The Anxious Athlete
The fear-adrenaline-fear cycle that creates panic attacks that seem like the closest thing to death as possible, is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemies. Living with Anxiety can seem like life is better off 6 feet under then dragging yourself around day by day, and living with fear lurking around every corner. Yep my 6 year struggle seems like a lifetime ago, back then I didn't think recovery was possible, I mean I took every pill there was, did every miracle cure I ran into online, and spoke with every therapist that was less then 200 dollars. I was a Professional Tennis Player and Instructor, now can you imagine having dizziness as the worst physical sensation from anxiety and having such a physical career as tennis? Some people thought I was coming to work drunk, others didn't talk to me due to being uncomfortable around someone with a 'mental illness'. Oh those were the days, but it's also quite rewarding coming through those years and telling people that recovery is very possible and in a natural way.
My morning routine was usually the same each day: wake up and feel relief that I was still alive. Check if the pounding feeling and pain in my chest was still there . . .which it was. Stagger to the bathroom by holding on to something due to the dizziness to look in the mirror and notice how God-awful I looked and wonder what the hell my fiancée saw in me. This followed by the morning shower, thinking about how I would ever get through the day, working on my fake smile and attitude so I could stay positive enough to keep my tennis coaching position. Then I would go over how much I hated every aspect of everyone I would come into contact with that day and finally the worry and fear process would be going full speed ahead.
I remember one day, walking around on my day off from work on a beautiful weekend, feeling absolutely exhausted, even though I had a good eight hours of sleep and a healthy breakfast. I was thinking to myself that something was terribly wrong, why was I feeling as if the world was like a dream? That day I realized that I had been hit with the experience of depersonalization, the sense that the world had become less real and lacking in significance. I dragged myself around in a sort of daze, almost like being on a street drug. People were walking past me but it felt as if I was in a dream and this wasn’t real. This off-balance, unreal feeling had kicked in so badly that I would act in ways that I never thought I would. My thoughts spiraled out of control and that day I knew that if I didn’t make some drastic changes in my life in every aspect then I was headed down a road that deep down I didn’t want to be on. But I was comfortable, GAD was my comfort zone. My mind said if I didn’t worry about these things and didn’t take care of these threats around me that I would lose control, and if I lost control that would lead to the ultimate fear that being a hypochondriac brings, which is an early death. My mind was in full on fight or flight mode from the minute I woke up to the minute I went to sleep, and on top of all the physical manifestations that Anxiety brought, now I was also stuck in this dreamlike trance all day. Sometimes my fiancée Robyn would be talking to me and mention something that would be important for me to remember, but of course it didn’t register because I was too busy keeping an eye on my physical symptoms and how I was feeling. It must have been so frustrating for someone that close to me trying to understand what was really going on and have a regular conversation with and instead this man, this love of your life, has turned into a mute who is clearly miserable and with no end in sight. Yes, those were dark days and I am glad they are over. Do I still experience some dizziness and fatigue? Yes, but compared to the man I used to be I’ve made a complete turnaround and have regained control of my thoughts and my life, and have stopped the fear from rushing in and overtaking me.
If there was a funny part to all of this it was this: how I could be feeling like I was on my deathbed before going into the ER, and then after being checked out feeling amazing with a sense of being born again? In fact, there was one instance that I can remember when one of my good friend Eric, whom I was living with at the time, took me to the ER around midnight due to the shortness of breath I was feeling. He must have been so confused to see his friend and roommate suffering this panic like this and not knowing what to say or do he dropped me off there and I came out as the sun was rising feeling great again. Only to notice immense chest pains and dizziness later that day, so this time I went to my family doctor to figure out the situation. Through all of these years, I’ve realized that Anxiety is a very tricky thing. Our ancestors needed this fight or flight response in case of danger like some kind of creature chasing after them and becoming their dinner. They needed to be quick and react in an instant, the mind needed to recognize a threat and the body needed to be ready to do battle or run. My mind and body were reacting as if there were a sabre-toothed tiger around every corner, but of course there wasn’t. Why couldn’t I realize that these physical sensations were just a way for my body to prepare itself to fight a threat and they weren’t some life threatening illness or heart attack? Especially after doctors of all kinds reassuring me that I was completely healthy and had nothing to worry about? Because I continued to fear the unknown, my mind kept saying ‘this is it’, ‘this time it will end me’, or ‘maybe the doctor missed something because he hesitated a little when he was explaining something to me’. There was always that ‘what if’ and that was enough to continue to add fuel to my fear and anxiety cycle. During prize money tennis tournaments I remember always getting sick or injured before a match and having to default the match (not play due to an injury). My fearful thoughts of a potential panic attack, and how deep those amazingly fearful physical symptoms of ultra-high levels of anxiety were rooted in me, many times forced me to not even walk on the tennis court even if I was a real underdog with nothing to lose.
Of course, during those dark years there were things that helped me get by and made life enjoyable, for example I didn’t have my dad breathing down my neck during tennis practices and matches anymore. I really started to enjoy training and competing in tournaments again in my early 30’s. I also enjoyed lifting weights if the fatigue and dizziness I felt on a daily basis took a few hours off during the day. Another thing I absolutely loved to do was to DJ. In fact this was the greatest release for me, because for a few hours my thoughts were directed towards synching beautiful music for people to dance and enjoy themselves to instead of indulging in my usual negative and worrisome thinking. It gave me so much freedom whether it was DJing in my own home or in a bar I was hooked to that feeling – no thoughts, just pure positive energy all around me. Eventually I would start my own mobile DJ company, Sev Productions, and would do weddings, private parties, graduations, and pretty much any event I could get. I really don’t know how I was able to do something I had never done before and run with it the way I did with DJing. I wasn’t in the right place mentally to just pick something up like that because I was already so busy trying to find a diagnosis and eventually a cure for what I was dealing with. I remember House Music being one of the biggest triggers to my Anxiety, but shortly after getting my DJ equipment I decided to spin some. I think House Music was a trigger because of the fast tempo that electronic music brings with it – sort of like when you’re at the peak of your panic and everything is going out of control. This was the beginning of what was to be a real solution to my Anxiety problems. I remember a song being played loudly in my place from one turntable and another song about to be mixed in on the other one and I was listening to it through my earphones. I could just feel my body go into the fight or flight mode and that sent my thoughts into a frenzy again, and for the first time I didn’t run. I actually withstood the feeling of losing control of my mind and body and stayed right where I was, sweating profusely, and I continued to mix song after song and for some reason at the top of my lungs I yelled, “Go to hell Anxiety!!!” I was worried and scared to death but I kept going and going, feeling horrible but awesome at the same time, kind of like Mel Gibson in Braveheart at the end of the movie yelling “Freedom!!!”
After another twenty minutes of mixing music and yelling, I was absolutely exhausted but surprisingly alive and for the first time I felt some retreat from my physical sensations. My negative thoughts were still there, but I was too tired to care anymore. How come I didn’t collapse? How come I didn’t run away this time?