There were no resources for the crippling anxiety that nearly destroyed Ty Phillips. So he figured out how to face it down himself.
In all of my years learning about and dealing with anxiety, I have yet to come across an article or a book that seemed to pertain to exactly what I was experiencing. The articles, studies, and books—although wonderfully insightful regarding the type of generalized anxiety typically seen—were sorely lacking in the real world symptomology I was facing: health related anxiety brought on by a critical life event.
When I lose my keys, I’m fine. When I see people arguing, although I feel compassion for them, I am fine. Hunting shows, scary movies, close calls in the car, being confronted by scary people, fine, fine, and fine. But when I am too far away from the hospital that treated me, in a large public place experiencing symptoms, or even at home alone with my daughter from time to time, I am, all of a sudden, not fine.
My chest hurts, my hands feel numb, and why does it feel like I am breathing through a burlap sack wrapped in cellophane? I took my meds when I woke up, ate breakfast and it’s been about four hours since then. I feel clumsy. My words didn’t come out as I had anticipated. Instead of tow and hall, I said tall and ho. Wait, am I having a stroke? I sit down to eat and within minutes I feel better.
The doctor says that I have made a full recovery from my heart failure. I was at the time, a big-city bouncer, powerlifter, and gym owner. I thought I was in “great shape” for being 6’1” and 312 pounds. The week before I had just squat 1,000 pounds in the gym and deadlifted almost 800. Just a few days later, I was lying on the living room floor complaining that I couldn’t breathe and feeling like I was going to pass out.
In the emergency room, I was hooked up to tubes and wires. The o2 flowing into my nasal cavity was making it a little easier to breathe. That nurse is kinda cute. The x-ray technician came in and shot images of my chest; they needed two boards because of my size. Before I knew it, I was being taken down for a cat scan. I honestly don’t remember the rest. No one tells me much of anything and at the time, I didn’t think to ask any questions.
I was sent home with water pills and blood pressure medication.
The following day I had an appointment with a cardiac specialist. My wife was sitting by my side and forcing a grin as I cracked jokes that were probably in poor taste (it’s a miracle she has stayed with me this long). The door opened and a small man with a proper English accent walked in and said, “Ty, I’m afraid you’re dying.”
My body went numb.
My wife started crying, and I was silent.
The doctor must have taken the silence as his cue to move forward. “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you will be dead within the year.”
My wife’s hand clenched mine. I didn’t respond to her touch or the doctor’s words. Years of insecurity, childhood trauma, and my impending mortality came flooding into my mind. My undiagnosed anxiety—up to that point thought to be PTSD—broke loose. I was petrified. I couldn’t speak. My body rebelled, and the façade I had worked so hard to create over all these years crumbled.
The details of my illness were actually pretty simple. I found out that I had Wolff Parkinson White syndrome—a faulty electrical impulse that makes your heart beat too fast. I had an ablation (surgical removal of tissue) for this. My lower left ventricle was dilated; severely. My ejection fraction—the percentage of blood leaving my heart each time it contracted—was between 12-17% A healthy male my age should have over 55%. But globally my heart was healthy. Years of martial arts and weight training had seen to that, while further years of weighing 300 pounds and enhancing my performance saw to the rest.
Miraculously, I made it out the other end. My heart failure was not genetic; it was chemical and Wolff Parkinson-related. Once I received treatment, lost 70 pounds, and stopped lifting for a while, the once fervent reminders of “sudden cardiac death” turned into these heartening words from my doctor: “Ty, this is great, you’re over the threshold.”
Being over the threshold meant I didn’t need to have a defibrillator installed into my chest in the event my heart decided it no longer wanted to beat for me.
Today, my ejection fraction is 60%, my resting heart rate is around 50 beats per minute, and my anxiety is … still present. It never left. Every facade I used to protect the scared little boy came dancing down the sidewalk when I hit my mid-thirties. I wasn’t prepared to face these worries, so I went on trying to find out what caused anxiety. I had beaten heart failure, and now I needed to get over this. What I learned was remarkable.
