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Pete & Anxiety: The Break-Up


Pete & Anxiety: The Break-Up

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For those of you who know me the best, you know that I have suffered a long time with anxiety and panic attacks. I want to share my experiences, if only to give hope to someone out there that you can achieve your goals while dealing with mental health issues. Picture this:

I’m twenty years old. I’m driving home from a long day at work (at the time I was a Store Director at Hollywood Video). It was late at night, I was tired, and I said to myself “what if I forgot how to drive?” In that moment, I had the most intense and terrifying experience in my life. I experienced a wave of total terror. I convinced myself that I had forgotten how to drive, and I was going eighty on the highway. I pulled over on the side of the road, called friends and family, and took all back roads home. It took me around ten years to drive again on a highway.

What I dealt with that night was a panic attack. Google says that a panic attack is a “sudden episode of intense fear or anxiety and physical symptoms, based on a perceived threat rather than imminent danger.” I came to understand panic attacks quite well, as they had become a significant part of my life. Before that moment on the highway, anxiety hadn’t altered my daily life in any noticeable way. After that night, anxiety became an enormous part of my life which manifested in my fear of driving over bridges, taking escalators, riding elevators, and flying.

Shortly after my first acknowledged attack, I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, or GAD. Everyday activities became extremely challenging. All of this happened while I was trying to grow my career, having now moved on from a Store Director at Hollywood Video to a General Manager at PetSmart. I had to take the two hour drive each way to work just to avoid highways and bridges. I couldn’t travel. I couldn’t fly. In order to get from one floor to another at the mall I would have to leave the mall and walk around outside. It was incredibly embarrassing and frustrating. I was totally fine before, what changed? How come I couldn’t do all the things I did before just fine?

I tried multiple therapists, pills, and treatments. Nothing seemed to work. My panic attacks were only getting worse, and they were starting to affect me at work. I started to experience panic attacks at meetings, in interviews, and on conference calls. I needed a manager to sit in interviews with me in the event that a panic attack happened while I was interviewing (which happened regularly). Conference calls were particularly difficult. I would always panic about the speaker being off mute and saying something that I shouldn’t have, and that I would somehow screw up the meeting.

After ten years of experiencing these debilitating anxiety attacks, I had lost hope. I firmly believed that I would never get out of the endless cycle of panic. I started to sympathize with the social media posts about mental health. I understood the frightening power of the brain when it was working against you. It was around this time that I met my wife, Jessica.

Jessica convinced me to take the steps to start getting better. She would always tell me when I had panic attacks that “it’s normal to be afraid.” She would say “I’m afraid when I drive on the highway too. It’s natural.”  After hearing my stories, Jessica told me that I should try therapy again. I started going to a therapist whose focus was positive psychotherapy. It was difficult to share my vulnerability, but it was necessary for me to get over these panic attacks. The therapist taught me breathing techniques for when I experienced my most difficult attacks. Guess what? They worked. She also taught me how to meditate. Guess what? That worked too. The medicine she prescribed me worked. I was getting better. I was driving again: on highways, over bridges, taking elevators, airplanes, you name it.

I drove from Atlanta to New York City. I drove to Dallas. I flew to Phoenix, Puerto Rico, and Belize. I was traveling again. Both for work and for fun. It was incredible! It was improving my work life too. I was able to confidently speak to audiences again. I didn’t need anyone to sit in with me during interviews. I was able to focus. I no longer needed to stay so close to home for work, so I investigated job opportunities in Atlanta (a good forty mile drive each way). I took an opportunity in Atlanta that was wildly different from my retail experiences. This step allowed me the chance to get out of corporate retail and into entrepreneurial small business. After years of stagnancy, I was able to grow again by learning new things, developing my abilities, and challenging myself.

Sure, there’s been setbacks. Escalators still give me problems. I still have panic attacks. The difference is they no longer control my life.  I’ve learned to deal with them. My wife, Jessica, refused to let me spiral back down into panic. My recommendation if you’re suffering from mental health issues is to find your help. Seek out resources, and don’t give up. It’s how you handle adversity that defines you. My grandfather always told me this Vince Lombardi quote, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”

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