I was twenty-nine-years-old when I had my first panic attack. It was October of 2012, two months before my thirtieth birthday. At that time, I was living with my girlfriend, Anna. Hurricane Sandy was coming. It was all over the news, but no matter how many precautions I took, I was unprepared for what was to come.
Anna and I had known each other since high school and we’d become good friends prior to dating. We were friends all the way up until the summer of our senior year, when Anna left our hometown in New York to go live with her father in Chicago. We didn’t speak as often as we used to; our communication had dwindled down to AOL Instant Messenger. Regardless, we stayed in touch in one way or another.
Senior year without Anna came and went. Like other 18-year-old kids, I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I decided I would go to community college to try and figure out my next step. I worked hard and got good grades and eventually transferred to SUNY Plattsburgh because a few of my buddies went there. I found comfort in that. I had left home but never had to say goodbye to all of my friends.
Every night in Plattsburgh there was a party to go to and I went to as many as I could. There was a constant flow of drugs and alcohol. Having fun and partying was all I cared about. I wound up missing a bunch of classes and was barely passing exams. I had been making mistake after mistake, and each bad decision I made had begun to take a toll on me.
After a while, the party scene stopped being fun and I wasn’t feeling good about myself. I didn’t know where I was going or what I wanted to do. I didn’t even know myself well enough to construct a list of things I was good at, or a list of things that interested me. I noticed that when my friends weren’t partying, they were cracking down on their studies and working hard. Most of them were there on student loans; meanwhile my parents were paying for my education. Any one of my friends would have killed for this opportunity, and there I was letting this chance waste away. I knew I was lucky compared to my friends, and knowing that should have been my incentive to take my education more seriously. But I didn’t. I wasn’t focused. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and this led me to care less about my future. Being at school with my friends who were determined to succeed made me feel like a phony and made me realize I was somewhere I didn’t belong.
I was failing and I was on academic probation for the second semester in a row. I wound up leaving Plattsburgh after one year. I left without a degree and went back home to live with my parents. I was lost. I felt like a failure. I was twenty-one and I still didn’t have the slightest clue as to what I wanted to do with my life.
Prior to graduating high school, things had come fairly easy for me. Every day, I woke up, went to school and hung out with my friends. I had a bed to sleep in and plenty of food to eat. I had no uphill climb. I’d faced no adversity. It seemed when I started college and only had myself to rely on, was when I’d lost control and didn’t know where to turn. And worst of all, when I came back home without a plan, I was terrified of what lay ahead of me. Should I go back to school and try again? Maybe this time I could go to a trade school instead? I didn’t have a clue of my next step and that scared the hell out of me.
Without a degree or trade to fall back on, my last option was to work at my family’s business: an auto-body shop down the street from my parents’ home – the same home I grew up in. I used to work at the shop as a teenager, slowly pushing a broom around, emptying the trash cans into the dumpster and washing cars before the customers picked them up. Each task I’d stretch out to fill the time. Working at the shop long term was never something I wanted to do. In my mind, it was never an option, even though I knew if I did make a career out of it, with my father being the owner, I was guaranteed a steady job with decent pay. But it wasn’t what I wanted.
I’ve come to learn that that’s the problem with safety nets. When you have a backup plan, it’s far easier to back-pedal rather than ride forward into the unknown. Before I knew it, there I was back home in my safety net, which at the time felt more like a spider’s web than anything.
I was working at the shop nearly six months when Anna moved back to New York. We had always kept in touch, so when she returned home we picked up where we had left off. We were both single and had similar stories – she was also too distracted at the time to finish college and had returned home to help care for her sister’s kids, looking into working as a full-time nanny. For the first time since becoming friends years ago, we began to date. I was in love with Anna. I always had been. She was fun to be around, easy to joke with and was always looking for a laugh. She was kind and caring in a time when I needed it the most. When we started dating it felt like I had a purpose all over again.
We were inseparable for two years. I had put all my time and energy into the relationship because it was all I had to feel good about. Eventually I put too much weight on her. I became insecure, questioning her anytime she’d go out without me. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust her, I was just afraid of losing her. Being with Anna helped me mask my feelings of failure. I guess that’s why the breakup was so hard on me – it was another thing I had failed at.
She dumped me a week before my twenty-fifth birthday. Anna told me she wasn’t “in love” with me anymore. It crushed me to think her feelings for me didn’t match the way I felt for her. The heartbreak was real. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I was terribly depressed. It took a while for me to get over Anna, but eventually I understood how hard it must have been for her to love me when I barely knew or loved myself.
