"Take a breath."
I repeated that little mantra 74,104 times in a row. As I climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, I had to remind myself to breathe with every single step I took. It took 74,104 reminders, 37 miles, four nearly failed attempts, and two important people to show me that anxiety did not have to control me. It did not have to tell me what I could and couldn’t accomplish. It did not have to hold me hostage, because I was afraid of all that could happen instead of what actually did.
At the top of that mountain, with the wind blowing and my eyes nearly clamped shut with snow, I saw it all so clearly: I am strong. I am capable. And, I can breathe—even 19,000 feet above the ground.
My panic attacks began in the winter of 2016. At the time, I was like any 23-year-old working woman in New York City: trying to balance my love of $34 yoga classes and Sunday brunch with the realities of paying rent. Finally, it felt like everything in my life was starting to fall into place—which is why I was so blindsided when I experienced my first panic attack that winter.
It happened in a cozy apartment party on a snowy, Sunday afternoon. One minute I was lounging on the couch, nestled by a blanket with a glass of merlot; the next I was gasping for air. Everything around me began to swirl at warp speed and slow motion at the same time. I had a smile plastered on my face, but inside, the emergency lights were flashing. My chest was collapsing, my heart was racing, and my mind was running through a million possibilities. My whole body was in chaos.
After what felt like forever, I gasped for a breath and leaned my head back on the couch. It was like all the energy had been sucked out of me. I saw the color return to my knuckles and heard some murmurs asking if I was OK. I nodded and excused myself, genuinely unsure of what had just happened to me.
I'd never had a panic attack before that moment—and frankly, had never given them much thought. I associated "anxiety" with my occasional stress over missing my alarm for work, or sending an email to the wrong Jim. Before my panic attacks began, I thought that anxiety was an easy fix—something you just get off your chest. I didn't realize it was a scary, possibly debilitating mental illness that affects 40 million adults in the United States alone.
It took me months to understand what having anxiety really meant—and coming to terms with having it myself. I wanted it all to disappear. I didn’t tell anyone what was happening to me, since I thought that I could fix it by myself; whatever happened in those few moments that Sunday afternoon was a onetime thing.
But, as the weather got warmer, my anxiety levels heightened. I went from someone who thrived on adventure to someone who avoided it. It seemed like the person I had known my entire life was changing right in front of my eyes, and I didn’t know how to fix her. I was watching my confident, independent, easygoing self turn into someone who shuddered at the slightest change in my routine.