I know how it feels to die many times and yet, miraculously survive. I’ve gone through this so many times that when it happens now, the feeling of going under catches me off guard for a minute, then I collect myself, and remind myself, “We’ve been through this before. It’s okay. We will survive.”
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, then you know what I’m talking about. You get the rapid heart palpitations; you lose feeling in your hands, arms, feet, and face; you feel like you can’t breathe; and at the same time, you feel like you’re going to black out. So many people end up in the ER or call 911 because they think they’re having a heart attack when really, they’re having a panic attack.
Now imagine having these mini-deaths nearly every week, sometimes several times a day, for seven years. That was me from the age of 22 to 29. Then I found an amazing therapist (shout-out to Dr. K!) that helped me heal and recover from this condition called anxiety and panic disorder and my life changed forever.
So, you can imagine my surprise when this difficult period in my life from decades ago helped me land my new job as Program Coordinator for The Stability Network, a non-profit using storytelling to end mental health stigma in the workplace. I’ve been in this job for exactly one month and I’m still pinching myself and wondering, is this real? Am I really doing this?
You see, after 11 years of self-employment, I never thought I’d get another job. Actually, I tried for several years to get a job and my applications and scarce interviews resulted in nothing. But this July, after reading the job ad for the Program Coordinator job, I felt renewed hope and motivation. I decided to change everything: cut my resume from two pages to one, rewrite it, and take a completely different tactic with my cover letter.
Here’s the second paragraph from my cover letter.
I’ve never disclosed my mental health background to any of my employers, but since TSN is about removing the stigma around mental health, I feel safe to share this. I’ve had anxiety and panic disorder since I was 22. It wasn’t until I was hired at the University of Washington (UW), and finally had access to comprehensive health insurance, that I received the help I needed. Through working with a therapist specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), I learned what was happening with my mind and body, and practiced techniques that greatly decreased my anxiety. For the past 20 years, I’ve managed my anxiety through CBT techniques, meditation, and nutrition. Anxiety does not keep me from living my best life.
It was taking this risk with my cover letter that helped me to apply, get two interviews, and receive a job offer in just 24 DAYS.
I couldn’t be happier. The mission of The Stability Network perfectly aligns with my passion for storytelling, educating people, and fighting for the underdog. My coworkers, Melanie and Megan, are possibly the kindest, most compassionate, and least jaded people I have ever worked with. And I get to work from home four out of five days every week.
I wouldn’t be in this job had I not had all those panic attacks 20+ years ago and then wrote about it in my application. I am not someone who believes in the phrase, “everything happens for a reason”–I’m not a fan of that motto at all–but sometimes, difficult times can lead to something good. I’m living proof that it can happen.
Peg Cheng is the author of Rebel Millionaire, a guide for how to retire as a millionaire even if you make a modest income, and The Contenders, a novel that asks, can enemies become friends? She is also the proud owner of Plaid Frog Press with her husband Marcus Donner. Born in Southern California to Taiwanese parents, Peg currently lives in Seattle, Washington.
Photo by Kristine Weilert
Karen R. says
Thanks for sharing your story and part of your cover letter. I am in tears after reading both. Partly because I identify, but mostly because I am so happy for you. Storytelling, educating people, and fighting for underdogs, really? That’s you all the way around! They are so lucky to have you. This job really does sound perfect for you, and it sounds intriguing. It’s a win-win-WIN situation for you. I am inspired to resume seeking opportunities and hope to find the one that might be a perfect match for me. I’d love to fulfill my passions in such a way. Sigh… When I find something, I am also inspired by you to take a risk and to go for it! Something I haven’t really done since NOT getting what I thought would be a perfect job three years ago. It still feels like a punch in the gut sometimes. But you really are living proof that difficult times can sometimes lead to something good. Congrats!
Peg Cheng says
Karen, it warms my heart to know that my story moved you and has also inspired you to take a risk and resume seeking opportunities that speak to you. It takes time to heal from a difficult blow. You needed those three years to do other things and soothe yourself. But I want you to know that you are an incredibly talented, skilled, dedicated, and passionate person. And a damn good writer to boot! Any organization would thank their lucky stars if you came to work for them. I’m rooting for you! 🌟 🙌
Julie Klein says
Good for you, Peg! And congratulations on finding a new home for your talents.
Peg Cheng says
Thanks, Julie! Feels good to be in this place but I’d never guess I’d end up here. Life is an adventure.
Cubby, I had no idea–you are heroic to have survived those attacks. And I’m so glad you found help and did!
