I had my first panic attack while in a dentist’s chair when I was about 7 years old. Surprisingly, I have no fear of dentists. In fact, she was the first doctor I visited once I was vaccinated against COVID-19.
It was my second panic attack when I was about 12 years old that had the biggest impact on me. It’s the main event on which I continued to build upon the spiritual foundation that a Catholic school upbringing — sprinkled with exposure to other religious beliefs — had begun building years earlier.
Thanks to my father’s library of books, and his way-ahead-of-his-time spiritual beliefs, I was exposed to different religions at a very early age. Among my dad’s cool factor attributes that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time, is that he taught yoga to a group of friends one night a week in our family’s apartment on Carroll Street in our Crown Heights Brooklyn neighborhood.
I was grounded in my beliefs in God and heaven, and I was sure the afterlife was real. I questioned nothing of what I was taught in school … until that day in the 8th grade when the priest who taught religion planted a seed of doubt in my mind.
The specifics are foggy, but the impact was real. This priest — this man who was supposed to be an authority on all things God related — was asking questions that in my 12-year-old mind, priests were not supposed to ask. He was expressing doubts that a “man of God” wasn’t supposed to have.
For the first time in my life, a religion teacher was asking questions, instead of giving answers. He was acting very much like a human being, nothing like a man of the cloth was supposed to act.
The room spun. I couldn’t catch my breath. Reality was replaced with what I was sure was my imminent death.
I don’t know how I made it through class, but when the lesson ended and our homeroom teacher came back, she could tell something was not quite right with me. She sent me to the nurse’s office, and my mom came to pick me up.
I was sent home, and my life would never be the same.
I was blessed with parents who didn’t make a big deal out of my episode. Mom took me to the doctor who found me a perfectly healthy soon-to-be teenager. He and my mom exchanged a look of “knowing” that I didn’t understand until years later.
Hormones and life were battling for my attention. But I knew something else was happening. Although I couldn’t identify it back then, losing my religion was guiding me beyond the shackles of religious dogma, and freeing the spirituality in my soul.
Eighth grade ended, and my years at St. Brendan’s High School began. It was there that I met the nuns and priests who were nothing like the ones I had known before.
There was Father Cowan who we called George because well, that was his name. There were the nuns who didn’t wear habits and were young enough to be the daughters of the nuns who had taught me in elementary school.
Best of all, there were the spiritual retreats at St. Gabriel’s Retreat House on Shelter Island, where I confronted the demons who prompted my 8th-grade panic attack and recognized they had been angels in disguise.
I realized that questioning my religious beliefs was not the end of my faith, but the first step toward true belief.
Today, my panic attacks are few and far between. But instead of fearing them, I recognize them as imminent breakthroughs. That doesn’t mean they don’t scare the shit out of me when they’re happening. But knowing there’s light at the end of the panic tunnel, makes the darkness not only bearable … but welcome.