Two year ago I set off, alone, on a three-month solo expedition across the remote mountains of Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India. Closed to foreigners until the late 90’s, the region had remained almost unknown to the outside world – potential visitors put off by a strict permit entry system, harsh terrain and the thorny issue of Chinese claims on the area. But I’d heard that it was a place of magic and mystery; a land where shamans flew through the night, yetis left footprints in the snow and the gods were appeased by the blood of sacrificed beasts. I couldn’t wait to go.
There was, however, one major caveat. The year before my journey, my plans in full flood, I was hit by a severe dose of panic attacks. Not the odd, mild feeling of anxiety, but a full-blown batshit assault on my rapidly disintegrating neurons. It was terrifying, and at times I feared I’d never be ‘normal’ again.
Below is an extract from my book, Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains, about my experiences with panic attacks, and how I recovered. In the end it was my solo journey across this unknown land that proved the best medicine of all.
“My journey had really begun almost two years earlier, late one summer’s night on the M5 near Tewkesbury. It was the first panic attack I’d had in ten years, but I recognized it immediately. Blurred vision. Breath coming in rapid rasping gasps. Dry throat. Shaking. A wildly beating heart. Worst of all, that terrifying conviction that either death or irreversible insanity was imminent. Veering off the motorway at the next junction, I stopped at a 24-hour BP petrol station and called Marley, hyperventilating so badly I could barely talk. It was midnight but, like a true knight in shining armour, he jumped on his motorbike and sped to my rescue. In retrospect the hour I spent distracting myself in the petrol station by talking to Dave, the diabetic septuagenarian shelf-stacker, about his numerous woes, was darkly comic. As was the brief, sleepless night Marley and I spent in the nearby Premier Inn – the pale, miserable night receptionist checking us in with a look that suggested we weren’t the first couple to arrive in different vehicles in the dead of night, asking for a reduced rate. But at the time it wasn’t funny at all.
The next one hit me, a little inconveniently, halfway through giving a talk to 150 people at a travel festival a few weeks later. Trembling and gulping for breath, I somehow reached the end without vomiting, fainting or dashing headlong through the door. Another one struck a month later, the morning I was due to give another talk. And so on throughout that autumn. Needing to simply press STOP, I postponed my plans for Arunachal Pradesh and instead went to visit some friends in Thailand the following February.
But in Thailand I unravelled faster than a dieter’s resolve in a cake shop. I had planned to visit friends in Pattaya, go motorcycling around Chiang Mai and idle on a beach somewhere. But instead I spent most of it cowering at my friends’ house, bedevilled by panic attacks, gripped by insomnia, wrestling my mind away from what felt like the cliff edge of insanity. I was supposedly a fearless traveller, a strong independent woman, someone who relished tramping alone through remote regions. But here I was cringing beside a nice safe pool in Thailand.
When I did attempt to leave my friends’ house, the first of many panic attacks hit me on a ferry crossing from the mainland. A grade-A attack on my already fragile neurons, it convinced me that I was either about to die of a heart attack or inexplicably hurl myself overboard into the churning, turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand. I felt about as stable as Francium. Fear of imminent death has a wonderful way of blunting your inhibitions: I knew I had to talk to someone, anyone. Turning around in my seat, I scanned the cliques of tanned, chattering backpackers behind me, my eyes alighting on a pair of clean-cut thirty-something men.
I walked over and plonked myself in an empty seat beside them. ‘Erm, hi, this sounds a bit odd, but I’m having a panic attack. Do you mind if I come and talk to you?’
‘Sure, of course. My name’s Roland,’ said the elder of the two, proffering a hand. ‘I’m a psychiatrist from Berlin. Why don’t we take a walk?’
But while Roland’s soothing tones provided temporary relief to my addled mind, things soon went wrong again, and after two weeks of vile emotional torment I flew back to England, three weeks earlier than planned.
The next few months were a mess. I couldn’t be alone, couldn’t work and cancelled talks, the corset of fear ever tightening around me. Forget Arunachal Pradesh, I wasn’t able to go to London alone for the night. The apogee was a particularly bad weekend in May when, for a second time, I ended up talking gibberish to the staff at a BP service station in Wiltshire. I emailed BP Customer Care afterwards to commend their employees on their dealings with passing lunatics. The reply came back:
‘We hope that you will continue to enjoy many more happy visits to BP service stations in the future.’
