I'm watching a video of people's legs and feet as they walk back and forth through the main hall of Grand Central Station. And yes, this is preparation for writing an author interview. At Priscilla Warner's behest, I'm watching some of her "Breathtaking Moments" videos from her website--"breathtaking" as in "taking a breath," designed to offer a moment of meditative calm.
That calm can be useful in any situation, really, which is Warner's ultimate point in her new book, Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life (Free Press; reviewed below). She had a long and very productive career as an advertising copywriter and executive, then co-authored 2006's bestselling The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew: Three Women Search for Understanding with Ranya Idilby and Suzanne Oliver, about the trio's efforts to understand each other's religious backgrounds.
Warner said her experience of touring the country after the release of The Faith Club showed her something important. "I met hundreds of thousands of people and all of them--all of them!--were going about their business, all of them were thoughtful about how they chose to put one foot in front of the other. I found it inspirational and liberating to realize that there are so many ways to get from one place to another. We're all human beings, all on a path, and we shouldn't be critical of the paths that others are taking."
Yet at the same time Warner was increasing her awareness of other people's lives, her own was in turmoil--turmoil that she'd long hidden from her children, colleagues, even her closest friends. Priscilla Warner suffered from lifelong anxiety and panic attacks that began during her teen years.
"I just didn't know what it was!" Warner said of her first panic attack, which happened nearly 40 years ago. "When you're a teenager, you think you're the only person in the world who feels the way you do." She goes on to describe her first full-blown panic attack. "I was working as a waitress in the Brown University cafeteria, and since I went to an all-girls school, I was nervous, because there were boys there. I remember the moment exactly: I was dishing out peas with one of those giant steel spoons, and I started to hyperventilate. I had everything from the tingling hands to a blocked throat to shivering all over, hot flashes--I felt like I was dying or going crazy. Everything around you is very silent when this is happening, and everything slows down, yet no one else notices anything."
Warner's panic attacks and anxiety didn't stop with college at the University of Pennsylvania, with marriage, or with the birth of their two sons (now in college themselves). "I used to drink hot tea just to distract myself from the panic," she recalled. "A slightly scalded throat was preferable to appearing panicked in front of my children. I was afraid I was defective, that I would pass this on to one of them."
Sadly, Warner had good reason to consider herself somehow different. When she was just 16 months old, she had a serious infection that led to a near-death experience. Her respiratory distress became so acute that a hospital resident performed an emergency tracheotomy.
"My parents told me that story constantly when I was growing up, from start to finish: 'Then you were gasping for breath, then you were in the hospital,' and so on." Warner said she heard that story often, and it frightened her every time. "My parents were good people, but one therapist told me years later, 'Your parents didn't raise you, because they couldn't--but they let you grow up.' "
For years, Warner said, she was "functioning fine." Her anxiety allowed her to channel energy into being accomplished and productive: "I was a maniacal 'doer' who worked my butt off. One rabbi told me that a certain amount of anxiety is fine and can be productive. But panic--that's a different thing. Panic, I now say, is my teacher. Panic is what got me to sit down on my ass and meditate."
That doesn't mean Priscilla Warner "got" meditation immediately. On her first retreat, she remembers following a spiritually minded friend "like a rookie would watch Babe Ruth. She knew how to sit, that you needed a shawl for temperature changes, a notebook to jot down observations. I wanted to be perfect, and just like so much else, I needed to learn to let go in order to really learn anything about being present."
She now believes that anyone can get beyond this crippling problem. "Thich Nhat Han says 'Understand your own suffering, and you will find compassion,' " she said. Warner always worried her secret would slip out; in fact, when she first read the manuscript of Learning to Breathe, Warner's close friend Meredith Vieira wept, saying, "I had no idea you were going through this." Warner added, "I hope that when people read this book that they don't try to analyze how much I suffered or how much they suffered in relation to me. That would be missing the point."
Although Priscilla Warner has no idea what she'll do with her "new self," she hopes that her humor, which used to come from a painful place, will now come from a delightful place instead.
She laughs heartily. "You know, I couldn't find a way to channel my panic productively... so I wrote a memoir!" Warner said she likes to see herself as "a monk in a minivan" who can choose, each day, to find a few minutes and be still. "The little voice that once told me 'You're defective' now says 'You can be present. You can choose where to put your attention.' " --Bethanne Patrick