driving on all freeways.
But that didn’t stop the panic, because my panic was not located on the freeway – it was located in my mind and my body. So, my pattern of withdrawal and avoidance continued. I later found out that this cycle of panic and avoidance is called “agoraphobia”.
As the agoraphobia got more serious, my life became more and more restricted, and the panic got worse. I reached a low point, where I was having waves of panic from morning to night, and I could barely go one block from my apartment.
That period was the worst suffering of my life. But looking back, it was also an incredible blessing, because it got me to change what I was doing. It got me to open up to new ways of healing.
Finding my Healing Path
I started seeing some new therapists, and I finally got my diagnosis – “panic disorder with agoraphobia.” Getting my diagnosis really changed my life, because it started to connect me to all the resources that are available for healing from this condition.
I found two resources that were just right for me.
The first was meditation. Through meditation, I gradually developed a feeling of inner safety and peace – for the first time in my life. Today, I can meditate anywhere and begin to get in touch with that feeling of inner safety.
The second resource I found was “cognitive-behavioral therapy” – “CBT” for short. I found a wonderful CBT therapist who had helped many others overcome panic and agoraphobia. Because of the agoraphobia, there was no way I could travel to my therapist’s office. He told me this was not a problem – this was the case with most of his clients in the beginning. We started with phone sessions, and it worked great.
My therapist taught me that panic comes from our primitive survival instinct – called the “fight or flight” response – and that it’s not harmful. Panic is an overwhelming experience – a rush of sensations and scary thoughts all happening in a split second.
CBT taught me how to slow down and gradually master the panic response. I learned that panic is a collection of sensations that are never harmful and scary thoughts that are never true.
With the tools I learned in CBT, I was ready to start overcoming my agoraphobia.
My main symptom was, if I went more than a short distance from home, I would have panic. To overcome this, I did what’s called “practicing”. I got in my car nearly every day and I drove the same route, gradually driving further and further from home. When I had anxiety, I would use my CBT tools.
My goal was to get to Santa Barbara, which is about 100 miles from Santa Monica. At the time, that distance seemed like going to the moon!
Month by month, I gradually extended my distance. When I was ready, I started staying overnight in hotels: 15 miles, 20 miles, then 30 miles from home. Finally, I drove all the way to Santa Barbara! In place of the panic I used to feel, I felt the most incredible exhilaration. I stayed in Santa Barbara for 4 days, walking on a cloud the whole time!
I thought about what to do next. I remembered that at my low point, my “safe zone” had been one square block. So, I decided to travel 1,000 miles north and then 1,000 miles east, so my safe zone would be one million square miles!
And I did it! I traveled north 1,000 miles to Portland and then east 1,000 miles to Santa Fe, New Mexico! When I first started CBT, I did phone sessions because I couldn’t travel to my therapist’s office. Now, at the end of my CBT, I also did phone sessions, but this time because I was 1,000 miles away!
A couple of months later, I drove cross-country, all the way to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and the Outer Banks. I stuck my toes in the Atlantic! The next year, I took my first trip to Alaska, which was one of the highlights of my life.
Traveling for me will always be an amazing gift. After being confined by agoraphobia to a one-block safe zone, I now love traveling with a passion!
Panic disorder was an incredible teacher for me. It taught me that panic is just an emotion, that it’s not dangerous and it can be mastered. It also taught me that there is a place inside myself of safety, calm and peace. And these qualities are always with me, always available, wherever I go.