How Panic Attacks Saved My Life

I don’t know how people do it. I tried. I worked at Google for four years, trodding along every day in the corporate hamster wheel. And it drove me crazy. Literally. I developed anxiety disorder. I was diagnosed and everything.

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Every day became a struggle.

For the latter half of my time there, I worked as an executive admin assistant. So my time and schedule were already not my own. I’d accompany my exec to meetings (or go in their stead if they were double booked), prep them for the next one, and make sure they were fed and caffeinated in between. So now my days had become: go to meeting, run to bathroom, have a panic attack, cry, hyperventilate, maybe throw up, then fetch lunch, go to another meeting, run back to the bathroom, and so on and so forth, on loop all day long in a vicious cycle.

Now to be clear, I’m not saying working at Google (or other large corporations) is as horrible as I’m making it sound. Google was actually quite a magical place to work. The rumors are true. There were so many perks, especially at the mothership Mountain View headquarters where I worked most of the time, that it was hard to ever justify leaving. We had a gym, twelve cafes (each with a different culinary specialty), free laundry machines, dry cleaning delivered to your desk, and ridiculously discounted massages you could grab between meetings (a 15-minute chair massage was only $5!). We called it campus. It was basically college 2.0. You might call it heaven. And it was, for a time.

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But as with all good things, it’s perfectly natural for it to eventually come to an end. It’s also true that no one person is the same, so no one work life will fit everyone the same either. This one simply did not fit me. I just didn’t see it. So my body forced me to stop and pay attention.

It’s as if it was saying to me,

“This life is hurting me. You don’t feed me well. You don’t rest me enough. I’m unhealthy and weak and tired all the time. I don’t know what I’m getting out of bed for anymore. I’m going in circles and it hurts. So I’m not going to function for you anymore until you change it.”

“Until you do, I’m going to give you sleepless nights with restless limbs and cold sweats and bad dreams. I’m going to make you hyperventilate and shake all over and throw up. I’m going to give you cough after cold after flu. I’m going to mess with your head, so that you question the devotion of your friends and family, and fall into a deep depression. I have that power and I’m going to use it until you listen.”

The way I like to put it, my body had an allergic reaction to corporate life.

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One day my amazing exec pulled me aside and asked if I was okay. She said, “The light’s gone out of your eyes.” She could see something was wrong. We talked and she encouraged me to take some time off to first get healthy, then reassess what I want to do. So I found a therapist, met with our HR, and together we made a plan to give me three months of paid medical leave – which I was incredibly touched they offered despite the very real possibility that, after all that, I might decide it best to leave Google altogether.

So off I went. Once a week I saw my therapist, learned about cognitive behavioral therapy, and attended group panic classes. I sat in a circle with other anxious Annies and Adams like me and learned breathing exercises. Or how to calmly stop and evaluate the realistic changes for all those worst-case scenarios running madly through my head. They were helpful, to a point. And I gave them my all.

But the perhaps far more valuable exercises from my three-month leave were the ones I did with myself.

Now now, nothing dirty mind. Just good clean soul-searching fun. I spent hours alone doing countless introspection exercises on myself. I read every career book and took every personality test I could find. Meyers Briggs. Strengths Finder. The 4 Quadrants. What Color Is Your Parachute?

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I journaled every day, stream-of-consciousness style, and analyzed what came out. I tried to remember and write down my dreams first thing every morning, and pulled what insights I could from those too.

I made lists upon lists. 5 things I truly love about my current work. 5 thing I hate about my current work. 5 things I honestly think I’m great at. 5 things others say I’m great at. 5 things I know I suck at. 5 skills I’d like to improve. 5 subjects I’d love to study more. 5 careers I’ve always wondered about. And so many more.

I really do love making lists.

Then I took a long hard look at all of those great insights, and at myself, and identified my 10 “passion core” – the core values I must have in my daily work to feel excited to wake up each morning and fulfilled at the end of each day.

