I was seven when I had my first panic attack.
My heart would just start beating uncontrollably, and my hands would get sweaty. When it happened, or I knew it was going to happen, I didn’t want to eat. Often, I felt like I was going to throw up. For hours, sometimes, I would just feel really sick, and have this overwhelming sense of fear.
My mom was a psychologist. After a while, she started to recognize what was going on.
She would ask me, “What are you feeling?”
I’d say, “I’m scared. I’m really scared.”
She’d say, “Well, what are you afraid of? Making a mistake? Getting hurt?” I would pause and think about it.
“Nothing,” I’d say. “I’m not scared of anything.”
And I wasn’t. Not really. What I learned later on is that panic attacks can often go hand in hand with depression. For me, it was a problem with the serotonin levels in my brain. The sensations I was feeling seemed a lot like fear, though, especially to a kid. When you’re younger, and you’re competing, you feel these common sensations. But it’s not always easy to identify your emotions. Anxiety, fear, nerves - they can all feel the same way. So, frequently, when I felt those normal, minor competition nerves that everybody feels, it would all start to snowball. Riding became a trigger for my panic attacks.
Sometimes, when I was at shows, I couldn’t even walk my course. I couldn’t warm-up my horse. I would faint, or get so tired from the attack, itself, that I couldn’t hold myself together. Somehow, I would still find a way to show. They would put me up on the horse, and I would jump two jumps in the warm-up, and then I’d go in.
We were brought up a little differently back then. There was no, “Oh, you’re not feeling good? You don’t have to show.”
No. You show, period. If you don’t show, then you quit. It was just as simple as that.
But I really loved the sport. I loved competing. From week to week, during various periods, it was a big struggle for me, and for the people around me. It was especially hard on my family, and in particular, my mom, to see me suffering.
As a father, now that I have my own kids, I can’t imagine what it would be like to see them going through that amount of pain.
My mom knew, as a psychologist, what was going on. She helped me work on my mental strength and she taught me to control my emotions and my thoughts. I learned how to recognize the signs of when I was starting to have a panic attack. Eventually, I could feel all the sensations of the attack, but not lose control of my brain. That was a big deal.
"When you’re younger, and you’re competing, you feel these common sensations. But it’s not always easy to identify your emotions. Anxiety, fear, nerves - they can all feel the same way."
My mom gave me as many tools as she could, and I did use a lot of them. But I was young, and I’m already a guy who tries to have as many variables under control as I can in every situation. It’s the nature of my personality. But this was something that went totally beyond my control.
In Colombia, in the late ‘90s, mental health issues weren’t really understood, at least not in the way we understand them now. It was something that was “best left to the doctors.” The problem was, the doctors I saw thought what was happening was just a result of fear, or the nerves I felt about competing.
Starting on medication, back then, was also considered a dangerous road to take. Even my mom resisted going in that direction for as long as possible. She worried where it would lead, and what the side effects might be.
All that is to say, through this whole part of my young career, I had a lot of time to think and reflect on the sensations I was feeling in my body. There were periods when it was a little better, and then periods when it was a little worse.
Finally, I had a very big breakdown when I was 12 or 13. That’s when I started on medication, and that pretty much changed everything.
I was able to find out what it’s like to feel normal anxiety like any other athlete. Honestly, it’s amazing the difference between that sensation, and the alternative, when I couldn’t control my body or my brain.
I won’t undercut it: I suffered a lot, and I faced a lot of challenging moments. But on the other side, it has made me who I am. When you go through all these sensations and feelings that are so horrible, and that feel so disgusting in your body, you sort of become stronger in general. In everything.
"I won’t undercut it: I suffered a lot, and I faced a lot of challenging moments. But on the other side, it has made me who I am."
It’s like when you start running for the first time without shoes. In the beginning, you’re very sensitive. But if you run without shoes for long enough, eventually, your skin becomes thicker and stronger.
It’s the same thing that happens with your mind. When you’re able to control your brain, it can be your most beneficial asset.
Because I don’t think it’s possible not to feel fear, or nerves, or any of the other emotions we all experience as athletes. If anybody tells you they don’t feel nervous before a big class, or a challenging course, that’s a bunch of lies. Everybody feels it. It’s just how you manage it that makes the difference.
I’m no different than anybody else in this sport. I have good days and I have bad days. On top of that, I also have a pretty intense personality. On any given day, in any given class, I might feel the same, shitty way that any other athlete feels, for any number of reasons.
But very rarely does it ever affect my performance.
Part of that is thanks to what I went through as a kid, and part of it is what I chose to do for myself. In 2013, I started working with a sports psychologist, and it really helped me.
"Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking you have an issue that’s too big to solve."
I had already overcome a lot of garbage in my head, and honestly, with all that I’d been through, I hadn’t really been big on therapy before. I was stubborn. But working with a sports psychologist made me much more aware of the negative thoughts I was having that weren’t helping my cause in the ring.
More than that, talking with a professional—a sports psychologist, a therapist, a counselor, whoever—who has seen so many cases, and treated so many different people, you can learn so much. Because, at the end of the day, as human beings, we are all so similar in so many different ways.
You might think you have your own unique problem, that nobody else knows and nobody else understands, and that’s not true. Your own unique problem may seem huge in your head, but that problem you think is unique, isn’t. Many others have had the same problems and therapists have experience dealing with them. Take advantage of that.
There’s always a way out. Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking you have an issue that’s too big to solve.
I heard a quote the other day, and it really stuck with me: “Fear is a feeling, courage is a decision.” You might feel fear, and that’s totally fine. Finding the courage to face that fear, though, that’s a mental decision. That’s something we can all decide to do.
As told to Nina Fedrizzi
Illustration by Shayla Bond