How I Overcame My Panic Attacks

For years, Toronto city councillor Joe Cressy suffered from severe panic attacks—and didn't know it. Here's how he came to terms with the common disorder.

panic attack joe cressyPhoto: Courtesy of Joe Cressy

Growing up, I always heard stories about my dad’s brothers, my uncles Bill and Jim. Bill was the high school superstar—athletic, beloved, charismatic. I never met him. In 1969, at 24 years old, he was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital during a psychotic episode. He jumped to his death from its rooftop.

Not long after, Jim, the youngest brother, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Jim is an incredible person—playful and caring. He’ll quietly say something funny, then smile impishly when you pick up on the joke. He survived misguided early treatments for his condition, from heavy-handed prescription regimens to shock treatments.

I was lucky. In a lot of households, our uncles’ problems might have been shrouded in silence, but my parents encouraged us to talk openly about mental health and how it requires the same care as physical sickness. My mother worked at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health for years, my father at the United Way, and I inherited their passion for mental health advocacy. It didn’t occur to me that I’d ever need those resources myself.

In 2014, I was elected to Toronto city council, representing what was then the downtown ward of Trinity-­Spadina. I was 30 and I poured myself into the job. I often attended a dozen meetings a day. I championed issues I cared deeply about, such as safe bike lanes and curbing the opioid crisis. I was doing the work I’d always dreamed of—and making a real difference.

But underneath I was a mess. Shortly after the election, my marriage ended. To cope with the loss, I suppressed all my emotions. I hadn’t slept well for years, and my insomnia got even worse. When I did fall asleep, I’d wake up several times each night, even after taking sleeping pills, drenched in cold sweat. I figured I was just tired, overworked, overwhelmed. I kept myself together at my job, but whenever I was alone, I fell apart. My response was to pump myself full of vitamins and run 10 kilometres each day. When that didn’t help, I put in even longer hours at the office. I wore my job like a suit of armour—nothing would interrupt my ambition. I wasn’t okay, but I couldn’t admit it, let alone explain it.

In 2016, I met a writer named Grace. We fell in love, and suddenly everything changed. The armour I had developed was cracking. I was both happier and more miserable than I’d ever been, trying to balance intimacy with denial about the state of my mental health. I started experiencing intermittent chest pains. I constantly felt light-headed and dizzy. Emotionally, I would ricochet from nervous to sad to terrified in an instant. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these are all symptoms of panic attacks.

Once, I was about to do a television interview—something I had done many times before. For some reason, I found myself paralyzed by the worry that I would break down and cry on camera. Shaking and sweating, I forced myself to walk onto the set, convinced it would be a disaster. The interview went fine.

I should have been relieved. But I wasn’t, because I didn’t understand what had happened. These episodes occurred again and again. There was no obvious trigger to my anxiety—it wasn’t public speaking or seeing friends or even being alone. It was random and unfocused, which made it all the more alarming.

I was supposed to be healthy. I’d always been the guy who woke everyone up too early on vacation. By this point, I was barely dragging myself out of bed. I was exhausted by noon and absolutely wrecked by the time I got through my evening meetings. For months I endured medical appointments and tests, looking for a physical explanation for what was going on. Some doctors suggested it might be stress, but none brought up the possibility of panic attacks.

One night in late 2016, at around 2 a.m., my chest pains got so intense that I was convinced I was having a heart attack. I called 911, and within 10 minutes, I was lying in the back of an ambulance. An ECG and a round of blood work confirmed that I was physically healthy. Lying in that hospital bed, I came to a realization: the problem wasn’t in my body, it was in my mind.

Within a few weeks, I started seeing a psychiatrist, who officially diagnosed me with situational depression (connected to my divorce) and generalized anxiety disorder (a condition in which a person is overwhelmed by irrational worry). My doctor was wonderfully kind and thoughtful. He described psychiatry as an art based on science and driven by a passion for understanding. And while he prescribed a series of treatments—antidepressants, cognitive behavioural therapy, daily exercise—it was mostly through our conversations that I was able to grasp what I was experiencing and how common it was.

Over the span of three years, his “art” opened my eyes. For a long time, I’d assumed I was invincible. Suddenly, I was learning how to slow down and listen, how to experience and process emotions, how to accept that I’m not always in control. To put it simply, I was finally learning how to be human. And it was terrifying.

I’m still figuring out how to manage my anxiety. It’s not easy. Part of the process is discovering balance. I still work too hard and too much, but relationships, friends, music, jogging and even cooking have become important parts of my life. A little later than I should have, I’ve realized that life is not a race. Winning the next council vote, public policy debate, even the next election are significant, but only if I take care of myself.

I’m lucky that the system worked for me. I have excellent health care and the added (and essential) benefit of caring family and friends who listen without judgment. There are countless stories like mine with very different endings. Clearly, there are treatments that work, but far too many people can’t access them. My dad always told me that to miss the joy of life is to miss all of it. For the first time, I’m finding the joy.

Next, make sure you know how to get the most out of therapy.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada