The Surprising Way One Woman Overcame Panic Disorder and PTSD
Publicist Piper Harlow's struggle with panic attacks lead her to an awareness that changed and improved her life.
March 4, 2020
Fear — it’s dark, it’s heavy and it can makes us feel catatonic. The phrase, “frozen with fear,” is no joke. If you’ve ever suddenly just stopped in your tracks because you couldn’t breathe, or felt your heart beat pounding through your entire body, or experienced your mouth becoming so dry that swallowing is impossible, and wondered if you were going to puke, pass out or just die, then I welcome you to the Panic Attack Club. It’s a warm welcome, although you may not be super stoked to join, but I promise you it’s a club that is growing in numbers and outspokenness, which is helping spread awareness to ultimately make it possible for sufferers to live normal and successful lives.
My anxiety started a month after 9/11. Prior to this, I was an unstoppable force. I was a competitive dancer, president of my sorority, held many executive offices in the student government at my college and was a musical theater minor. To say nothing bothered me would be an understatement.
I was living my best life. In my eyes, I had made it! I was a recent college graduate and was office director of a talent agency on Park Avenue in Manhattan. My office was literally next door to the Flat Iron building. I was living the life I’d dreamed of. I was in charge of conducting daily “Open Call” presentations in front of a room of about one hundred to two hundred people. No biggie. Public speaking was my favorite class in college and I looked forward to my nightly shows. In fact, I thrived on an audience…until October of 2001.
After 9/11, I’d become numb to seeing armed military guards on every street corner, in every subway station and watching police-escorted 18-wheelers take bodies past my building to Mount Sinai hospital. This was my new normal. It’s just what New Yorker’s did — we moved forward. We had no choice. So I did the same thing I did every night at 8:00 p.m. — I stood in the front of a jam-packed room to make a presentation on the top floor of my office building, which had slanted ceilings like a Cape Cod cottage. But on this particular evening, as I spoke, I saw the room get fuzzy and start to shrink. I felt my throat start to close and I started to sweat. I had no idea what was happening to me, but I knew if I didn’t run out of that room, I was going down, right in front of all those people. Instead, I stopped, handed the reins over to my colleague and ran out of the room. I still remember the look on my co-worker’s face — it said, “Oh my God, what is happened?” — as I darted out the door.
Two people caught me before I could slide to the ground. I was barely holding on to the wall outside of the room. They whisked me into our lounge area. They thought I had low blood sugar or suffered a bad reaction from taking a Sudafed on an empty stomach. Eating helped stabilize me, but I felt drained, like I had just run 10 miles.
Following this episode, I developed an overwhelming irrational fear that if I went back into that room it would happen again. But since I was the only one who could do the presentation, I was forced to. Now, every time the crowd filled the room, I’d start sweating and feel my heart beat wildly. Eventually, I had to sit in the boiler room so I didn’t have to witness people flooding the room.
This paralyzing feeling of unease followed me into other areas of life, too: on the train, in cabs, and anywhere there was throngs of people. Soon, I couldn’t go to stores, restaurants or movies. Nightly, I would wake out of a deep sleep and start dry heaving. (At one point, I even thought all of this might be attributable to pregnancy, but I was not pregnant.)
It was affecting my job, too. My boss made me take a week off and wouldn’t allow me to return until I saw a doctor. So I did. As I told the doctor about my symptoms, my heart started racing so fast I shot up and ran out of the exam room. It was a struggle for the staff to persuade me to go back into the room, but a nurse finally coaxed me and gave me Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication.
It was obvious to them that I was suffering from panic attacks. Awesome. Now what? Pills. Lots of pills that basically made me a zombie and agoraphobic because I never knew when any given pill would make me, literally, shit my pants. TMI? This is the real non-sugarcoated version of what people with panic disorder are discouraged from sharing.
My dysfunctional relationship with meds persisted for 10 years until I’d finally had enough. I weened off the drugs I was prescribed (except Xanax) and learned how to live life again. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
What the doctors don’t tell you is that these meds just suppress your anxiety. So when you go off of them, your initial symptoms can come back tenfold as they did in my case.
Luckily, I found a hypnotherapist and wonderful book called “Hope and Help For Your Nerves” by Claire Weekes, M.D., to help me through the difficult stages of withdrawal. Only $7 on Amazon, it’s the best book I’ve ever read. It taught me to accept my panic attacks. When I accepted the scary feelings my body produced, they started going away and I was able to do almost everything I could do premedication.
Moving in the direction of my dream of starting my own business was also therapeutic. Yeah, I know that sounds crazy because what could be scarier than starting your own business, right? There are innumerable anxiety-producing thoughts that could have deterred me: What if I can’t make money? What if no one believes in me? What if I have to work a ton of hours and fail? But what if I told this toxic line of questioning to shut up, and I actually succeeded? Well, guess what? That’s exactly what I did.
In 2009, I started my own business as a publicist after a recruiter asked me to take her on as my first client. I had never worked for a public relations agency, but I did tons of research, asked lots of questions and used all of my skills to bring my professional vision to fruition.
As things continue to change and evolve, I’ve reinvented myself and redesigned my company to adapt. I still get nervous when I take a new professional route, but I’ve learned to be fearless, a word I had tattooed on my wrist just in case I start self-doubting.
I choose not to be a victim.
For anyone who suffers from anxiety, panic attacks and/or depression, I want you to know that you will be okay. This is temporary. It will pass and you will thrive. If I can overcome this and start living my best life, so can you. I believe in you, even if you don’t.
About the writer:
Piper Harlow is a publicist, entrepreneur, certified life coach, speaker and author who helps people create effective campaigns, break through the journalistic black hole, and even speaks about her own journey overcoming anxiety and PTSD associated with 9/11. She is an industry expert in public relations, a business efficiency optimizer and is an image consultant for brands, corporations and individuals. Piper is best known for her ability to connect people and help them fulfill their dreams while bringing out their fearless alter ego. Her client roster includes best selling authors, celebrities, beauty products, filmmakers, non-profit organizations at the U.N., animal rights advocates and the LGBT community.
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