Today we have a guest post from friend Maria Lemus who blogs at Sex and the Beach, a blog about a single woman's guide to chronic living in Miami. Maria is a kindred spirit and one of the most amazing people I have the pleasure to call friend.
In terms of healing, Maria deserves a gold star, as her story is inspiring to others who have suffered from agoraphobia and anxiety attacks. In one year she went from not being able to leave her home to now going out every day to enjoy the sights and sounds of Miami, and in the process, she lost 50lbs without dieting.
I was driving along, minding my own business, when I
suddenly felt disoriented. My heart started racing. My
hands and legs shook uncontrollably. I couldn't
concentrate. I was afraid I was going to lose control of the car.
Or am I?
No. I'm in the throes of an anxiety attack, which is a
physiological reaction to stress called the flight or
flight syndrome. My body has just released adrenaline
because it thinks it's being chased by an elephant, when
in fact, those elephants are really just my heart's way
of telling me to listen to the grief that lingers like
hazy background music I no longer hear: that background
being the beating of my heart.
The heart's beating: that constant reminder of why I am
here and what I am doing about it.
But I don't know this yet.
I don't know that I'm not having a heart attack. I don't
know that I'm not going to die. I don't know that millions
of others also suffer from anxiety attacks.
No, I know none of this.
And because I'm so afraid that this crazy, unexplainable
crisis will ever happen again, I become afraid of driving.
Then it happens again. And again.
Oh no, not again.
Eventually, I stop driving. I stop walking. I stop
moving. And even though my heart still beats, I stop
I become agoraphobic and life goes on permanent hold ...
Anxiety disorder (the sudden onset of anxiety attacks)
and agoraphobia (fear of being outside of your comfort
zone when an anxiety attack occurs) happened to me
several times in my adult life. The last time it
happened, I said: ENOUGH.
I’ve come a long way in one year, but the process of
transition started long before. In 2005, I embarked on a
relationship with a man that was very challenging. Note
that I say challenging and not damaging, because I refuse
to consider myself damaged goods – far from it.
This man was the worst thing that ever happened to me,
but in some ways, he was also my best teacher, because
the relationship forced me to evolve into the woman I am
Not only was this man psychologically abusive and
manipulative, he also raped me and violated me physically
in other ways.
At the beginning of the end, I developed severe anxiety
attacks, which eventually dragged me into agoraphobia. I
would have a difficult time leaving the front door of my
apartment for nearly three years. I was literally
paralyzed in fear, handicapped by it, stunted, and
seemingly at the time, forever held back from life.
An agoraphobic is a zombie. Half alive, aching, buried
somehow in darkness. An agoraphobic is a mute person with
a voice, a deaf person who can hear, a blind person who
I was never the kind of woman who would give up
everything for a man. I had had two long-lasting,
wonderful relationships before I met him. Even though
those relationships didn't work out, I still respect and
love those men just for who they are and who they were
when we crossed paths. They never demanded that I give up
so much of myself.
Of course, every relationship involves a little
self-sacrifice and much compromise, but not to the point
of losing your identity.
So many women go through a self-effacing process when it
comes to love. My mom has always said that the man should
be much more in love with the woman than she with him,
because we always give so much. The way I see it, it's
not necessarily that we give so much, but that we get
caught in the trap that giving means putting up with
abusive behavior, which somehow translates to loving.
Not so. Absolutely not freakin' NOT so. Loving means
believing and accepting and receiving the best, devoted
and respectful love. Somehow, I let that slide when he
came into my life.
I had always been an active person. In my early
twenties, I danced professionally in a local modern dance
troupe and I continued to stay active even when I went on
to graduate school for literature and writing. I only
gained weight when I went on birth control pills. Even
though doctors say that the weight gain from birth
control should not be so significant, I call bullshit.
There's something the FDA isn't telling us. I believe
some women are extremely sensitive to hormones.
You know your body better than your doctor -- listen to
Fast forward to 2005: I honestly don't know what happened
to me after I met him. It's as if I had been abducted by
aliens: who was I and what had become of Maria? "Swept
away" and "swept off your feet" are not metaphors you
want to use when you're dealing with an abusive man.
I stopped practicing and teaching yoga. I also gave up
figure skating, which was a sport that gave me so much
joy. Yes, figure skating in Florida. Go figure!
And caught up in the sweeping tide of sex (because
that’s how I think of him in that year of the tsunami – a
devastating, unstoppable brute force), I agreed to go on
birth control yet again -- yes, stupid me, against all
reason -- which is when I started to gain weight.
