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Breaking free

Sydney Page

THE WASHINGTON POST – Chris Kam remembered his first panic attack with unsettling clarity.

“It felt like my head was disconnected from my body,” said Kam, who was 19 at the time.

It was June 2022, and he was at a camping store in Santa Rosa, California, near his house, getting some gear for an upcoming trip. Out of nowhere, his surroundings blurred.

“I got dizzy, and then my heart rate started to rise,” Kam said. “That was the start of my panic disorder.”

Kam was set to start film school at Chapman University in Orange, California, in the fall – which was a long-held dream of his.

He had been rejected from the same programme the year prior.

“It was a big deal that I finally got in and was going to go that fall,” he said, explaining that photography and filmmaking have always been his passions.

Kam was working as a freelance photographer and videographer during the summer months to save money for school, but he took on more work than he could handle. The mounting pressure pushed him to a breaking point.

Landscape photographer and videographer Chris Kam. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST
ABOVE & BELOW: Kam was diagnosed with panic disorder in June 2022, and for several weeks he was afraid to leave his home; and Kam displays the landscape photos he took on his wall. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST
PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST
Kam believes burnout spurred his mental health challenges and turned to photography to help him overcome his mental health challenges. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

“I didn’t know how to regulate the amount of work I was doing,” said Kam, now 20. “I was missing meals, not really hanging out with friends. That started to kind of build up over time.”

Soon, his energy crashed. He lost his creativity. He thought he might find a reset in nature, he said, so he planned a camping trip to clear his head. That’s when he found himself spiralling at the camping store. He had no idea at the time that it would be the beginning of severe panic attacks – something Kam had never experienced in the past. It was terrifying.

Not only did he not go on the camping trip, but he became too afraid to leave his family’s home altogether.

“Over the span of the next week, my life closed down,” he said, noting that while he had experienced anxiety at other points in his life, it had never been this acute. “I would get lightheaded. I couldn’t drive anywhere.”

For a full month, Kam said, he barely stood up from his couch. Even getting up to brush his teeth felt like a daunting task. He consulted with several therapists, and it took weeks before he found one that felt like a good fit. In the meantime, he was lost and scared.

“I thought I would never be able to work again,” said Kam, who at the time was fearful of most things outside of his home.

He began seeing a therapist, first virtually and later in person, which became a motivation for him to leave the house.

Although he was making small strides, he didn’t feel strong enough to attend film school in the fall, which was “another hard blow for me”, he said.

His friends had all moved away for college.

“All of a sudden, it was just me at home,” Kam said.

Despite his loneliness and emotional despair, Kam was determined to get better. He just didn’t know how.

“I was like, ‘I have this beautiful life ahead of me, and I can’t just let that go to waste,’” he said. His therapist was working with him on exposure therapy to slowly increase his tolerance to anxiety-inducing situations – which, for Kam, included simply stepping outside of his house.

He started off with short walks to the end of his street, accompanied by his father.

It took about a month before he had the confidence to go farther.

“I just slowly added streets,” Kam said. “I had to build everything up super slowly.”

Then, Kam hatched a plan: Given his love of landscape photography, every day for the month of September, he would visit a new site and capture a photo – venturing to more distant destinations each week.

His goal was to “push myself further and further, to test my anxiety”, said Kam, who recorded his daily efforts on his video camera, with the aim of being able to look back at his progress, and capture some of the landscapes on film.

On the first day, Kam visited the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve – about 28 miles from home – and took a photo of the park’s towering trees.

In the beginning, “I wasn’t even that motivated to start the project”, he said, adding that he hyperventilated during the car ride to the first destination. But by the second day, as he shot a photo of someone paragliding off a cliff 35 miles from his house, his anxiety began to lessen a bit.

On the seventh day, Kam pushed himself more: He drove 40 miles from home to the Sonoma Coast. It was that day, he felt a shift.

“In a time where I was so stuck in my head, landscape photography gave me the opportunity to view my outside world in a way that I hadn’t seen it in a while,” he said, explaining that looking at the vast expanse of nature offered him perspective on his own life.

The beauty of what he was looking at – running water, blooming flowers and mountain peaks – was both stunning and humbling. The fresh air was invigorating in his lungs. The trail under his feet was grounding.

The more he drank in his surroundings, the more photos he took, and the more motivated he was to continue exploring.

Each day, the fear was a little less. He decided to push himself even further.

About halfway through the month, though, he faced a setback. He had a panic attack during one of his excursions, after he set up his camera on a tripod at the bottom of a rock, then ran to the top to pose. His heartbeat quickened, and panic set in.

It lasted for a while, and then when he was thinking about it the following day as he sat at his computer, that triggered another one.

Kam decided to regroup and ask himself if he was still committed to finishing what he started. He was.

His next excursion was just a mile from home.

“I’m a very stubborn person, and I didn’t see giving up as a possibility,” he said.

Soon enough, he was back on track, taking day trips along the coast for his project.

By the 29th day, Kam was able to travel 157 miles from home to Newman, California, and capture a photo of hilly terrain with a cellphone tower in the distance. For his final destination, he made it 508 miles from home to the Cerro Gordo Mines.

After spending more than eight hours driving, he snapped a shot of the sun setting over the Inyo Mountains.

In that moment, Kam said, he recalled feeling lighter. He realised the looming feelings of panic and unease he’d been carrying were not there. He felt peace.

“The project changed my life,” Kam said.

He wanted to share his experience to possibly help others struggling with mental health challenges, so he decided to create a documentary called The 30 Project.

In the 23-minute film, which he released on YouTube last month, Kam shares his journey – from experiencing persistent panic attacks to exploring mountain peaks with ease.

Initially, “I didn’t want to open up because the stigma is so bad”, said Kam, explaining that he worried that publicising his panic disorder might lead to judgment, and perhaps limit his career prospects.

Still, he decided that staying silent was not the solution, especially knowing that one in five adults in the country lives with a mental illness, and roughly 50 per cent of adolescents have had a psychiatric disorder.

“I realised that other people could get something out of this,” he said. “I’m hoping people can watch the movie and feel less alone.”

Professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioural science at Northwestern University Mark Reinecke said Kam’s method can be adapted to help anyone dealing with anxiety or panic disorder.

“What Chris did was exactly what he should do,” Reinecke said. “Small steps, mastering the experience each time, persisting even when he felt the anxiety twinging up, and dropping a reward on it to make him feel successful for doing it.”

“It becomes a self-perpetuating positive cycle,” he explained, adding that taking tiny steps in the right direction each day can make a meaningful and lasting impact on mental health.

Reinecke said one of the most effective ways to combat anxiety and panic disorders is through exposure therapy, which is when someone faces the source of their anxiety to reinforce that it does not cause them danger.

“That which you fear is what you should do,” Reinecke advised. “If you’re afraid of something, you need to approach it and master it.”

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