Desperate to be rid of this canker, I tried a range of cures.
‘Get a stone,’ said the white, middle-aged shaman, when I called her on Facetime at her West London home. ‘Blow on it every time you feel anxious and, when the stone is full, bury it in your garden and find another one.’
‘Put the raisin to your ear, and really listen to it,’ urged the matronly teacher at a mindfulness course.
‘Try these pills,’ said my charming South African doctor.
‘Focus on the air as it enters and exits your nostrils,’ soothed Andy on my Headspace app.
I dutifully blew on stones, listened to raisins, practised daily yoga and meditation, took pills and saw a therapist, treating getting better like an exam I couldn’t fail.
In the midst of all this I received an email from my agent saying I’d been offered a publishing deal for this book. It was what I’d so wanted. But instead of greeting the email with cartwheels around the kitchen, I instead felt a gnawing uncertainty. It was July, and I knew I’d never be able to leave for Arunachal in October, as originally planned. I couldn’t go anywhere by myself at the moment, let alone fly to the other side of the world.
‘I don’t think I can do it,’ I said miserably to Marley. ‘I’m going to have to turn it down.’
‘You’re not going to turn it down,’ he replied. ‘You’re going to get better, I know it. Just sign it and see what happens.’
So I signed the contract and decided to put Arunachal Pradesh out of my mind for the next few months and just focus on recovering my sanity.
I know. It all sounds completely bonkers. And it was. To someone who’s never had a panic attack it must sound ludicrously melodramatic. But I’m by no means alone. Panic disorder affects an estimated 40 million North American adults, with the numbers increasing year on year. Charles Darwin was a sufferer. So were Sir Laurence Olivier, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charlotte Bronte, Nikola Tesla and Edward Munch – the latter’s iconic painting The Scream a visual representation of one of his attacks. They can hit you at any time, and for no apparent reason, like a storm in a seemingly clear sky; a stab of real and present fear fired by the same receptors that told our ancestors to run from a sabre-toothed tiger. You shake, go numb, can’t breathe properly and are in no doubt of your own looming extinction or soon-to-be-issued one-way ticket to the nearest asylum.
My derailment was, in retrospect, unsurprising. I’d been pushing myself too hard for too long: working in television, writing a book, writing articles, giving talks. I worked before I went to work. I worked during my lunch breaks at work. I worked at weekends. I worked in the evenings. Push. Push. Push. With no respite. I’d forgotten why I was pushing so hard, or what it was I was so desperately striving for, but I’d had my foot on the accelerator for so long it had stuck. My life had become a joyless, ensnaring game of Tetris, the blocks held in place by worry and pressure and endless calculations about time and when and how. I was a travel writer, for goodness sake. This was supposed to be fun. But it wasn’t. It was a military operation, with me as the cajoling brigadier. I’d hit burn out.
Slowly, however, I recovered. By late summer I was able to go away without my boyfriend for a night. By the autumn I was giving talks again, speaking, at the end of October, to an audience of 750 at the Royal Geographical Society – only a handful of people there knowing what it really meant for me to stand up in front of that crowd and be OK. It was only then, after months of burying all thoughts of it, that I again considered Arunachal Pradesh. I still desperately wanted to go, but was I capable, after everything that had happened? There was only one way to confront my lingering demons, and that was to commit to going in the spring, to throw a grappling hook over the lip of the abyss and see if it held. If it all went pathetically wrong at least I’d have tried. The alternative was to sit at home wondering, bitter, afraid, dependent on my boyfriend, a shell of my former self. Anything was better than that. “
Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains: A Journey Across Arunachal Pradesh – India’s Forgotten Frontier, is published in the USA by Simon & Schuster TODAY, and is available on Amazon.com and in all good bookstores. You can also order signed copies direct from me here!
And if you’d like to drop me a line about your own experiences with anxiety and panic attacks, or if you think I can be helpful in any way, then please feel free to email me here.
Love and dust,