I went from a slim size 6 to a large 18 in less than a
year and not because I stuffed myself with food. When
anxiety attacks started to command my life, I simply
And I understood, for once, how fat people must feel; it
wasn't enough that my pain blinded me to my violated
body, but it was enough -- and downright infuriating --
to observe how people treated me differently because of
My body, which had previously brought me so much
pleasure as it played with gravity on the yoga mat or on
the ice … my body, which had known desire and rapture
from the touch of loving men … my body … my body, the
only thing I had known … had somehow shifted into a place
of ignominy, shame and disgust.
My body was suddenly my enemy.
"You really get to know who your real friends are when you
Several people who had been part of my life when he was
around suddenly dropped off the earth. It was as if I was
forced to look inside.
Ironically, it was a few weeks after I last saw him that I
started my blog Sex and the Beach. Out of that darkness, I
created light. Manola Blablablanik was that part of me
that was funny and wanted to seize life fearlessly.
I described my blog as “a single woman’s guide to chronic
living” because part of me knew deep down that what I was
going through was my journey. We can't help but live, in
spite of ourselves.
And as I let go of those old friends who no longer served
a purpose in my life, I would eventually cross paths with
incredible people who love me for who I am. Social media
would prove a wonderful resource to connect with others
when I couldn't leave my home. One such person is
Stephanie Quilao, who always reminds me of how far I've
come, even when I feel stuck."
Last year, on July 7, I was hospitalized for an episode
of atrial fibrillation. Because I had received two doses
of adenosine -- a chemical that makes the heart stop in
order to recover a normal pace and rhythm -- I
experienced what it must feel like to die. After every
imaginable test, I left the hospital with a clean bill of
health. It wasn't my weight that caused the episode -- it
was (I believe, based on records) the weight of my soul
urging me to move on and fulfill my life's purpose. That
episode (off the record) was basically the mother of all
anxiety attacks, a huge wake up call.
Since July 7, I have lost 50 pounds and I am no longer
plagued by anxiety attacks, much less agoraphobia. The
weight did not come off because I started dieting, but
because I started moving again.
Moving. Movement is living.
Think about that blood coursing through your veins.
Circulatory system: movement is life.
I emphasize movement because in less than a year, I
changed my entire life to fulfill my goal of writing
everything inside me that needs to be written in this
lifetime. I literally moved out of my apartment and in
with my parents. I sold all my belongings. I let go so I
could simply just be.
I really had to focus on the bigger picture and not
listen to my ego, which felt embarrassed about being 40,
without a cent to my name, without a family of my own,
moving in with the folks because I couldn't make ends
meet. So what? Whose rules am I living by, anyway? I'm
doing what I can so that when I'm old and lying on my
deathbed, I will reminisce about a life well lived and a
heart completely fulfilled.
I am a beautiful, intelligent and spiritual woman,
single and childless at 40. What did I have to lose, when
I had already lost myself to fear? And how, without going
through this process, would I ever be ready to love
again? This is why I refuse to believe I am damaged
goods. I'm not used -- I'm resilient.
And so I find myself, a year later, living in the
tropical, lush area of Miami, which I thoroughly love,
writing a book about a very strong woman, a role model --
my dad's cousin, who rode Harley-Davidson's in Cuba
before the communist revolution.
Oh, the irony.
Freedom of the road.
Well, I'm not exactly ready to jam the wind on a Harley,
but just give me a few months ...
As many of you know, Stephanie has had her own struggles
with eating disorders. What inspired this post was a
conversation she and I had about my one-year anniversary
from the hospital in which I told her that the weight
loss was a secondary benefit to my recovery from anxiety
disorder and agoraphobia. I would like to emphasize that
-- when I started treating my spiritual self, the weight
I had gained from self-neglect eventually started to come
Here is what I did to get out of this rut. I hope it
will help you.
For starters, I worked with a life coach, Gloria Ramirez,
over many sessions on the phone. Gloria is a highly
gifted healer who works in the Christian tradition
although she embraces all faiths and energies. She
employs the twelve-step method and prosperity
consciousness as a structure in healing.
You don't have to be an addict to benefit from 12 steps.
As a matter of fact, it's my opinion that if everyone
went through 12 steps during college and every decade
thereafter, the world would be a better place. Doing an
inventory of your life and coming to terms through a
forgiveness process that teaches you compassion and
patience is so key to fulfillment. How is it that we
spend so much time and money educating ourselves without
becoming better people?
Why is it that we can break a leg but no one employer or
insurance company could acknowledge a broken spirit?