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Here’s where my 10 Passion Core landed:

  1. My Tribe – More than anything else, I’ve learned it’s the people I work with who have the biggest positive impact on my professional joy and fulfillment.
  2. The Subject Matter – It’s gotta be something I’m passionate about, or can get passionate about. Even if I don’t know much about it yet, I do love to learn.
  3. The Implementor – I prefer to take a more behind-the-scenes role implementing others’ ideas, rather than struggling to come up with great ideas myself.
  4. Location Freedom – I love being nomadic and multi-city, so I don’t want any work that might compromise a healthy balance with that travel and lifestyle.
  5. Constant Learning – Again I love learning, so I want opportunities to constantly expand my knowledge on a variety of topics from people who are better than me.
  6. Cyclical Change – Expanding on variety, I prefer work with a natural rhythm of frequently changing projects, roles, and topics for fresh perspective and challenge.
  7. Creative Development – I love storytelling, particularly in fiction, and want to have significant creative input with whatever project or team I’m on.
  8. Tangible Results – I also love building things, and prefer to do project-based work where I can easily see the results of my work with my own eyes (and often hands).
  9. Frequent Movement – Stagnancy is my greatest fear, so I want work that keeps me moving, building strength, rarely sitting still – both physically and mentally.
  10. Livable Pay – Money is of least importance to me, but it’s still a reality of life, so my goal is just to make enough to comfortably thrive in this unconventional lifestyle.

Identifying these 10 Core Values was not so much a reinvention of the self as it was a reconnection to the self. The self that I’d lost somewhere along the way. I was lost and now I am found. It wasn’t easy. It never is when you’re trying to find your way back from lost. But I did it. I put in the time and work and a whole lot of reflection.

Now I believe looking back is only has useful as it helps you look forward.

And move forward. It’s not about living in the past, but rather learning how to be better in your future. I didn’t get back to the way I was pre-anxiety. I became a newer, stronger version of myself. There is a reason we grow up, grow older, and grow more into ourselves as we go.

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Because living is a verb.

It involves doing, moving, growing. The opposite of stagnant.

I never would have done all of that self-discovery and learned so much about myself, let alone made such a huge change down a new exciting and challenging path, if I’d never gone crazy in the first place. If my mind and body had never forced me to. If it weren’t for that, I could still be stuck in that comfy corporate routine, going through the monotonous motions of the same daily grind, puttering around in a cloud of corporate processes and org restructures and watercooler talk, a shell of what I was, not fully living or truly alive.

Now I have this amazing, ever-changing, untethered, unconventional life. It’s not comfortable. Far from it. But it’s mine. And it’s still teaching me new things about myself all the time, even now over eight years later. That’s what happens when you step outside of your comfort zone. You grow.

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So I don’t regret any of it for a single second. My anxiety sparked a whole new journey that reminded me what I’m living for.

You could say panic attacks saved my life.

Anniversary of a Dream

I know I keep coming back to this same theme and repeating the same story, but I really am still amazed how far my life has come in only the last year. Somehow, I managed to go from living a nightmare to living my dream. And it only took a year… well a year + 4 years.

For 4 years, I puttered around in a cloud of corporate processes and org restructures and watercooler talk, changing roles and teams and even departments trying to find the kind of success other people had told me I should want. And after those 4 years, my health and spirits were deteriorating. I’d developed anxiety disorder and started having panic attacks in the office. My life became a shadowy nightmare of itself, sharply contrasted with the bright and colorful world of the Google office.

Even when facing a destructive situation, it sometimes takes hitting rock bottom to actually do something about it. My boss and mentor finally sat me down and insisted I take medical leave, even though she knew that once I got my head back on straight, it might result in my decision to leave the company altogether. I was overwhelmed by this generous offer, and I took my leave very seriously. So that after 3 months of heavy self reflecting and soul searching, I decided on my next course of action.

And then on March 18, 2011, exactly one year ago today, I bit farewell to Google and the corporate world for good and embarked on a brand new occupational adventure that has lead me to where I am today.

Even today, it still feels like a wonderful dream come true.

