Eighteen months ago I was completely incapable of leaving my parents’ home. I did not even feel safe in my own bedroom. Once, when my mother took me to a small restaurant, I was so intimated by the prospect of ordering, of speaking to the waitress, of making any kind of decision, that I froze and we had to leave quickly. Eighteen months ago panic attacks were ninety percent of my life. They were so severe that I could not watch TV, could not talk to two people at the same time, and couldn’t think rationally or logically. I had so much anxiety that my mind could turn any moment of peace into a new a crippling fear. I lived in a state of constant terror, prompting my mentor, Dr. Skip Flynn, to perceptively refer to me as a â€œraw nerve.â€
Before my paralysis I was living and working in the mountainous, but tiny (former) kingdom of Nepal. Nepal was emerging from ten years of civil war between royalist security forces and Maoist insurgents. My work, sponsored by a fellowship from the University of Chicago, was to liaison with a local human rights organization and â€œobserve the cease-fire.â€ In reality, the cease-fire was anything but, and my days consisted of fieldwork at various protests and rallies (most of them extremely violent), extensive interviews with victims of horrendous rape and torture, detailing accounts of missing and disappeared persons, and investigations of abuse and cease-fire violations by both warring factions and various criminal groups. It is hard to say that my work was even slightly beneficial to those I sought to serve, but I was effective enough to have at least one group threaten me with assassination.
My time in Nepal was lonely and violent. When I wasn’t personally living in a world of chaos, I was detailing accounts of unspeakable violence. I tried to calm my nerves by traveling for pleasure when my work ended â€“ assuming that I could not immediately return to the United States without some decompression. I traveled extensively in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to ease the tension and stress, to forget the violence of Nepal. This backfired spectacularly.
â€œSkip, my mentor, once had me count how many times I almost died â€“ how many times I should have died if one small variable had not saved me. Since my entire presence in Nepal revolved around death, remembering my own brushes with death was a surprising challenge. In Nepal there were eleven instances where I personally confronted death. My twelfth encounter occurred in Laos and continued into Thailand â€“ I was bitten by a rabid dog, hitched rides on a truck and a boat, bribed a border guard, and slowly but purposely made my way to Bangkok, Thailand and the most prestigious center for rabies studies in the world.
I was told that I would likely die in four days. I might live if I took copious amounts of medicine, but rabies was inherently unpredictable and I would have to wait four days to be sure. This set the stage for many of the physical expressions of anxiety I would later develop. The side effects of the medicine, the mental consequences of confronting death, and the emotional fallout of my experiences in Nepal combined to establish a devastating case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The full effects of PTSD manifested when I returned to the United States. Eighteen months ago I was paralyzed and although I was physically living safely at home I was emotionally living in a world of severe violence with the fear of death ever present.
The next eighteen months were marked by three to five intense therapeutic conversations each week with my mentor Skip, a grueling workout plan, and endless bouts of panic and anxiety. Because we had a five-year relationship that dated to a period when we were both working as volunteer teachers in northeastern China, Dr. Skip and I were able to work effectively by telephone. He was based in Miami and I was hiding in my parents’ Park City, Utah basement. I progressed well and eventually left my house. I gradually spokeamong groups of people (I distinctly remember talking in a group of four and considering it a massive accomplishment), and reclaimed a quality of life by inches. It was immediately clear that I was a different person and I found, with Skip’s help, how to appreciate and give deep thanks for my transformation. Still, I was beset with daily panic attacks, daily reminders of fear, and in a perceptual state of intrinsic anxiety.
â€œWhen I arrived in Florida to visit Skip and to meet Geoff, I considered myself healthy and doing well. My panic attacks were still daily (from one to seven and requiring anywhere from a few minutes to hours to recover), and I still spent a considerable amount of mental energy overcoming them, but I had learned to live this way and I considered it normal. When Skip told me that soon I would not have to struggle daily, that I would be free of my anxiety, I literally broke down and cried. I could not imagine living without those demons.
â€œToday, after twenty two sessions with Geoff, I am as light as a feather. I have none of the serious physical â€˜ticks’ that I carried with me as a result of the rabies vaccine. Situations that would have sent me into a tailspin only a few months ago brush off me and hold no power over me. I am in complete control of my mind whereas before it would run wild and I was its prisoner. Amazingly, I have not had a significant panic attack in over five weeks. At times I will see an invitation to a panic attack (one my mind would never have resisted months ago), but now the invitation will quietly float by without trouble or any concern on my part. This is, simply put, phenomenal. What Skip and Geoff were able to give me I could never repay. I am a man reborn.