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… 7 Years Later

Seven years ago today, I reflected another year back to March 2011 and the day my dream came true – or at least the dream I had at the time.

I’d been drowning a horrible nightmare of anxiety and depression after losing my mind in the corporate hamster wheel, trying to leave that world behind and find a new path. And I’d finally found it, my true purpose: turning my passions for action and films into a new career in action filmmaking. I’d forged a new partnership with an incredibly talented director & fight choreographer, become part of a stunt team, and been offered the most incredible role of a lifetime: producer and lead stunt actress in a new independent feature film.

One year later, the dream had fully become reality. A real-life live-action independent action film called Death Grip. We released it to decent acclaim, a few awards, one packed Comic-Con panel room full of laughs, and plenty of international sales. We then went on to make several brilliant short films, got hired to design the action for others’, and began planning our next feature. We were killing it!

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But as with all good things, it cannot last forever and eventually must come to an end. As my partner and I grew in our own individual creative journeys, we found our vision and goals didn’t align as much as they once did. So by March 2013 (six years ago now), we had very amicably and mutually parted ways and Action Pact Entertainment was no more.Comic Con with Darren Shahlavi3.jpg

I will be forever grateful for that experience, and how much it helped me grow and find myself. But for the next six years, I felt a little lost without that clear direction and partnership. I’ve tried to find it in so many other places, positions, and partnerships to little avail. I’ve dabbled in entirely new fields like fin-tech (aka digital currency aka the wonderful world of Bitcoin) and women’s menstrual health (Flex. Check it out. Srsly revolutionary). But nothing gave me the same surge of passion or purpose. Nothing has clicked.

Eight years ago, when I last felt that lost and decided to leave the Google corporate machine, I first took a 3-month sabbatical to clear my head and do lots of deep soul-searching. I cleared my schedule of all commitments except a whole lot of journaling – right here on The Writes Of Passage. (In fact, that was the impetus for starting this blog in the first place.) It was the best decision I could’ve made and gave me the space to discover that new freelance path ahead.

Now I’ve once again hit that serious rut, only in a new shape (same dog, different tricks). You could say it’s been a while coming, but I guess I’ve just finally reached my breaking point. So I’ve decided it’s time to rinse and repeat.

If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed… I’ll just have to go out there and find that new purpose. I have no idea where it is, so I’ll just have to look everywhere.

I bought a Honda Element and just finished a pretty sweet buildout (I’ll post more details and photos of that soon). So now the plan is to take this new home-on-wheels and van-life it across America the beautiful. 3 months. Over 9,000 miles. Nearly every state. And just about every national park I can manage.IMG_20190416_122108312_HDR.jpg IMG_20190416_122057086_HDR.jpg

It’s going to be one heck of a road trip adventure. With plenty of time driving alone for lots of reflecting and soul-searching.

So here’s to taking another 3-month sabbatical, much like I did eight years ago. And like eight years ago, I’ll once again be journaling and posting about my journey as I go right here on The Writes Of Passage (and on Instagram, coz I’m a sucker for social pressure).

So wish me luck, and stay tuned!

The Semi-Telecommuter

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of travel hacking and working from the road, which is a very nice dream to fantasize about. But in reality, I don’t think I’d actually enjoy that life. The problem is I’m too much of an extrovert, and I need the consistent company of trusted people to sustain my sanity. So if I were to move that often and not having any stable place to call home, I would find that too unnerving. Even though I would be happy to meet new people and create new communities everywhere I went, none of them would last long enough to be sufficiently fulfilling for me.

At the same time, I’ve also learned that I hate staying in one place for too long. So the common practice of keeping one permanent home and then taking frequent trips from there while working remotely is also an unattractive prospect for me. After a while, I would get tired of always coming back to the same place time after time. And in the same vein as above, I’d also get tired of constantly traveling and being on the go, on the road, that frequently.

On the other hand, I am also aware that I do still tend to move fairly often. Looking at my housing pattern over the last 5 years, I’ve moved 10 times and on average about every 6 months. So it would seem that my ideal term of residence is about 6 months, and then I feel the inexplicable urge to move on and start anew somewhere else. It doesn’t even have to be that far away. Despite moving 10 times in the last 5 years, I stayed entirely situated in the California Bay Area. So clearly I don’t need to move far to feel that sense of starting fresh.

So if I were to take both of these into consideration, I imagine I’d like to create a new kind of mobile working lifestyle. I don’t want to be constantly on the go, but I do want to be able to change my surroundings every 4-8 months. So I’m not sure yet what that will entail exactly, but I’m excited to explore how I can construct this ideal lifestyle of mine. How can I maintain a life of moving every 4-8 months, without disrupting the nature and flow of my work, or my work-life balance?

The life of a semi-transient worker. The somewhat location independent businesswoman. The occasional telecommuter. The periodic nomad.

Do you think this concept already exists, and if so, what do you think of it? Or if not, do you have any ideas how you imagine this might work? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to Leave a Comment!

A New Me

It’s far more important to know who you are, and be comfortable with that, than to know or try to be who others think you are (or think you should be).

I used to know exactly who that me was. And I may not have been the gentlest, or calmest, or most mature me, but at least I was me. At least I knew who that was. The only problem was, I didn’t really like where that me was. And I wanted to change.

At the time, I thought it was just the lifestyle I wanted to change. But looking back now, I realize it was actually that me that I wanted to change, that I no longer wanted to be. What I really wanted was to change me, be a different me, a better me.

However, I wasn’t aware of this at the time, so I didn’t really focus on solving that particular issue or getting to the core of it. Instead, I fixed my situation and surroundings. I found a new lifestyle, a new career, a new world to occupy myself in. And that made it all better… for a while.

Maybe I could say that on some level I did know that entering this new world would also force me to change who I am as a person, and how I would live that new life. But I didn’t spend any time actually thinking about how I would change or figuring out who that new me would be.

So now here I am, with this incredible new life, new career, new relationships and new community, and I’m amazed to discover that I’m still not completely happy. Because I still don’t know who I am – who this new me is that fits into this exciting new world.

That’s still something I’m working on. And I won’t figure it out overnight, but at least I’m focused on the core issue now. I’m looking inward for once, instead of at my surroundings and how they affect me. I’m taking responsibility for the affect my recent major decisions have had on me and my personality.

For example, I’ve been struggling with the fact that I feel less ever-bubbly and energetic like I used to be, and the fact that I now actually frequently desire the company of fewer people at a time… sometimes even none. That scares me, because that’s completely different from how I used to be. And I thought that meant something was wrong. But it isn’t wrong. It’s just new. Being in a new place in my life has also meant becoming a new person. And I don’t regret this new life, or where I am now, so how can I be disappointed in the me I am now?

I’m going to embrace this new me, and find the joy in the things that this new me values – more intimate interactions, greater comfort with trust and vulnerability, more time for quiet and reflection, and a need to feel ownership over my own space and own choices. And if I can do that, then I can truly say I know who I am within this new life, and new me, that I now call my own.

Sneak Peek at My Dream

OK now you’ve heard all about my dream come true, and you’ve seen the official trailer for it. So how about I give you a little taste of what the actual dream will look like in reality?

Watch this sneak peek at one of Death Grip‘s most heart-pounding scenes!

Pretty gripping huh?

Well if you liked that, then you should definitely go check out the Death Grip movie website for more awesome clips and teasers. And get excited for the full feature film coming out very soon!

PS: Here’s the official trailer one more time, just in case you haven’t had a chance to watch it yet:

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.

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