Relying on Xanax + Vodka No More
It was a beautiful spring day.
I was sitting in my good friend’s kitchen, watching her bake. She was stirring up pound cake batter in her KitchenAid mixer, sharing that it was something she made once a week for her family to enjoy. She joked that it could be a suitable breakfast choice since it was made with eggs, milk, and flour, same as pancakes. The conversation was easy.
Birds were chirping outside, flowers were budding on branches, and the day felt really good. Her adorable two-year-old was bouncing around the house, playing with his toys. We were work friends who had become all-the-time friends, and we’d become very close.
All was well until it suddenly wasn’t. I started to feel funny. My heart was beating faster and faster, each thump stronger than the last. My body felt hot, my cheeks flushed, and the pace of my breath picked up. I wondered if I was having a heart attack, or maybe a stroke. An aneurysm? What were the signs of an aneurysm?
Something was wrong. The more I wondered, the worse I felt. I was spinning.
Somehow, I managed to call my husband and ask him to swing by and visit. He knew immediately, and said he’d be over shortly. I tried to sound light so that Elaine, my kind and comforting friend, wouldn’t know that I was spiraling into a panic attack, right there in her sunlit kitchen. Because the only thing worse than a panic attack is a panic attack that’s getting lots of attention.
This wasn’t new for me. I’d had anxiety most of my life. I slept with the television on, the lights bright, and, whenever it was possible, I’d stay on the phone with a friend (any friend) until the sun rose or I fell asleep, whichever came first.
After I became pregnant, my anxiety heightened. I had experienced a miscarriage, so when I later became pregnant with my son, I was worried about miscarrying again. I became more and more anxious. It didn’t stop after he was born, either. My body would freeze while I was asleep. I’d wake up in my mind, but was unable to move my body. After some time, I’d come to, dizzy and nauseous, crawling out of bed to get to the cool tiles of the bathroom floor. I’d tell my husband to stay home with our son, and I’d get it together enough to drive myself to the hospital.
In retrospect, I am sure my husband knew what was going on. It happened all the time. If I remember correctly, he would tell me that I was fine, that it was anxiety. I never believed that message, no matter who said it. By the time I’d reach the hospital, the feeling would pass and I’d drive home. Every single time.
I never trusted myself.
After my divorce, I didn’t have an adult with me for a lot of these attacks, so I’d call my mom. Oftentimes, it would be in the wee hours of the morning, which scared her. Imagine waking to a 3 a.m. panicked phone call from your child, who was home alone with, and responsible for, your grandchild. Yikes. As she got used to these calls, I’m sure she worried, but I’d also bet she was frustrated with having to deal with this behavior from her adult daughter.
It wasn’t until I found breathwork that it all fell away.
At that point, I’d done over 20 years of psychotherapy, which helped me better understand the things that I was dealing with. But it didn’t stop the panic. I’d gotten to the point of managing it with Xanax and vodka, and it was (mostly) working. It was super unhealthy, sure, and I’d have to leave the house with enough Xanax to cover the hours of the day, but I really didn’t believe there was any other way.
After reading a Facebook post about breath work and how it rid my friend of her own anxiety, I decided I’d give it a try. I was terrified to try this unfamiliar technique, but my doctor told me that I was taking too much medication so she was cutting back my prescription. I was desperate. I popped a Xanax and experienced my first session.
The breath, an unfamiliar pattern through the mouth, was an active, vigorous practice. Inhale, inhale, exhale. Inhale, inhale, exhale. It took all of my attention to focus on the breath, and that’s just the thing that allowed me to let go of my thoughts and move into the magic. I went on a journey, released shame and fear, viewed past experiences as if in a dream. I wasn’t really sure what was happening—but I knew I wanted more.
As I continued the practice, I noticed changes happening pretty quickly. I started forgetting to take my Xanax. I didn’t need vodka to help me fall asleep. I stopped waking up gasping in fear. I started to see that I was safe in my body, that all the experiences, messages, and energy that were causing the fear weren’t mine. I had absorbed messages that had been spoon-fed to me, from a variety of people, for a lifetime.
I had believed that all of the boundary violations that I had experienced throughout my life were my fault. Breath work showed me that none of that was true.
Between my breath and my trust in my higher power, I was able to release limiting beliefs, clear stuck energy, and take away the power of past traumas. Every time I did a breath work session, my experience was different. The common thread was that each time, I healed something. I came to this practice without expecting much. I mean, it’s just breath work, right? But this pattern, this commitment to the breath, opens everything up to be healed.
We all have the power to heal ourselves.
Using the word “healing” can make it sound like breath work is just for the wounded (but aren’t we all a little wounded?). I agree that some people really have experienced a pretty smooth life. Still, everyone has something to benefit from the breath.
Breath work can help you gain a deeper sense of awareness, clear the path for personal exploration, and offer a deeper connection to your higher power. My past is now just story without the pain, without the fear.
As my breath work practice deepened, things became incredibly clear. My traumas, and all of the negative things I had experienced throughout my life, gave me the ability to be more empathetic and compassionate with others—and more forgiving with myself. My scars became my strength.
While I believe that my healing will never be complete, that we are all always a work in progress, I also know that I am finally, really okay. I cannot remember the last time that I had a panic attack (that, right there, is an enormous testament to this work). I trust myself. I face my fears head-on, live with passion, and have confidence that I am safe in the world.
I am whole.
Originally published in Elephant Journal. Photo by Dani McDonald.