A couple of weeks ago, during one of my Life Makeover Project workshops, Erica Stewart, a woman I knew from many years ago walked in. Actually, I realized I had only known her from the outside, six feet tall, blond, beautiful and friendly. I never really knew her on the inside, weak, crushed and scared.
Erica told me about her 11 years struggle with anxiety and panic attacks and how she changed her story to finally be able to confront her fears. She has openly agreed to share her story and let others who live in fear know that they are not alone. Maybe give them hope.
Meet Erica Stewart:
My story begins on March 27 th, 2003. I had been going through a divorce and would become a single mom of two very young children. My son was two years old and my daughter 1 year old. That particular day, I was driving home by myself when I experienced an anxiety attack. At the time, I had no idea what was happening to me. I couldn’t breathe and thought I was dying. I was terrified and called 911 for help. From that day on, I continued to suffer from panic and anxiety attacks for the next 11 years of my life. I never knew when the next episode would happen. The fear of fear was a vicious cycle. I tried every medication suggested, every therapy group, one-on-one therapy and read several self help books. These methods all helped me to cope and get by the day by day struggles but, something was missing. I was doing everything to avoid facing my fears, always having my security items “just in case”. For example; I could get to work as long as I did not take the highway during traffic hours and took all the small streets instead. I could travel on vacation as long as I had my bottle of Ativan and a trusted family or friend traveling along with me.
For 11 years, I tried going around my fears, above my fears, under my fears but, never actually faced my fears.
I clearly could’ve continued living this way. However, deep down inside I was not happy. I was not confident. I did not believe in myself. I was not proud of the woman I was, the employee I was and most importantly not proud of the mother I was.
I was so scared of death that I was scared to live. Was this the life I was meant to live? Always living in fear? Avoiding downtown just because there were too many people? Avoiding highways and taking the longer route just because I was afraid to be stuck in traffic? Not bringing my kids on a family trip or even to a beach because no one is available to tag along? What kind of example was I setting for my two children?
They have seen me panic on the highway and call 911 for an ambulance because I thought I was dying. They have seen me pullover and roll down my window to ask a complete stranger to help me get over the bridge.
Fear had paralyzed me. Fear left me in pieces and feeling broken. My fear was affecting my children.
They would cry every time I had to pullover waiting for an ambulance. My daughter would reach for medication as soon as I would turn off the radio, roll down the windows and start scratching my head while I was driving. She would turn to me and say, “mommy you’re having another panic attack, aren’t you? Here take your medication.” All the “what if” situations never happened and if they did “so what”. Eleven years of living in fear, thinking of all the bad things that could happen. In those eleven years, nothing bad ever happened to me. I needed to make a drastic change.
I needed to start living and my children needed to start living too.
Then during April 2012, I met a man and we became good friends. He spoke to me about his experience climbing Mt. Washington and encouraged me to do it. He believed I could do it and that it would be a big step towards getting through my situation. So I decided to challenge myself and sign up to climb Mount Washington 6, 288 feet with Esprit de Corps.
I knew it would be a physical challenge but, most of all a mental challenge. To be completely honest when I filled up the application, I wrote everything down (thyroid problem, panic attacks, anxiety disorder, tension headaches) in hopes that I would not be chosen. Why? I wanted to push past my fears. Yet, I was accustomed to being the victim, the panic/anxiety sufferer. What if I didn’t succeed? What if I couldn’t make it?
Many people believed in me, many people didn’t but, most important I didn’t believe in myself. Deep down inside, I wanted to be able to do it. I just didn’t believe I would succeed.
Esprit de Corp selected my application to be part of the team of the Mt. Washington Challenge. So, I immediately told everyone and made it public. This way, I wouldn’t back down from doing it. Telling people about it was accountability for me. I thought, “Ok, all these people think I’m going to climb Mt. Washington, I have to do it now.” I had my doctor tell me that maybe I shouldn’t do it because I had a pain on my knee and the climb could make it worse. At this point, I didn’t really care. I wanted to live. I was tired of living in fear.
I decided enough was enough and it was time to face my fear!
On March 28 th and 29th of 2014, I climbed Mount Washington at 6,288 feet. This date marked the eleventh anniversary of my first panic attack. For me, it would also mark the beginning of a new life!
Today, my life has transformed and I have surpassed my own self-limitations.
I changed my story. I replaced all the “what ifs” by “so what?” I learned how to be strong when I feel weak, be brave when I might be scared and that nothing is impossible when you believe.
It is still a work in process. However, I believe in myself more today than I ever have in my entire life. The support from my coaches and team mates made all the difference and words cannot express how grateful I am. Yes, I did it on my own, I conquered my fears, but my coaches and team mates were there every step of the way.
Since the climb,
I’ve volunteered for Esprit de Corps’ Montreal-NYC Run and drove an RV to and from NYC.
I completed a 7 KM, 25 obstacles course in the mud at Mount Owl’s Head with my kids.
I began training for dragon boat racing & competed in my first competition.
And finally, I flew ALONE with my kids to Cuba!
Anxiety is still there once in a while but, the level and frequency have drastically reduced. This time I have the strength and courage to confront it. I no longer call 911. I am able to get past it. I am happier than I’ve been in a very long time!
Most importantly, I am living and so are my children!
If anyone is experiencing panic attacks, I want you to know, you are NOT alone! The most important thing is that there is hope. It’s not easy, but don’t give up!
A few words from Erica’s children
Seddick who is now 14 years old:
My sister and I have seen my mom having a panic attack so many times, I can’t even remember the first or last time she’s had one. Every time, both she and my sister would start crying. I would always try to comfort them and tell them it would fine. I knew it would be fine. It happened so many times and it in the end it was always fine. The only thing I found frustrating is when the ambulance would take her to the hospital and we would go with our grandparents. I wanted to be with my mom and take care of her.
Today, I’m so happy she’s better. I am not afraid of anything. I’ve been scared so many times seeing my mom panic and when it was over, everything would fine. So, I know that if something seems scary, it’s ok, it will be fine.
Maya who is now 13 years old:
I always knew when my mom was about to have a panic attack. She would roll down the window in the car and breathe. I would try to distract her from having the attack and start talking to her about random things. She would always tell me that it didn’t help. I would take her medicine from the glove compartment and give it her and call 911. I would get so scared and cry. It always looked like she was dying. When she said she was climbing the mountain, I didn’t want her to go. She didn’t know anyone. If she had an attack, she could die. But, I’m happy she’s better today and that we started doing all kinds of fun stuff. I’m looking forward to next summer, we are going to Italy!
Let Erica know how her story has touched you. Have you confronted a fear of your own? Share it so we can all learn from your experience.