This mindflip story is by Emily Perrin, a Fitness Professional and Yoga Teacher in Raleigh, NC. She is incredibly influential in her writing, experiences, and approach to life. If you aren’t familiar with my mindflip campaign, the intent is to gain strength through sharing real life struggle. By writing and reading these stories, we don’t feel as alone in our hardship. This one is specific to anxiety and panic attacks, but take a peak on my mindflip blog category for different stories.
Thank you Emily for your wisdom and courage! Without further ado…
“You Can’t Stop the Waves, But You Can Learn to Surf” by Swami Satchitananda
If you asked me a year ago if I had an established meditation practice I probably would have chuckled or rolled my eyes. Sitting down, in silence, with my eyes closed for more than thirty seconds? Absolutely not happening. I always told myself I didn’t have time for it but more than anything I knew I was an anxious person. The last thing I wanted to do was sit in silence and listen to my own thoughts rattle around inside my head.
I’d spent 27 years of my life managing clinical depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. I had no shortage of help, support and love from my family, therapists, and various medications through the years. But sometimes when we are struggling and we lack the ability to help and heal ourselves, all the help in the world falls short.
I was at an all time low.
I needed help. I’m not sure I truly realized this until I was already two hours from home and being admitted to an inpatient psychiatric facility for the second time in my life.
But this is what happens when these mental health beasts become your normal. I had spent years hiding and using other things to mask and distract my own issues. The distractions and coping mechanisms ranged from self mutilation, partying and binge drinking, working myself to a constant state of exhaustion, and moving to completely new cities where I didn’t know anyone. All in all, through the years I had done a pretty good job of getting by. I graduated from college and was a Division I athlete at one of the top soccer programs in the country. I became an assistant coach at an Ivy League school coaching some of the brightest young women this world will see. I worked full time while getting my master’s degree. I always paid my bills, gone to work, and done well at the things I needed to do. But sometimes what we accomplish and what people see is only half of the story.
I got used to living with this feeling that I was never enough.
I had spent years examining my flaws and counting my failures. I was always on edge, worried about my next move or what I saw as probably my next mistake. I replayed over and over how I could do things differently or how I could have been better. I lost friends who got frustrated and didn’t understand. I put my energy and time in to men that would never be able to love or fully accept me. I had settled and convinced myself this is how it was just going to be. That this is what I was worthy of.
It had been six months at that point. My panic attacks were coming once, sometimes twice a week. I never knew when they would hit. It usually started with a typical stream of negative self talk, my thoughts would run wild, the demons would take over, my breath would fall short. The outcome of these could range from a full-blown mental break down, hitting the floor, dry heaving and vomiting to simply crawling under the sheets and staying there for 24 hours. If it was a “mild” attack I could recover and be back on my daily schedule within 24 hours. God bless my mother and sister for dragging me out from these states over and over. But sometimes the panic attack hangover lasted for days. I had completely lost my confidence and my ability to function. I convinced myself that I was not and was never going to be OK. I fully believed that I was unworthy of love and deserved to live in this state. It didn’t help that my move to Raleigh had landed me at the feet of a man that I had finally found a real connection with. With him, I was able to be me. He seemed to understand and not run from this anxious and chaotic me. For me, that was vulnerable, scary, and so lovely all at the same time. I felt in many ways at home with him. But what became a true and genuine love for me ended up not being the same for him. I was heartbroken.
I had also recently been working with a new doctor to shift my medication routine. I was hoping this time something would click. I needed sleep. I needed help controlling my attacks. I needed help in general. What I have learned through this journey is that sometimes medication, your body, and the grip anxiety holds over the mind just do not agree. The perfect storm can happen.
I spent six full days in that facility.
Constantly being watched and assessed. I listened to stories of people with issues and mental health demons that I could never understand. I saw doctor after doctor that poked and prodded at my issues, my weaknesses and what I could be doing. Without a doubt those were the worst and scariest six days of my life.
When I was released from the hospital I went home to my parents house in Charlottesville, Virginia. Those six days stripped everything I knew about myself away. As I sat in my parent’s house in the days following my release I had to take a hard look at who I was and who I wanted to be. An anxious, ashamed, broken person afraid to live life was not it. I wanted more; I wanted freedom and joy and love. I wanted the Emily that my mom, my dad, and my sister wanted and needed me to be. I wanted my life back.
The first place I ventured out of the house to was a yoga class. I downloaded meditation apps. I ordered books and a journal off Amazon and started reading and writing, without any idea if this was actually going to work. No idea if this was the right direction. I just started.
Meditation did not come easily. I could barely get through one minute. Irritated and frustrated, I would take a deep breath in, pay attention and watch it enter my lungs and belly, and by the time I was breathing out, my brain and my thoughts were back in that hospital. I would go to yoga and 2 minutes in to my practice I could feel my entire body tensing, my panic was coming back and rising up in my chest. I was telling myself I was bad at it, I was a failure, and that I wasn’t good enough. But I simply kept going. I asked to meet with people that had meditation and yoga practices. I read more material about the science and techniques of mindfulness. I signed up and committed to my 200 hour yoga teacher training. I committed to the journey.
And slowly over the course of a year these two things have shaped and transformed my life. I started to embrace the hard and the discomfort with both meditation and yoga. When I step on to my mat I now find that it has become my sacred place. It is the one defined space that I am able to truly see exactly who I am in the moment. When I step on to my mat I have no pressure to conform or be anything other than who I am on that exact day at that exact time. Some days I flow and move with grace, peace, and elegance. Some days I can barely get through 2 postures without feeling and honoring my anxiety or negativity. These are both perfectly okay. My yoga practice has become the one place that I, after 28 years of living, feel like I am genuinely and authentically me. On my mat, I love me.
I now meditate for 14 minutes every day.
What once was something I could barely hang on to for one minute is now a staple in my day. I have a routine. I light my favorite candle, I sit on my meditation pillow, I close my eyes, and I turn to my breath. Do I enjoy it? Some days. Do I still dread it? Some days. Is it perfect and always zen and blissful? Hell no. That is the beauty. But I do it every day.
There is always, without failure, a moment during my mediation practice that my panic begins to come. A memory, negative self talk, replaying failure, they all creep in. It elicits a physical response in my body. A response that used to drive me over the edge and into a spiral. A response that controlled my life and landed me in a hospital. But it no longer does that. I believe, whole heartedly that continuing to practice meditation and mindfulness is what allows me to come back to my breath, find space, and work through my panic and anxiety. It is not always perfect and there are days where I still struggle. And I mean really struggle. I don’t believe my anxiety or my panic will ever fully go away. Like the quote I started this piece with says, we can’t get rid of the waves, but we can learn to surf. I am dedicated to continuing this journey of learning how to surf.
A yoga teacher I highly admire and aspire to be one day recently said, “We are not anxious beings. We have anxious thoughts and we have anxious feelings. But we are more than just an anxious person moving through the world.”
When she said this I immediately closed my eyes. Tears came streaming down my face. For my entire life I had settled on being anxious. Being controlled by panic. Being too much for people to handle. I was convinced these made me and would continue to make me unworthy of love and acceptance. Her words touched my heart. They touched the process and the hard work that I have been doing since I left that hospital last February. My yoga and my meditation practice have given me the tools and the confidence to understand exactly what she was saying.
As I write this and reflect I smile. I am really thankful. For the first time in my life I can say I am more than an anxious person moving through the world.
Thanks again Emily for sharing your incredibly story and for all you do to inspire our community. To make sure you don’t miss a mindflip story, make sure you sign-up for my “Resilience on Draft” newsletter.
With good intentions,