No one really seems to understand it. Not even the clinicians I saw. Hypnosis is a joke, and the side effects of most medications don’t seem to outweigh the benefits. What I learned the hard way was that most people don’t understand mental illness. Get over it. Stop thinking that way. You’re not even trying to help yourself. These thoughtless phrases are slung at you like a quick-draw western style shootout with your emotions as the target.
Health-related anxiety plays out like most generalized anxiety disorders. We obsess. We become hyper-vigilant to every little feeling, burp, back ache, arm ache, tingling, and fart that passes through our body. It gives rise to the flood of questions that sweeps us back down the road of sitting face to face with the other side of life.
Mental illness is real. Most adults don’t experience the fullness of it until mid-life, and it tends to come on suddenly. Some of us never even have childhood symptomatology.
Blame is easy when we look from the outside in. We don’t see blood, or bruises. There is no vomit or coughing. But the reality of physical and emotional pain for the sufferer is intense. Anxiety can get so bad for some that it causes stress blindness, ulcers, muscle tears, extreme fatigue, and panic attacks so severe that they simulate a heart attack.
What we need to remember is that mental illness is not a game the sufferer is playing. It is just as real as gastrointestinal upset, migraines, heartburn, or any other physical ailment for which we would seek treatment. The neural pathways used and created during prolonged anxiety can literally rewire how the brain works. Mental illness can also be more emotionally and physically critical than physical ailments. and in some cases can be considered a critical illness.
I’ve been recovered for several years now. Three successive checkups, and my heart is holding steady. Obtaining a degree in behavioral health, spending hours on the couch in a clinician’s office, and finding the right medication brought me back to a place where I was ready to face the person inside—the fear, the doubt, the lies, and insecurities. I still have my moments. I still find myself from time to time obsessing. Most who live with this will have such relapses, and that’s OK.
Over the years, I have found the key to winning the battle of obsession with symptoms: it’s less about stopping and more about being aware of the pattern your obsession takes. Instead of holding on to the obsession, I have learned to sit back and watch the path it takes. I still have bad symptom days, but I haven’t had a panic attack for as long as I can remember.
As with most things, our clinging to control that creates further suffering. When my symptoms were bad, I would cling to every nuance, ever reaction, ever doubt,and fear until they became overwhelming. Before long my chest would tighten and my heart would start racing. I was sweating and I couldn’t breathe.
I don’t have that any more. I have learned to engage the process, and this critical step has taken me further than anything else. I live in my awareness that death is there; that control isn’t real, that my clinging creates my suffering and before I know it, I’m watching—I’m an observer. I’m not fully absent, but I’m fully aware and OK with uncertainty. I can breathe. I can face this.
I’m not gonna lie—it’s one hell of a battle. But calmness, is the key to victory. There will be days you’ll feel like giving up. When sobbing feels better than engaging. Go ahead. Sob. Go find a dark hole and hide in it. And when you feel better, which you will, stand up and just be aware. You know you can do this, because you know I did. If you need to step back for a while, that’s OK. Forcing the situation won’t make it get better. Don’t run away though either. Find the middle way. One foot in the door leads to both feet.
So where am I after all of this? Am I 100% better? Or do I still suffer? The truth is, I do. I also don’t know if there is a 100% better. There is however, a lot better. There is a happy functionality we all can achieve. So while I may not be squatting 1,000 pounds anymore, I am back in the squat rack under 500 pounds of iron and working my way back into being strong once more. I am out in the world, mingling and laughing and helping.
I still have days when I feel terrible. I still have moments of anxiety and even sadness. What I have more of however, is an awareness of how the process works. I know when it’s coming on. I know how to be relaxed enough to watch my anxiety come on and fade without fighting it, and I know I will get through it each time. In fact, I have come so far along the road, that I am now able to help others. I talk to people almost daily about how to tackle their depression and anxiety—and those people are now talking to people who are talking to other people and spreading the word.
The most important thing to remember is this: there is always hope. I know it doesn’t always feel that way. I feel hopeless myself some times. The difference now is that even on my worst days, I still manage to get under the bar anyway. I still manage to laugh. I still manage to write and share.
By letting go, I’ve gained a measure of control. The less I grasp, the more freedom I have to be part of life again. To watch my kids play. To take them places. To engage in the depths of the ups and downs of more than just myself. What makes me smile right now, is knowing that this waits for you, too.