Your mind starts to race. There’s a pressure in your chest. You feel this incredible urge to be anywhere other than the place you are right now. Your whole body begins to sweat at once. You feel your heart flex with each beat. You hear each thump in your ear. The world around you begins to blur and fade away and you fall inside your own head and feel the rush sweep over you. Sounds change – background noise boils to a high buzz but the words from the person standing next to you sound strained, almost whispered. Everything shrinks while you grow and you feel instantly alone.
I was never able to figure out why I was taking these attacks – and I never really knew if they were panic or anxiety. I remember when I first started taking them I thought I was losing my mind, and I thought for sure that if I told anyone what was happening they’d lock me up somewhere. I have never felt more crazy in my life.
There were odd triggers for me. Shopping was the worst. I hated the entire experience, but mostly I hated standing in a line up. Having people standing behind me and locked in to the lane would just panic me. I would get this overwhelming urge to just run out of the store – and on bad days, and in weaker moments – I would.
I hosted a cable access talk show for a couple of years. I was standing in front of the mirror getting ready to interview the new police chief when I felt a pinch. It was as if someone had pushed a pin right into my shoulder. Then another, and another. Soon my whole arm was tingling and it was spreading down to my chest. My face was white and beads of sweat were forming on my forehead. There was a pounding in my chest that echoed in my ear. I grabbed the sides of the sink and lowered my head. I thought for sure that I was taking a heart attack. My chest. My arm. My heart. I had finally done it. This was how it was going end. At 25.
I lifted my eyes, and when they met in the mirror I wasn’t looking at my face. The shadows under my eyes. The poor color. I wasn’t looking at the hanging band of fat that hung below my chin. I was looking right into my own eyes. In that moment I saw a light turn off inside me. With that one look I knew that I was done thinking of life as something that would unfold before me over the years. From that moment on I knew that I was lucky to be given one more day, each day. Rather than rise up to the challenge that moment so clearly presented – I gave in to it, and stopped thinking of the future. In my mind, from that moment on, I was on borrowed time. I was given one life, and this was how I had wasted mine.
What happened next set the course for the next five years of my life. I learned something about myself that I wish I hadn’t ever known.
I washed my face, changed my shirt, tied my tie like I did every Tuesday night at 5:50, walked into the studio, took my seat, tested my mic, and then did an hour of live TV as if nothing had happened.
I learned I could fake it.
It was that thinking that led me to five more years of horrible choices. I could go to work all day and interview premiers and community leaders. I could get on stage and host a show. I was at my best in those high wire moments where live is actually live and you either pull it off or you don’t. Thankfully my addiction to that thrill had a tighter grip on me than the panic attacks, or I never would have willingly put myself back in that situation day after day.
But then one night that changed. It was October 20, 2011 – and I was hosting the Chamber of Commerce Business Awards in Cape Breton. I had spent almost $1,000 on a tailored suit (27 inch neck, 64 inch chest, 52 inch wait) – not because I was feeling lavish, but because it was the only way I could get one that would fit. When I was getting ready at home I tucked a dry facecloth in to my jacket pocket.
Half an hour later I’m back stage in front of a ballroom of almost four hundred people. Professionally – I couldn’t have been more in my element. Yet, here I was, hunched over a toilet in the washroom, sweat seeping through my shirts, my leg twitching anxiously. I held the facecloth in my hand and just watched it shake. My eyes watered and I started thinking of what I could say to the organizers to get out of hosting the show that was set to start in ten minutes.
Then it passed.
I washed myself up, got on stage, and made it through the whole night without missing a beat.
When the night was over I walked out alone to my car in the parking lot.
As soon as the door closed I burst in to tears.
After years of faking it I was tired of feeling like a fraud.
If I was going to get up on stage and be my happy self – I couldn’t help but wonder how much better I could be if I was actually happy.