Did we talk about weight yet?
OK, let's move on ...
I owe my greatest effort in recovery to Dr. Edmund
Bourne, whose books, the Anxiety and Phobia Workbook as
well Beyond Anxiety and Phobia helped me fully arrive to
a place where I'm so NOT afraid, I can talk freely about
anxiety disorder as happily as I'd be licking a lollipop
(sugar free, of course!)
I already knew what was going on in my body. I knew
about flight or fight syndrome. But the timing was right
when I picked up the first book -- it helped put
everything into a clear perspective. When I understood
exactly what was happening to my body and ultimately, to
my spirit, I was able to harness the bounty of knowledge
I already had in my possession. After all, I had studied
and taught yoga. What didn't I know about breathing that
I couldn't practice? The lesson was clear: everything I
needed to know was already inside.
I had to work hard to recover from agoraphobia. I had to
desensitize myself to fear. I literally took a few steps
away from my front door, followed by a few more steps the
next day. Eventually, I reached the mailbox outside. For
a woman who had danced all her life and even relished the
thrill of gliding on a thin blade on ice, I had to suck
it up and just do it. I had to put aside my shame because
I felt so inadequate.
I was that zombie, trying to awake. To quicken. To come
back to life.
Apart from my own self-judgement, I had to start talking
about it. I told people why I couldn't accept their
invitations. Yes, it was bad -- even if you offered me a
ride. At one point, I couldn't even be a passenger inside
a car. I was afraid of even looking at a car. I had no
control of the physiology of fear.
I just had to accept it. I had to stop judging myself.
And I had to, absolutely had to, be patient and count
each step as a victory.
I know it is very hard for people who have never had an
anxiety attack to understand just how crippling the
condition is, but I must emphasize once again how crucial
the spiritual dimensions of my life had ultimately
influenced my body's reactions to the physical world.
Once I really did the yoga -- the union of body, mind and
soul -- I was able to manage it.
Agoraphobia led me to appreciate every little thing in
life, every little act or movement or change.
Because of the work I did with Gloria and what I learned
from Dr. Bourne -- setting boundaries, being more
assertive and focusing on my goals -- these are all
practices that have helped alleviate anxiety.
I don't take Xanax, even if I always carry a pill around
as a placebo. I take a low-dose beta blocker (which is
probably not necessary) but it was prescribed to me last
year after I left the hospital. Daily, I practice
abdominal breathing, even if just for five minutes. And
always, always, always, I have a fully open door to that
part of my heart that has absolute faith.
Well, if you really must know, here's how I've succeeded
on getting back into the path where the skinny jeans are
just around the corner, but I must pull a caveat emptor:
what works for me doesn't necessarily work for everyone.
I just started moving again, which to me, translates in
believing in myself in again. Believing in my power
again. Understanding that I am not just about the size of
my jeans, but the abundance of my heart. If you try to
lose weight based only on the motivation of your physical
size, you'll miss out on the real value of the journey.
So, here ya go:
Once I was able to get out of the house, I started
walking and doing simple calisthenics. Today, I go to the
gym three times a week and do half an hour of cardio
followed by half an hour of weights. I do a strenuous
yoga workout at least once a week and 15 to 30 minute
yoga sessions in between, which are actually a blessing
since I spend so much time at the computer. Everyone
always worries about weight but I think that posture is
one of the best beauty accessories and yoga certainly
supports a lithe and comfortable posture, no matter the
size of the body. Not to mention all the other benefits
of yoga on the organs and state of mind.
As for food, I avoid sugar, flour, caffeine and
processed foods. Sprouted grain and seed breads are so
delicious, I actually have grown a distaste for flour. I
don't drink diet sodas and I only use Stevia or the
occasional dollop of honey. My diet is not low-carb, just
low sugar. Although I do not practice vegetarianism, I
eat plenty of fresh fruit, raw vegetables and avoid
processed crap. But don't think I'm a health nut, really.
I love me martinis, white wine and gourmet food. I take
2% evaporated milk in my decaf coffee and that's about
all the dairy I consume daily, although I will eat plain
yogurt alone or in a smoothie about three times a week.
Cheese is an occasional focus of a meal and if I'm gonna
eat it, I'm gonna indulge in the finest.
Although I still have about twenty pounds to get to my
skinny jeans, I'm not obsessed by the numbers on the
After all, I'm riding high. Look how far I've come. My
daily life is a thing to be lovingly embraced, instead of
feared. This, I believe, is a good way of looking at the
world and the best possible place from which to start
living ... and loving.