July 3, 2021. It was a Sunday night and I was at a restaurant with J, wrapping up dinner when it happened. I had a mouthful of food and when I tried to swallow, it was like my body suddenly forgot how. The food refused to go down and as my confusion grew, my brain immediately jumped into problem-solving mode and zeroed in on my throat and the sensation of food in my mouth, which did nothing but set off more alarm bells. The more I thought about swallowing, the more fear I felt, and then came a dizzying minute or two in which I thought I was having an out-of-body experience (which I now know is most likely a panic attack). After what felt like an eternity, I spat the whole mouthful out and looked at J in blank shock.
What the fuck just happened?
I tried to laugh it off while inwardly rationalizing what could have happened— maybe I ate too much too fast, maybe there was too much food in my mouth, etc.— but the experience shook me. I had never felt such intense fear and blank panic before, and I spent the rest of the night Googling “difficulty swallowing” (yes, always a good idea) before I went to bed with the uneasy, fervent hope that this was some freak fluke and I would never feel it again.
Things seemed fine the next day, although the memory of the night before prickled in the back of my mind. We ordered Korean tofu soup for dinner and after two spoonfuls of rice, my throat acted up again, my body shut down in panic, and I spent the rest of the night in a haze of confused misery. By Tuesday morning, even drinking water was difficult and just the smell of food made me borderline nauseous. By Wednesday evening, after having eaten nothing since the two bites of rice on Monday night, J dragged me to urgent care. I left two hours later with a prescription for Pepcid, since my acid reflux symptoms had also flared up thanks to the stress of not being able to swallow, and a care sheet telling me to eat bland foods and stay away from caffeine and alcohol.
This was seven months ago now. Thankfully, I’m mostly back to eating normally again, albeit slower and more mindfully. But mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and even physically, I’m not the same person I was before. not the same person I was before. How and why I had this physical breakdown (which my therapist eventually diagnosed as pseudodysphagia) isn’t nearly as important as the realizations I’ve had about what truly matters to me, who I want to be, and how I want to live life. It sounds dramatic and cliché, both of which are true, but I can almost guarantee that if none of this had happened, I wouldn’t be where my life is at today.
So where is life at today?
For starters, I’ve left a cushy job at one of the most famous (and perhaps now infamous) companies in the world. I’ve gone into and “graduated” therapy twice, giving me a much better understanding of why I am the way I am. I’ve picked up a meditation habit, which was always something I was both intrigued and skeptical about until I finally learned how to make it work for me. I’ve lost 20 pounds and gained about 5 back, and I’ve finally realized that body size and weight truly does not make you happier or better in life (unless there were underlying health issues you wanted to address). But most importantly, I’ve rediscovered that it’s the people in your life and your support system that truly will help get you to a better place.
There are a lot more details and chapters to this whole story, so this is just the inaugural step in documenting my whole experience with what I now see as an existential reset. For a long time, I was embarrassed about my physical struggles with eating, because who’d ever heard of an otherwise healthy person unable to swallow due to a mental block* about it? I also felt guilty for being yet another white collar millennial burned out from work, with no other major obligations other than to myself and to my partner. But as my friends, family, and my therapist reminded me over and over again, it was unproductive to compare my sufferings with those of others. In minimizing and dismissing my own experiences, I was needlessly suffering twice.
*Note: This was diagnosed by my therapist after a doctor, a GI specialist, and a series of tests ruled out anything physically wrong.
As daunting as it is to articulate and share all of this out in the open, I also see this as part of the healing and recovery process. If I’ve learned anything in the last seven months, it’s that talking about pain, fear, and all the things we’re scared to let people see or know about is often the catalyst for connection, empathy, and authenticity— all things that we so desperately need in tough times, especially now. I don’t know what this year brings, but I feel much better equipped to face the unknown now than I would have thought possible.