YOUR BRAIN IS ALWAYS LISTENING TO HIDDEN DRAGONS
It's simply not an adventure worth telling if there aren't any dragons.— J. R. R. TOLKIEN
In March 2020 as I was writing this book, I got a call from superstar Miley Cyrus. I could tell from the sound of her voice that she was freaking out. I'd been working with her since she was 18, when she first came to me filled with anxiety and fear. She used to worry nonstop that she would get sick or that her mom might get sick. She worried about the awful things that might happen if she didn't have a boyfriend. She even thought she would die if she wasn't in a relationship. As we worked together, Miley learned some powerful strategies to help her control these negative thoughts. But on this day, the anxiety had come roaring back, and I knew exactly why.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, which had already killed thousands in China, was now spreading like wildfire around the globe, and it was starting to hit the US hard. On the phone, Miley rattled off so many questions about things that were terrifying her—like "How long does the virus live on packages?"—that I could hardly get a word in edgewise.
I finally managed to get Miley to take a few deep breaths with me to help her calm down. It was obvious to me that this new pandemic had unleashed Miley's dragons from the past. These long-hidden dragons were now breathing fire on the fear centers of her brain, fueling her anxiety, worry, and negative thinking patterns. I let her know that in these unprecedented times, she needed to become a dragon tamer to soothe the savage beasts within.
As we worked through the dragon taming process—the same strategies I will share with you in this book—Miley went from feeling scared and helpless to feeling empowered and in control. She couldn't wait to share what she'd learned in an Instagram Live series with her 105 million followers. She called the series Bright Minded, putting her own spin on my BRIGHT MINDS program for better brain health, which I wrote about in The End of Mental Illness. I was honored to be Miley's first guest on the show, where we talked about ways to deal with the rampant stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness, as well as the feelings of grief and loss, that were skyrocketing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From the comments her followers posted—such as "This is making me feel much better" and "Didn't know how helpful this would be. THANK YOU!"—it was clear that Miley wasn't the only one whose dragons from the past had been triggered as people were being forced to shelter at home and as the virus started crippling our economy and claiming American lives. It seemed as if everyone was feeling traumatized and mourning the loss of something—a job, a sense of security, a daily routine, a sport (playing or watching), a favorite restaurant, physical connections (no hugs!), or the death of a family member.
I had no idea at the time that COVID-19 was about to strike in my own family or that I would be suffering the devastating loss of a loved one just a few weeks later.
"She put on lipstick, wore sunglasses, packed a suitcase and, as the ambulance was arriving, she told some family members she was on her way to die." That was the opening line from an April 16, 2020, article in the Orange County Register about my parents and their experience with the deadly coronavirus. It fit my mother perfectly. In March, my mom (Dori Amen), who was 88 at the time, and my dad (Louis Amen), who was 90, both contracted pneumonia and tested positive for COVID-19. After getting the diagnosis, medical personnel wrapped my parents in yellow tarps, loaded them into separate ambulances, and whisked them away to the hospital. I thought the future was grim. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 10 to 27 percent of seniors over the age of 85 who develop the illness will die. I was afraid my parents might be among them.
My parents' doctor, also the hospital's infectious disease director, admitted in the Register article that when my parents arrived at the hospital, he was petrified. But he had not met my mom and dad. Five days later, my parents left the hospital COVID-free and went home. It appeared they had beaten the illness. Over the next few weeks, my mom recovered quickly and really wanted to get back to playing golf, but my father continued to struggle. He had been suffering from a cough for weeks prior to testing positive for COVID-19, and he had recently been in the hospital for a gastrointestinal bleed that caused him to lose one-quarter of his blood.
On May 5, 2020, as I was getting ready to pick him up for a follow-up appointment, my mom called me in a panic saying he wasn't breathing. I dialed 911 and raced over to their home. The paramedics did their best, but they couldn't get him breathing again.
My dad joined the angels that day.