I experienced my first panic attack at the age of 20. It drove me into such a state of confusion and fear that I spent the evening in a hospital bed.
I began self-medicating with alcohol to curb the anxiety and in 2011 the wheels fell off. I was the lone survivor in a massive house fire, leaving a very close friend to perish. I was diagnosed as having generalized anxiety, PTSD, depression and panic disorder. I began having traumatic nightmares, reliving the fire. I couldn’t handle the anxiety, the fear and the nightmares and I began to rely more heavily on alcohol.
In January 2014 I hit an all-time low. My addiction was killing me and the fear was so overwhelming I rarely left my apartment. Concerned with my health, my family took me to multiple doctors, one of which was a neurologist. A scan of my brain revealed that my brain had atrophied and through years of alcohol abuse and intense stress it now resembled that of a man twice my age. My options were limited and my loved ones were desperate. A week later I checked myself into a drug and alcohol treatment hospital hoping that by some miracle I would be able to get and stay sober. I had no idea how much my life was about to change.
I was introduced to mindfulness meditation while in treatment. I held no regard for meditation and certainly didn’t understand why I had to practice it; “How is this going to help me stop drinking?” I didn’t know anything about mindfulness but after my first session I felt different, I felt less distracted and a little relief. I continued to practice while in treatment and upon returning home to New York City I made it part of my morning discipline.
While flipping through a psychology magazine, I came upon Headspace, and again my life would change in ways I couldn’t imagine. I began doing the exercises each morning right after I’d written out my gratitude list. The more disciplined I was, the more I understood the concepts. My ability to implement these ideas into my daily life improved and with it my life took flight.
It was two weeks ago that I returned to the same neurologist who had first examined me. This time I was sober. The atrophy was large and they feared that my brain was showing signs of muscular sclerosis or epilepsy. That was all the information I was given before they placed me in a metal tube for a 20-minute MRI of my brain. I was too preoccupied with everything to think of how I would react in this machine; I hadn’t had a panic attack in over a year but this was different. As the machine pulled me inside I began counting my breath from 1 to 10 and starting over. The machine creates noises that resemble the sounds of war: deep, repetitive sounds that reverberate in the heart. I didn’t judge the sounds in the moment. I just watched what was happening, tried my best to remember the lessons, and I kept breathing.
Last week I was given the results of my MRI. The atrophy had shrunk significantly and my brain is otherwise perfectly healthy. I have been sober for 14 months now and I have been practicing Headspace for most of this time. It has changed my way of thinking and being. I have replaced fear with positive thought and action, and I am helping others do the same.
My most sincere thanks,
Rhett Burch (@rhettburch)
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was not paid for their writing.