I agree there are better frames than “everything happens for a reason.” One is the Jungian idea of embracing your shadow–that wounded part of ourselves that we all hide–which is exactly what you did. Or, as Jesus said, according to the Gnostic alt-Gospel of Thomas, “If you bring forth that which is within you, it will save you. If you don’t, it will kill you.” Same idea served up in a pithy phrase from back in the sandal-and-oxcart era. (I’m not a Christian, but Jesus was one cool cat.)
It’s struck me as odd, the stigma around mental illness–can you imagine a job application that asks if you’ve ever had a physical illness? Because who hasn’t? Maybe it’s because of my own struggles, but it’s hard for me to conceive of someone who hasn’t gone off the rails a bit at some point. I had some rough patches in my 20’s, including a suicide attempt when I was 24, but I wouldn’t trade my woes of that time for the absolute grind you went through.
Anyway, here’s to fulfillment and success in your new work!
Peg Cheng says
Thank you, Edgy! I’m so sorry you also went through a very rough time in your 20s. It’s funny how people always say that being a kid or being in your 20s is the “best time of your life,” but I’ve always felt that my later years were waaaaaay better. The older I get and the more agency I have over my own life, the better I feel.
I always appreciate your perspective, support, and pithy quotes, my friend. Thank you for writing in. And yeah, Jesus was one cool dude.
Thanks, Cubby! But for the record, to steal from Dickens, my 20’s were “the best of times, and the worst of times.” Catching fire with poetry, lucid dreaming adventures, music*, sex, new places and faces…yet all the while the dark lava of unprocessed misery bubbled under the surface, sometimes bursting forth. Hardly unique, though–I’d guess for a lot of us, that’s the unhinged ecology of our 20’s.
On the whole, life is better now. I am less certain of things, but if there is a hereafter, I look forward to pulling up a cloud with you, and whatever passes for a drink, and reminiscing about this wild ride.
*Hey, I’m so old school, I got paid to rap in ’85!
Peg Cheng says
I’m so not surprised you got paid to rap in ’85, Edgy. I don’t want to go back to the 80’s despite all the good times I had with my friends, but I would like to go back just for those minutes when you were rapping. That would be worth the wibbly-wobby time travel bends.
Life is such a mix, isn’t it? I’m glad your 20s were balanced out with great times too. It makes the dark times so much more bearable. I’m glad we both made it through. And yes, I’m planning on seeing you in the afterlife. It might be on a cloud, in a meadow, or in a figureless dimension, but wherever it is, I know I just need to listen for genuine laughter and I will find you.
Thanks, Cubby–that’s so sweet. And may our ethereal rendezvous come to pass! But I’ve greatly exaggerated my rap history.
My friend Linda and I set up manual typewriters at the fountain rock near the Plaza in Santa Fe, and were charging the princely sum of $2 per poem. A woman came by with a big black standard poodle, and asked us each to write a poem about it. Mine came out as “Black Poodle Rap.” It wasn’t bad–she posted it at her shop. (Ply me with a drink, and I might bust it out.) Anyway, I slither under the lowest bar of “paid rapper.”
But you’re right: I can’t say that the “good” outweighed the “bad.” I think they were a tangled ball of yarn, and it’s taken years of time and effort to weave a fitting life from them.
Peg Cheng says
As luck would have it, Niles has just dropped off a most excellent package that I’ve been waiting for–a bottle of Gutiérrez Colosía Oloroso sherry that has your name on it. So get ready, LL Cool Edge.
A bottle of GCO–for me? Peg, you charming and generous devil, that is just the dram to loosen my tongue. Many thanks!
Although, should it cause me to rap in this faux 19th century English style, that should be interesting. (In the same sense that the Titanic was “interesting.”)
John Capecci says
Hi, Peg, and congratulations on being part of The Stability Network. You do indeed get to work with some amazing folks. (And thanks for the shout-out to Living Proof!)
All the best –
Peg Cheng says
Thank you, John! I’m so happy to be a part of The Stability Network team. I’m reading Living Proof right now and getting a lot out of it. Excellent book!
Heather C says
Peg! Ahh my heart goes out to you. I suffered from panic attacks in my late 20s and CBT helped me out too and still helps to this day. I love love love that in the end, those panic attacks helped you get a job that is making your heart happy and with colleagues who appreciate you and are not jaded! That makes MY heart happy!! Much love to you and thank you for sharing this story – it meant a lot to me.
Peg Cheng says
Thank you so much, Heather, for all your kind words and support. Wow, that’s great that you ALSO used CBT to help you combat panic attacks in your 20s. My anxiety sister!! Thank you for being willing to share with me your own struggles while continuing to be a stalwart pillar of love and encouragement. Grateful we are friends. 🧡