My Google Alumni Voice

Recently an old Google colleague reached out to me with an exciting proposition. The Google Alumni online network, of which I am now a member, has launched a new publication called the Alumni Voice and she asked if I would write an article for it to share my post-Google story.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance and found myself once again writing out the story of how I came to leave Google and find the incredible new path I am now fortunate to be on.

Now I’m so proud to see it live and published, that I wanted to share it with everyone. Unfortunately, only Google Alumni members have access to the Alumni Voice. So I asked for (and was granted) permission to share the content of that article here with you all as well.

Enjoy!
Rebecca


Alumni Voice: Rebecca Ahn’s 2nd act as a stunt actor

Mar 09, 2012

Alumni Voice: Rebecca Ahn cannot sit still. Her life is as action-packed as the movies she creates as a film producer and stunt actor. When she’s not making films with Action Pact Entertainment & The Stunt People, including the current Death Grip, she is writing poetry and blogging about how to achieve greater balance with the chaos that inevitably comes with creativity. Rebecca worked as an Admin and AdWords Account Optimizer while at Google for 4 years.  RebeccaAhn.com

NOTE: We have launched another outlet for alumni expression called “Alumni Voices,” an area of the Network dedicated to your musings. We want alumni to express themselves and connect with one another through alumni-written articles about their passions, interests, hobbies and advice.

Some people just aren’t meant to find fulfillment in the corporate world. I know Google can be an incredibly encouraging and satisfying work environment. It just wasn’t for me. And after 4 years of changing roles, and teams, and even departments, trying to achieve the success others told me I should want, I found myself wondering, “am I happy?”

So I began my search for a new career. I created lists upon pages with every insight I could muster into who I am and what I really want, finally culminating in what I called my Occupational Trix. I listed my 10 “must have” work attributes along the top row of a new Google spreadsheet and over 40 possible jobs (regardless of location or skill) down the first column. I then checked the attributes that each job fulfilled and deleted every job that didn’t meet ALL 10 of them, until I had my Top 5 careers. But rather than tell you what they were, I’ll tell you what they weren’t.

They weren’t at Google.

So with my manager’s genuine understanding and support, I bid Google farewell and embarked on a brand new occupational adventure.

What happened next was nothing short of magical. One of my Top 5 careers was Film Stuntwork – and while this seemed the most far-fetched, it also resonated the most strongly with me. So you can imagine my excitement when a good friend mentioned she knew someone with a Bay Area stunt crew. I don’t know how to explain it, but somehow something in me knew this was it – this was the one and only path for me.

What followed was a blur of fortune and chance. I met Eric Jacobus, founder and manager of The Stunt People, and began practicing with them. He showed me his latest screenplay that he was preparing to direct, and suddenly I was being offered the female lead part. Then when Eric needed more help producing the film, and learned of my strong theatre and event production background (pre-Google), he asked me to come on board as the film’s producer!

Over the next 10 months, I experienced immeasurable happiness and fulfillment performing in and producing the action-thriller Death Grip, simultaneously developing a deep relationship with Eric, my producing partner, co-star, and eventually also boyfriend.

Even today, as Eric and I build our new production company and prepare to make our next several films together, it all still feels so surreal. In a year’s time, I went from feeling empty and lost to feeling like my life’s dream is coming true. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t get here without a great deal of struggle and self-questioning, or without the courage to leave behind a world of comfort and security, but you’ll never hear me say it wasn’t all completely worth it.

That’s because what’s even greater than knowing the career I want, is knowing who I am and what success means to me. Some people just aren’t meant to find fulfillment in the corporate world – they’re meant to go out into the great unknown and build it themselves instead.

It’s The People

Here I thought I was completely miserable being back at work. But funnily enough, the past few days here have been oddly happy ones. I’ve had the random luck of running into a few old favorite friends and colleagues, and indulging in some long overdue quality catch up. It’s amazing how something like that can really pick up your spirits.

Now I know I said the culture here is one-dimensional and the interactions lacking authenticity. But that of course is a generality not necessarily applicable to everyone. In my four years here, I was lucky to find a number of truly wonderful and candid people. And it’s been these people who’ve made working here for this long bearable. Truthfully, anytime someone here has resigned and sent around the usual mass farewell email, they’ve often sited the people they’ve worked with as the best part of their time here.