Without Anna I felt lost all over again. For two years she was the binding that held me together. Since leaving college, there was a hole inside of me. I had thought Anna had filled that hole, that void I was feeling. But even when we had been together, I still felt like something was missing from my life. For years I ignored it. I ignored the fact that I had no purpose, no goals – it was something I couldn’t face, and because of it, the hole kept growing bigger and wider.
The next four years felt like they had floated by. I’d go to work, come home to my one-bedroom apartment, watch TV, go to sleep and wake up to do it all over again. Those years were a blur, as if I had been living them on auto-pilot.
I stayed in touch with Anna while I was going out and dating other girls. I never truly got over Anna. No matter who I dated the feelings for her were still there. She was my first love, the one that made me realize love was even possible. No one I was dating at the time was living up to her and I figured Anna and I would get back together at some point, so dating had become nothing more than a means of waiting for her.
Sure enough, after Anna herself went through two failed relationships, she reached out to me and we started up again.
This was it, I told myself. The waiting had finally paid off.
Anna and I had been back together six months when we decided to move in together. We rented a two-bedroom condo with a tiny porch out back that overlooked a pond. It became surprising to me though that once we settled into our new home, Anna barely wanted to leave it. It seemed she never wanted to go out to dinner, or go on hikes and socialize. She preferred to watch movies on the couch, even on the weekends. She barely kept in touch with her own friends and stopped coming out with me when I went out with mine. She worked late, so we rarely shared a meal together.
Within the first few months of living with Anna, I learned she was messy and would leave clothes all over our bedroom floor, making it hard to get around. She left dirty dishes on the counter for days or until I finally brought them to the sink and cleaned them. I found that straightening up after Anna in general had become a nuisance. Another thing I found irritating, Anna would go grocery shopping and come home and label all of her food. She never shared any of it with me. It felt like I had a roommate who held a border line between us instead of a girlfriend willing to mesh our lives together.
I found myself aggravated with Anna all of the time. Everything was an argument. Simple tasks like doing laundry and arguing over whose turn it was to make the bed and dust down the dressers became our lives. Slowly, I learned that she wasn’t the person I thought she was, or at least she wasn’t the same person I fell in love with. Nonetheless, my feelings for Anna began to fade away.
It was the night Hurricane Sandy hit. Anna and I were hanging out in our kitchen with a couple of friends. I used to make it a point to sit next to Anna, but that night, I found myself sitting at the far end of the table, away from her. Usually during a bad storm we’d lose power, so we made sure to have lanterns and candles ready to go. The wireless speaker was fully charged and there was plenty of cold beer in the fridge.
A deck of playing cards lay out in front of us. We were playing Asshole. Anna was drunk. I could tell by her glazed eyes and by the way she laughed – a loud, squeaking sound, like a bat was swooping through the kitchen. Each time she laughed I winced.
I kept glancing over at Matt and Christine. Matt was a friend of mine I had known since grade school. Christine was his girlfriend, and they’d been dating for several years. They always seemed like a good match. I had been watching them as we sat there drinking around the table, and I couldn’t help but notice that Anna and I were missing the connection that Matt and Christine shared. Matt had his arm around her; her head rested on his shoulder. He took a sip of beer then planted a kiss onto her nose. I cringed.
“Hand me a napkin?” Anna asked. I passed her a napkin and watched as she used it to wipe up a small puddle of spilt beer, then she squeezed the napkin into a ball and tossed it at my head.
“Two points!” She laughed. I threw her a dirty look and then opened my mouth to respond, but I couldn’t find the words. It was at that point that something felt off about me. All of a sudden, I felt a tightness in my chest followed by a burning feeling. My breathing became unsteady. I reached for a fresh beer in the center of the table and saw that my hand was shaking as I grabbed for it. I took a deep breath and cracked opened a beer.
I’m just tired, I thought. I put the beer to my lips and started drinking, hoping the alcohol would settle my nerves. I knew we’d be losing power soon, which meant there would be a long night ahead of me. The thought of having to cater to Anna and our friends made whatever I was going through feel even worse. I knew I’d be the one who’d have to light all the candles around the house and make sure everyone was good and comfortable. Anna left all responsibilities up to me. Thinking about having to clean up around the house the next morning, along with wiping the branches and storm debris off both of our cars made me feel sick. I could feel my heart racing as I grabbed another beer.
Outside, strong gusts of wind pushed at the house and I could hear the walls creak with pressure. The rain came sideways and pelted against the windows with sharp raps.
