Learning to Breathe: My Year-long Quest to Bring Calm to My Life
by Priscilla Warner. Free Press (Simon & Schuster), 2011
For the millions of people who suffer from panic disorder, every passing minute brings them closer to the next attack.
Writer Priscilla Warner has lived on edge her whole life. Crippled by panic attacks for four decades and tired of relying on drugs to help manage them, she finally decided to take control of her illness. Her new book, Learning to Breathe, details her journey as she seeks to break her addiction to clonazepam, a drug for relieving panic attacks, to achieve a monklike state of calm.
The book follows Warner as she struggles to transform her fast-paced, pill-popping New York lifestyle to a more peaceful existence filled with meditative retreats, Buddhist teachings, Kabbalah rituals and sessions with psychotherapists. She also seeks the counsel of friends, relatives and gracious strangers to help her cope with her unresolved problems—a difficult upbringing and her mother’s decline as she battles Alzheimer’s disease, among other troubles.
Warner is exhaustive in describing every meditation, teaching and treatment she discovers, each of which seems to help her in some way. Although the reader wishes Warner all the best, the narrative quickly becomes predictable and monotonous. When she participates in a brain-imaging study to track her progress, she misses a chance to create a powerful moment: she skims over the neural underpinnings of her recovery and instead simply marvels at how colorful her MRI scan is. Many recent brain studies have shown connections between meditation and improved cognitive function, including better concentration and mood regulation. Had she explored the neuroscience, she could have tracked the physical effects different treatments had on her brain to determine which ones were truly working and how.
That said, Warner’s success warrants respect. Despite its flaws, the book describes a courageous woman transformed from an anxiety-stricken, neurotic victim to a calm and balanced figure. Her story is a message of hope for those who, like Warner, wonder if they will ever find such a thing as life without panic.