I Almost Died of a Pulmonary Embolism, And All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder

After my brush with death, my brain is on hyper-alert, sensing danger around every corner.
Publish date:
October 13, 2016
anxiety, fear, panic attacks

Rationally, I know that escalators are not death traps, but my body thinks that’s false. Let’s start there.

I’m guessing most people feel perfectly secure when they’re at the mall, stepping onto a single moving stair with ease and accuracy, not even holding onto the rails. Very impressive. But is it NOT a possibility that you can miss the step completely, sending you on a tumbling journey down the hard, toothy escalator steps, which deposit you at the bottom, where you think the difficult part is done until you feel a tug on your head and realize that, yes, that is the escalator eating your hair, and you have no power over the situation except to hope a mall employee can stop the machine in time before it completely rips off your scalp?

I rest my case. Escalators are a danger to society.

Or maybe that’s just me. This scene plays out in my head every time I see an escalator. I didn’t always feel this way. It’s something that developed later in my life.

When I was 22, I woke up one morning alone in my apartment. My boyfriend was at work and I had slept in. My heart was pounding hard and fast. When I opened my eyes, the world was spinning. It was hard to stand up, and I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t have a phone by my bed, but I knew I had to call 911. I staggered toward the door, willing myself to stay awake, fighting for every breath. When I had to let go of the bed, I tried to push myself toward the doorframe to let it hold me up.

Everything went dark.

I woke up on the floor, and I still hadn’t reached the phone. I made myself get up and keep going. I’m typing this now, so you know I did reach the phone and call for help. I spent the day in the hospital, and no one knew where I was until later that night, when the nurses finally got a hold of my mother.

It was a pulmonary embolism, and I almost died that day.

A few months later, I was lying down in bed with my eyes closed, about to fall asleep. My heart started pounding, my hands were clammy, and I couldn’t breathe. It was familiar and alarming. I woke up my boyfriend to have him call 911. By the time the paramedics arrived, my symptoms had receded. I went to the hospital anyway, where the doctor told me that I had had a panic attack.

I’d heard of this phenomenon before. I thought that there needed to be a trigger and the cure was breathing into a paper bag. I never imagined the terror. The realness. How your mind completely turns on you and takes over your body when you least expect it. How fear literally possesses you.

I have had at least one panic attack every week since then. I was eventually diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder and was taught how to breathe through an attack. I was put on anti-depressants that made me numb. I was offered therapy but never found a therapist I was comfortable with. Sometimes, I can’t get them under control, and because it feels like I’m dying, I take myself to urgent care, where I’m told that I’m perfectly fine, that the blood thinners I’m on are working, that I just have to try and ride it out (preferably at home).

After my brush with death, my brain is on hyper-alert, sensing danger around every corner. Things that didn’t seem like a big deal before all of a sudden seem very menacing. I can think of the worst possible scenario for nearly any situation. It’s exhausting and, in my day-to-day living, can sometimes be disruptive. In most crises, I can calm myself down by realistically assessing the threat levels of a certain task.

Escalators, though. I mean, I see people going up and down them quite often, but they still freak me out to the point that I will go out of my way to look for stairs or an elevator to avoid them.

What also came with the anxiety was an intense case of FOMO. For the couple of weeks I was in the hospital, I was thinking about how quickly and unexpectedly death can happen and that it was so close to happening to me and I wasn’t ready. I haven’t done everything I wanted to do.

It took a couple of years of taking care of myself to get my health stabilized. I got off the anxiety medication. I went through some major life changes, coming through it all as a single woman. Most importantly, I got better at breathing through the panic attacks. I felt ready to start working on my bucket list. I figured that if I wanted to see the world, I had to decide to not worry about whether or not I was scared. I had to decide that living was more important than feeling safe.

I started going on trips by myself. The successes far outnumbered the disasters, and I truly felt like I was thriving. Then I saw that Bad Religion, my favorite band, was playing at a huge punk festival in Blackpool, England. I tossed the idea around in my head before deciding to buy a full three-day pass to the festival and a room at a hostel close by. I held off on buying a plane ticket to give myself the space to step away if I felt I couldn’t do it. When it came down to the time when I really had to make a decision, I knew that if I said no then, I would say no the next time and the next. I made the commitment to myself and my dreams to take the opportunity to go.

It was to be a weeklong romp across England, starting in London. I had friends to meet up with along the way, but for the most part, I would be flying and exploring on my own. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified and questioning all my life choices at every stop on this journey across the Atlantic. It was even worse when I got to Heathrow Airport. I wanted to call my friend who was supposed to tell me the best way to get to the hotel and discovered I had left my cell phone at another airport. I was in a different country, and I was already lost.

I had a get-your-shit-together pep talk with myself and decided to attack this trip one obstacle at a time. I already had a train ticket and took it from the airport to London. From there, I asked the information booth for directions to my hotel. The person helping me gave me a map, outlined my route, and pointed me toward the Underground.


If there was a way to get down to the platform without taking the escalator, I did not see it. It was crowded. Everyone was moving so fast, funneling onto the long escalator down. For a moment, I wondered how I was going to tell my parents that I lived in a London train station now.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t graceful. I smelled. I made people mad by first holding up the line and then getting on the wrong side. It didn’t matter. I held on to the rail with my heavy suitcase at my side and stepped onto the escalator. Finding my way to the hotel on my own that day will always be one of the proudest moments of my life.

I am afraid of something every day. I’m better at hiding my panic symptoms and managing my anxiety. Not everyone exhibits anxiety the way I do, and I want to pause and say that anyone living with anxiety should take steps when they are ready for them. It’s all a process. Along the way in my personal journey, I feel like I’ve learned something about fear that I don’t know I would have grasped if I wasn’t wrestling this monster for the past 10 years, and it’s this:

It’s OK to be scared, but at some point, your fear is going to hold you back, and you’re going to have to make a choice. You can either feel safe or you can take risks. The end result is the same. One moment, your eyes are open, the next, you cease to exist. You don’t get to decide when this happens. You might be in pain, you might be sleeping, you might be on a plane, you might be crossing the street, but the only sure thing is that it’s going to happen. I don’t think I would leave the house if all I ever wanted was to feel safe, but I would also miss a lot of things. So for me, there’s no other possible way to live but boldly and with purpose — to see all the ways in which something is scary and dangerous and then do it anyway.