Likewise for me, it’s been the people I’ve known here who have kept me coming back to work everyday.

I’d almost forgotten that, lost in my woe-is-me-I-hate-my-job whirlwind. But over the last couple of days, I’ve been fortunate to run into some of these folks and experience real heartfelt conversation. It’s a wonderful reminder that there are genuine souls here I’ve had a lasting connection with. These are people I actually plan to stay in touch with and make a part of my life’s next journey. Just a few happy days, and with it some long overdue Facebook friend-ings and promises that my last days here won’t be the last days for our friendship.

What’s more, many of these people were inspired by the tales of my next journey and have confided their own secret dreams of freedom and exploration. I was so caught up in my own vision that I didn’t stop to think there might be others here with the same aspirations. It’s an unexpected treasure to discover I’m not the only artist-turned-corporate-drone who wants to return to my roots.

It somehow makes me feel less alone, and eases some of the guilt about abandoning this seemingly perfect company and dream job.

So as I struggle to keep my composure in this place day by day, and as I endeavor to preserve the precious bits of my soul recently recovered, I can take comfort in knowing that these people have become another much needed source of comfort and confidence. And that I, in turn, have the ability to provide them with the same thing.

I know now how the hell I’ve lasted a whopping four years here. And why the prospect of leaving, though relieving, still feels a little like breaking up. It’s not because of the cheap massages, or the free laundry, or the gourmet meals, or even the state-of-the-art gym.

It’s because of the people.

Ending the Vicious Cycle

I wish I could be like those people who get excited to wake up at the crack of dawn, jumping out of bed at the sound of their alarm, business suit ready to tackle another productive day at the office. Ah, those happy corporate drones, finding accomplishment sitting at a desk, working on a computer all day, writing a few redundant emails here, attending some pointless meetings there, making the cogs in the wheels of revenue generation turn.

Why couldn’t I be just as happy doing that?

Why instead do I have to feel suffocated and unmotivated in such an environment? I physically ache at the idea of submitting purchase orders and expense reports. I tire too quickly of the endless daily swarm of emails asking this impossible request or that unnecessary question. And all I want to do is get out, just get outside and away from the sounds of monotonous keyboard typing and hushed water cooler gossiping.

I thought loving the company was enough. Believing in the incredible impact Google has on the world’s community, how we are changing the game, creating more access and opportunity for more people.

But I’ve gotten to a point where I just have to face the fact that what I do here does not interest me. I’m pretty sure it never did, to be honest. It was just my way of making my mark in a company that I thought had so much potential to do so much good, that it was worth just getting my foot in the door. And perhaps it still has that potential, but that doesn’t change the fact that my day to day remains tedious and distant.

And for that matter, do I even still love Google as I once did? As a young business, it was such an awesome story to tell: the growth and success it reaped so quickly, while maintaining such a philanthropic start-up culture. But now? Now it’s become so much like just another large corporation, forced to make tougher decisions and more compromises. Now it’s become this large company, desperately trying to still run itself like a small company, and having a terribly conflicted time in the process.

I can’t actually make a difference through this company, or at least the kind of difference I think I want to make. I can’t manifest that impact I desire from this desk. Not given where the company is now, and the role I play in it.

And I’m tired. I’m exhausted every day that I have to wake up before the sun rises, and sit at my desk typing busily away, while the best part of the day passes serenely by. And then you see, the wearier I get of my job, the less I get done. And the less productive I am, the longer I have to work to finish. And the longer hours I work, the later I get to sleep. And the less sleep I get, the wearier I become. And so it perpetuates, the vicious cycle I’ve become.

More and more I’m beginning to see that in order to fully restore my health, my energy, my passion for life, the only thing left to do is to no longer be employed in such a job, at such a company, in such an environment.

And so I must conclude, with a somewhat less heavy heart that I expected, that I must now begin planning my inevitable departure from the Google bubble.