Led Zeppelin was playing from the speaker, not nearly loud enough to drown out the thoughts in my head. I turned to Anna and noticed every time I looked at her doubt was rushing through my mind: What am I doing here? What am I doing with her? I don’t want this life. But we live together, I can’t just break up with her.
My thoughts were interrupted by a loud crash – like a tree smashing against the roof. The four of us jumped up from the table and we ran into the living room. There was a large bay window that overlooked the entire neighborhood. The sky was lighting up with flashes, and what we had thought had been a tree crash was the sound of lightning rumbling. Another bolt struck down, cracking even louder than before.
We jumped. Anna grabbed my hand. My initial reaction was to rip it away from her, but I resisted the urge and wrapped my fingers around hers.
The lights flickered until the room became dark; we had finally lost power. Anna’s hand gripped harder around mine and my whole body stiffened – it felt like my insides were balling up into a closed fist.
Normally, I would of have rushed around the house to light the candles and lanterns but in that moment I remained silent and motionless. I felt so strange. My heart was beating recklessly; I could hear it pounding in my ears, even over the thunder and loud, distorted guitar playing of Jimmy Page. My breathing had quickened again and the shooting pain in my chest had returned. My entire body felt stiff. I needed to lie down.
I excused myself, saying I’d be right back. I went straight into the bedroom, kicked off my sneakers and laid in bed with my clothes still on. I tucked my knees into my chest and curled into a ball. Something was wrong with me. I was scared, and for the first time since I was kid, I began to cry.
I woke up the next morning in a daze. My head pounded. I was terribly hungover. Anna was asleep by my side. She was always a good sleeper, unlike me. Most nights I’d toss and turn, making the bed thump while hogging all the blankets, and even then, Anna never woke up.
I stood from the bed slowly, slipped on my sneakers and went outside to check the damage from the last night’s storm. Pools of water gathered on the lawn. Branches cluttered the driveway. I stepped onto the street and looked around. Power lines were down with trees collapsed on top of them. Trees had been stripped bare of leaves – the beauty of autumn had been stolen away.
I wondered about my parents and how they were doing. It was 9:00 a.m. and I knew they’d be up. I decided to take a drive over to check-in on them.
Navigating the streets was like driving through a maze. Some of the roads were blocked off by fallen trees with abandoned cars trapped between them. People stood at the top of their driveways, scratching their heads as confusion gathered on their faces, wondering where to begin with the cleanup.
While driving to my parents’ house, I noticed my hands were gripped tight around the steering wheel. I loosened them, only to have them tighten again without my control. Driving through town, I could see the grocery store parking lot was full. Customers were running to their cars with shopping carts full of water and food. Gas stations were out of power and traffic began to accumulate down the road to the neighboring town. As I kept driving, I felt something inside of me rising – similar to how I felt the night before. My breath quickened, my chest felt tight, the shooting pain was back and worsened with each inhale.
When I got to my parents, I saw my father outside, starting up the generator – they had lost power too. I asked if he needed help with anything and he said no. He asked where Anna was and I said she was still sleeping, that I wanted to make sure him and mom were okay. I stepped inside, into the kitchen, and sat at the table with my mother. She made me breakfast – eggs over-easy with bacon and toast, my favorite, but that day, I found I didn’t have much of an appetite – I wound up having to force the food down.
My mother threw me a strange look and suggested I go lay down in the guest room.
The guest room was actually my old room – the room I had grown up in. I made my way down to the end of the hall, feeling sick and lightheaded. I entered the room and sat on the bed, placing a hand on my chest. With my heart beating rapidly, I tried to distract myself, remembering all the ways I used to decorate this room when I was living here. I pictured the way the walls used to look: posters of Nirvana, Phish, The Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill. Pictures of skateboarders and drawings I had made – all the things I had loved at the time. These walls were now bare and painted white. There was no TV, no computer and no stereo. It was weird and bizarre how fast everything had changed. I felt like a stranger in my own room.
Laying there in my old bed, I tried to stay calm by taking deep breaths. But every time I breathed, my chest would tighten and the sharp pain amplified; it felt like someone was using a screwdriver to wind a screw into my sternum. My breathing became tight and shallow. All I could hear was my heart thumping wild. I thought I was having a heart attack. I was too weak and scared to scream out to my mom for help. I laid my head down on the pillow and pulled the blankets over me. I felt paralyzed, as if cement were weighing me down, molding me into the mattress. I stayed on my back like that until finally my body gave up and I passed out from exhaustion.
