I was in my early thirties when I had my first panic attack. I wondered at the time where the word “panic” came from and found that it derived from the Greek god Pan, whose sudden appearance caused terror, like that of a stampeding herd of cattle. That’s just what it felt like.
I was driving home at night with my wife after visiting friends when suddenly my heart rate accelerated and I started to feel faint and weak and couldn’t breathe evenly. I didn’t know what was happening to me, but my first thought was that I was going to die.
I slowed the car down to the side of the road and told her I thought I was going to faint. I was gasping for breath and the world seemed far away and distant. After we had slowly pulled over, I managed to calm myself down, breathe more evenly and was able to carefully continue driving.
We got home and I fell into bed, exhausted. The next day I saw my doctor and he gave me a thorough examination, finding that I had a slight cardiac arrhythmia. He prescribed a course of beta blockers and suggested I take a few days off. My work at the time was in the retail trade and involved constant travelling, negotiating with national clients and surviving in a very competitive market.
I had always been very fit, swimming, surfing and doing beach running so I was quite surprised to be told that my heart was occasionally going out of synch. It took a week or two to understand that I WASN’T going to die suddenly and that I really needed to take things a little easier at work.
What I didn’t know, was that my marriage was soon going to end, my wife would ask me to leave the house, that I would only see our four year old daughter whom I deeply loved (and still do) every second weekend, that my life would dissolve into a chaotic spiral of high-risk social behaviour and my panic attacks would get much worse. To the extent that I would be walking through the city, feel an attack coming on and would have to constantly repeat quietly: “you’re not going to die, you’re not going to die, it’s just a panic attack” until the feeling subsided. I also found it nerve-wracking to get into elevators, especially small ones that moved slowly. My mother had claustrophobia and now I seemed to be getting it as well.
It’s weird how sometimes the most bizarre situations can change your life.
While walking to a client in the city centre about a month after our divorce, a middle-aged woman suddenly went into an epileptic fit and crashed to the pavement in front of me, hitting her head with a sound like a cricket ball hitting the bat. She lay there shuddering and I and another bystander tried to get her comfortable. I had no idea of what to do in this situation and thought that I had to get a doctor. Next to where she lay was the foyer to office suites and on the wall was a brass plaque of a doctor!
I dashed upstairs and luckily he was free and could come down to treat the woman who had started to recover and was able to be helped to sit up and wait for a friend to fetch her.
I was also in a state of confusion and shock and went back upstairs to the doctor’s rooms and we went over what had happened. While talking I told him of my condition and asked if he had any suggestions for therapy. He suggested a psychologist who had recently begun group therapy, a rather novel process then, and after being interviewed I joined his therapy groups.
I had never opened myself to others, even close friends, my parents being very religious and restrained in any form of physical or emotional contact and so the act of sitting amongst a group of six or seven people who I had never met before and hearing that my situation was far less traumatic than some of theirs, was in a way very reassuring. I also developed close bonds with some of them which lasted many years and rather strangely, when you found that a stranger you met socially has been in group therapy, an unspoken bond developed.
At this time I started practicing Iyengar-style yoga with one of his senior teachers who happened to be my neighbour and began the study of Sufism with the Sufi Movement in the West, being guided and initiated by one of Inayat Khan’s students who had been initiated by him many decades ago.
And so the slow process began: daily yoga practice, daily Sufi practice, daily journalling of my emotions,feelings and dreams, being mindful of my interactions with the surrounding world and trying to put those into perspective. It all required and still does require discipline; unfaltering discipline and I was fortunate to have the support of my yoga, Sufi and later t’ai chi teachers.
In retrospect, it seems that although I wouldn’t or couldn’t intellectually understand that our relationship was in deep trouble, chiefly because of my own emotional immaturity, my sub-conscious mind knew and became more and more traumatized and out of kilter until it simply couldn’t manage to function properly and just broke.
I’ve also come to realise that this is how a vast percentage of urban dwellers are living, or rather existing; having to work as “wage-slaves”, being on edge and fearful and unaware of the beauty and healing energy of the natural world, locked as they are into warrens of concrete.
So what to do? Be mindful of your daily life, your interactions with your fellows, your physical body. Take time to be creative, to be alone, read widely, explore nature, explore your mind and above all, be brave.
Robert de Vos,
Author Bio – Robert de Vos: teacher and practitioner of Iyengar-style yoga for some 35 years and Sifu (instructor) of Yang T’ai Chi. A member of the Inner School of the Sufi Movement in the West for many years, he is the author of eBook “Living in the Here and Now – a guide to walking the mystic path” and creator of www.mymoodkit.com