During my recent trip out West with the family (Grand Canyon, Zion Park, Hoover Dam), I was reminded of my fear of heights (especially, un-guarded, wide-open heights). I saw my 11-year old daughter overcome this same fear as we hiked this narrow ridge in Zion Park.
That gut-turning anxious feeling brought me back to when I was 19…and one of the most difficult periods of my life.
In the Beginning…
I’m not even sure how it all began. I had just started my Sophomore year in the music program at The University of Connecticut. Physically, I felt pretty good. I was on the ice hockey team and exercising a lot (by this time I had fully recovered from Meningitis). I was also writing my first “big band”, small-ensemble and solo piano music compositions.
But sometime early that academic year, I started having panic attacks. These started innocent enough – I would be in a social gathering and began feeling ‘uncomfortable’. This usually meant a slightly nervous stomach and the desire to get out of there as soon as possible.
As weeks and months passed, however, I began getting physically sick. If I didn’t leave a social/uncomfortable situation, I would start shaking, and eventually vomit. Yes, physically sick. It created a sense of panic, and naturally, I started avoiding these situations. No parties. No dinner dates. Even the hockey locker room had become a panic zone. Friends would invite me out – and I’d make up excuses so I could avoid the situation. When I did find myself out, I was constantly excusing myself to go to the bathroom. My daily routine turned into “count-the-number-of-panic-episodes”. Good days were less then 3. Bad days were as many as 10.
Somehow, I managed to finish that school year without calling much attention to my ongoing problems. I guess my friends just assumed the cause of my “getting sick” was I “partied like hell” the night before. Pretty normal for a college Sophomore, right? Little did they know.
That Summer, I took a job as a ‘greens-keeper’ at the local golf club. Not because I loved golf, but because I could be outdoors – just in case I needed to, well, get sick. Being outside was the only place I felt ‘safe’. The anxiety/fear at this point was keeping me from going to restaurants, church, really anywhere people would congregate in a public space. Oh, if you’re wondering about music performances? Forget it – no way was I gonna play piano in public!
Courage is not the absence of fear, but triumph over it – Nelson Mandela
My parents were the only ones who had an idea what was going on – and they really did their best to help. I’m sure this whole episode was difficult for them too. We went to see therapists, doctors – even a hypnotist. But there was nothing physically wrong with me and no solutions were forthcoming. M&D began accepting me missing family events, dinners out and all the other panic-inducing situations (BTW – thanks M&D).
Without options, I started regular sessions with a highly-recommended (and costly) Psychiatrist. We explored the past, dream analysis and anything which may have led to the panic attacks. The word “agoraphobia” came up (scary stuff, check it out). All the while, the anxiety kept spiraling downward. I was depressed, and had now got to the point where I could barely leave my room. I was also taking (and addicted to) Xanax – often prescribed for anxiety and panic disorders. It definitely numbed the anxiety – but it pretty much numbed EVERYTHING. I was feeling like a zombie as I walked through an all-day fog. Down, down, down…
I was miserable. Imagine waking up every day and wondering how many times you’re going to throw up? Yech.
Fear defeats more people than any one thing in the world – Ralph Waldo Emerson
It was late August when something finally changed. I’d like to think it had to do with my constant prayers and pleas of help (or maybe even my psychiatrist!), but I think it came down to me. I woke up one day with the realization my fear had “wasted” over 9 months of my life! Almost a YEAR without any improvement – in fact, things had gotten WORSE! The doctors, the medication – NOTHING seemed to have helped. I decided. That’s it. Enough. I’ve got to face my fear head on.
That one decision turned the pendulum the other way. Oh, not all at once. However, that was the seminal moment – the decision to make a change. Myself.
One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do – Henry Ford
The next day was a Monday – the day I met with my Psychiatrist. I decided NOT to take my Xanax – something I had been doing every day for many months. I went to the Psychiatrist’s office and as we sat down in our ‘therapy’ positions – I immediately told her: “This is the last time I’m coming to see you”… “Hmmm” she responded ” this is an interesting development… tell me more about your feelings”. “Um, no, you don’t understand. I’m not coming back – ever!” I added. “I’m also not taking any more Xanax”. She quickly got a feared look in her eyes: “you can’t just stop taking the prescription, you need to slowly reduce your dose or you could experience serious side effects and withdrawl”. “Nope” I countered – “I’ve already decided. I don’t want anymore of that stuff”. I got up and left the office.
It WAS the last day I saw her, and it was the last day I took a Xanax.
Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power. You are free – Jim Morrison
Of course, all that week I was miserable – sweats, headaches, shaking. The Doc was right. I DID experience side-effects and withdrawl from the Xanax. Oh well, one for me, one for her.
Remember how I would count how many panic attacks I’d have each day? Well, over the coming months, my “counting” went as follows:
Day 1 – I only threw-up 3 times today!
Day 7 – I only threw-up 1 time today!
Day 14 – I didn’t throw up today!
Day 21 – I only threw up 3 times this week!
Day 30 – I only threw up twice this week!
Day 45 – I only threw up once this week!
Day 60 – Wow, I haven’t thrown up in like two weeks!
By the time I was a Senior at UConn, I had mostly overcome my panic attacks… at least until the mandatory “Senior Recital”. I decided to perform my original compositions for the first time. I was a mess. The show was jam-packed with several hundred of my supporters. On the outside, it was an enormous success – but my nerves were absolutely dreadful. I got through this episode, but I wouldn’t perform in public again for over 10 years.
Just writing this story has forced me to re-live some of those ugly days. Yes, I’m better now. I’ve overcome the anxiety. But I also know fear will keep showing it’s ugly head. When I began performing piano regularly in public again (around 2004), I was still experiencing panic attacks. I had to learn a set of mental exercises, meditation and breathing exercises.
I still feel anxiety EVERY TIME I perform – and it’s those pre-show moments when my courage is truly tested.
I have found several things which have helped. First, I like to have warm hands/fingers – this is calming for me and helps me get into the performance quicker. Another part of my routine is I take 20-40mg of Propranolol (helps with clammy/cold hands and ‘stage fright’). I also run my hands under warm water for several minutes prior to taking the stage.
Thankfully after the first notes are played, I begin feeling comfortable and my fear is often replaced by euphoria. I can let myself disappear into the music. It’s probably the reason I love playing piano so much – I can really be ME, creating and expressing – taking risks, trying new things. Not being afraid to make a mistake here or there.
Final Words of Encouragement
To YOU, who are dealing with fear and anxiety in anything you do – I can feel your pain. It’s ugly. It’s scary. I know, I know. But also know, the source of that fear is the same which holds your solution. I pray you find it – so you can do and be all you desire.
Do not fear mistakes. There are none – Miles Davis
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share in the comments below.