When I woke up an hour later my breath was a little lighter but the sharp pain lingered. All kinds of thoughts began to clutter my mind. I was almost thirty and I had done absolutely nothing substantial with my time. I was extremely unhappy. I didn’t know how to change. I felt like a loser and a failure. I had lost control over my life.
I saw a doctor a week later.
I sat on the examination table with my posture hunched; I was nervous because I didn’t know what was wrong with me and I expected the worse. I played with the scratchy paper underneath me, tearing shreds of it off and rolling them into tiny balls between my fingers.
The doctor put the cold stethoscope to my chest and listened.
He told me to take a deep breath and I thought, that’s all I’ve been trying to do for weeks now!
The doctor wrapped the blood pressure monitor around my arm. As he pumped, the compression grew and my breath shortened along with it. I’ve never known it to feel so confining, like a tiny straitjacket around my arm.
He told me to relax.
I expected him to see my blood pressure numbers fly off the charts. I envisioned his eyes widening as surprise took hold. He’d get on the phone, “We need an airlift stat!” And the chopper would be on its way.
Instead, he listened calmly and read the numbers, nodding. “I’m guessing this is your first panic attack?” the doctor said.
Was he joking? Didn’t he know it was more serious than that? It felt like I’ve been slowly dying for days.
“I… I don’t know,” I said, confused.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he responded, almost laughing and putting his hand on my shoulder. “At your age and in these times, it’s normal to have anxiety.”
“It is?” I asked, thinking it was far beyond normal for me. Abnormal was the word stuck in my mind.
“It sure is. Here, I’m going to write you a prescription for a benzodiazepine.”
”Don’t worry. I only want you to take half when the panic comes on. It will settle your nerves and calm you down. But listen, this isn’t a solution, it’s just a Band-Aid. I suggest you read up on anxiety. The more you know about it, the more comfortable you’ll feel and you’ll realize you’re far from being alone.” Which was good to hear, because alone was exactly how I felt.
I took the doctor’s advice and read up on anxiety. It didn’t take long for me to realize where my anxiety stemmed from: the choices I’d made and the ones I hadn’t. I had given up on finding myself and a purpose a long time ago.
My relationship with Anna was over and it had been over for a while. We lacked compassion for each other. We no longer shared a connection. I think we’d both been holding onto something that was once there, but we both knew in our hearts it no longer existed.
The more I had read up on anxiety and the ways to overcome it, the more I realized the actions I needed to take and the things I needed to do for myself. I couldn’t stay in a relationship with someone just because I was afraid to be alone. It was time for me to figure myself out.
I broke up with Anna the following night.
When I was a kid I used to write stories. It started in the fifth grade when I was given my first creative writing assignment. Our teacher told us that we could write about anything we wanted. Anything? I remember thinking. Before I knew it, I was writing my very own story where ninjas were taking over the school and I was the only one who could stop them. I remember the smile on my face growing with every word I was writing. I remember loving the process of creating a story. I remember it feeling like I had discovered some kind of superpower. A power where I could make up any person and character I wanted and place them in any world that I created. Growing up, I would hang out with my friends, play sports and skateboard, but then when I got home, I remember I would shut the door to my bedroom, pick up a pencil and get lost in my imagination.
Back then, because I loved to write, I knew reading was an important tool to feed my imagination. When I was younger, I read often and I always had a book beside my bed – usually a sci-fi or a horror novel – with a flashlight next to it. When my mom would come in and say goodnight, she would turn off the lights and shut the door. Then I’d flick the flashlight on and open the book, picking up from where I left off from the night before.
By the time I graduated high school, I found myself reading far less and barely writing at all. Hanging out with friends mattered more. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, sat on my bedside table for months, with a bookmark stuffed in the middle of Chapter 1 and a blanket of dust matted over the cover.
It wasn’t until after I broke up with Anna that reading and writing came back into my life. My father had asked me to come over one weekend to help him clean out the garage. After an hour of moving things around, he told me to clear out the boxes underneath the workbench. One box was disproportionally heavier than the rest. It was a giant box, standing four feet off the ground. It was awkward to carry. I dropped the box at my feet and looked at the words written on top: Mike’s Books.
I tore off the tape, opened the flaps and saw all of my childhood books stacked into four tall columns. I remembered packing them up in that box. It was right before I moved out. I knew the books would take up too much space in my new apartment, so I left them there with my parents.
I picked up the first book I saw – a short, fat paperback with Jim Morrison on the cover – it was his biography. I put it down and sorted through the rest of the box until I stopped at one that made me smile: The Shining, by Stephen King. I used to read every Stephen King book I could get my hands on. He’d always been my favorite author. This edition of The Shining I was holding at the time was deeply worn. Its color was once light yellow that had turned pale over time. A crease ran diagonally through it, with cracks spread across the cover like shattered glass. There I was at thirty-years-old in my father’s garage with a desire to read this book all over again. I turned to page one, sat on the dirty garage floor marred with grease and oil stains, I rested the book on my knees and began to read.
I finished the book in a week. Every day I was excited to pick up where I left off. After I finished that book, I immediately started American Gods by Neil Gaiman. When I was done with that one, I found another and so on. Reading had become more enjoyable than it ever had before.
With reading came the desire to write again. Reading the works of these amazing fiction writers opened my mind and enticed me to write my own story. I didn’t know the first thing about what it took to write a book. At the time, going back to school wasn’t an option. Instead, I decided to invest my time in reading books on the craft of writing, such as On Writing by Stephen King, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B White. I knew the rest of my learning would have to come from trial and error and experience.
When time came for me to sit down and write, I remember the first day being the scariest. I sat down in front of the computer and stared at the blank screen thinking, where do I begin! But then once I started typing, the story began to flow and the process felt natural. In no time, writing had taken me out of my rut. I woke up each morning with a purpose and goal.
I still worked full-time at the auto-body shop, so every morning while working on the first draft of my novel, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and wrote. I made coffee and sat in front of the computer and would write for a couple hours each morning before heading out to work. I had begun to notice that every morning I would spring out of bed motivated and enthused. There was, and still is to this day, a deep-rooted excitement inside of me concerning writing. And back then, when I was working on my first book, my day-job no longer seemed so bad to me. In fact, working at the auto-body shop has given me the freedom and opportunity to think about my novel throughout the day while I worked. I had created a system that works for me up to this very day.
After five months, I had a first solid draft of a book written. For the first time ever, I felt like I had truly accomplished something. I knew writing was what I was meant to do. It became my passion and completing a novel, or two or three, has become my goal.
Besides writing, one of the greatest tools I found to alleviate anxiety is meditation. At first, the idea of meditating was a little embarrassing. Sitting alone in a room listening to yourself breathe seemed a little ridiculous to me. But after hearing one of the Joe Rogan Experience podcasts, where Joe was hosting a guest named Dan Harris, a news anchor for ABC who happened to have a panic attack live on TV, I learned about his story and how he pushed through his anxiety by meditating. Harris said meditating had saved his life. I thought to myself, what do I have to lose? I might as well give meditating a shot. I downloaded an app called Headspace, which providedguided meditations, to teach me how to do it. I found out quickly that meditating takes practice because it’s very hard to do. I practiced meditating every morning for a full year, concentrating on my breath and learning how to keep my thoughts in the moment. I still have not perfected it, but when negative thoughts take over and I can feel the anxiety flare up, I am able to take a breath and refocus my attention. I have learned not to put so much power behind my thoughts, which is basically my mind just giving me information. I’ve learned that I don’t need to react to every emotion that rises up. I am now at a point where I have trained my brain to re-direct the negative thoughts into positive ones.
In the process of getting a handle on my anxiety, I had finished my first novel and self-published it. After self-publishing the first book, I took a leap and bought a townhouse in Westchester County, NY, twenty minutes from my job. I was curious if the stress of moving would get to me, but I stayed mindful throughout the process and now I have a place I am proud to call home.
After two years of being on my own, on a continuous path towards self-improvement, I felt I needed a little more responsibility in my life. I decided to adopt a dog. I had become accountable for another life and in doing so, Charlie has become one of my greatest joys. Being a dad to Charlie has helped reassure me that I can stand strong on my own two feet. I know how to take care of myself in a true way. I know who I am, and because of it, I can give Charlie the love he needs and I can accept love back in all the ways that matter.
Little by little that hole I had once felt inside of me has closed up. And I filled it. The work came from me. It was a hard road and at times I wanted to quit and fall back to my old ways because it was easier than trying. But after seeing what I am capable of and feeling like I have come such a far way to find happiness, I know I will never go back to the person I used to be. I have the tools I need and I know how to use them.
Every night before bed I take Charlie on a walk and look up at the sky. Sometimes I get lucky and see a canopy of stars and the moon will be bright and full. It reminds me that the world is large and expands far beyond my worries. When I am in bed, I lay my head down on the pillow. I breathe in deep, making sure each breath counts.
Mike is currently writing his second novel, Sanford Crow. Him and his wife live together with Charlie in their townhouse. Click on the link below to learn more about Mike’s first novel, What Remains of Charlie.