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Kimberlee Gerstheimer

‘When are you going to erase the line in the sand?’

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Kimberlee Gerstheimer was once paralyzed by panic attacks. Dance and determination set her free

By the time she turned 13, Kimberlee Gerstheimer’s life was narrowly circumscribed by an ever-growing list of things she could not do: No riding elevators, trains or airplanes. No going to the mall, to the movies, to a crowded venue. No sleeping over at a friend’s house or taking family vacations that required more than a car ride. Sometimes, even just trying to walk from her front door to the mailbox wasn’t manageable.

“Beginning around middle school, I started to experience debilitating anxiety and panic attacks,” says Gerstheimer, now 38, a wife, mother of two sons and a university dance teacher and lecturer. “And that played an instrumental role in who I was and the chances and choices I had going forward. Things I might have done, I was not able to do because of that.”

Gerstheimer, the eldest (by three years) of two girls growing up in a Long Island, New York family, had always been a painfully shy child. But there was also “definitely a genetic component” that predisposed her to the crippling anxiety. By the time she entered high school, her fears and phobias had escalated to the point where they interfered with nearly every aspect of her life and her relationships, fueling a continual escalation.

“My heart would race, I would get sweaty, the room would start to spin and it freaked me out beyond belief,” she recalls. “And it just perpetuates. Once you exercise the idea of being afraid of something and once you’ve had a serious panic attack, especially as a teen, you’re literally petrified of it happening again. So because I was afraid of it, it kept happening again and again.”

Gerstheimer’s sister was unusually sympathetic, even limiting her own lifestyle choices in order to accommodate her sister’s limitations. Her mother, too, was endlessly supportive, making sure she had access to therapists and counselors and trying to preserve the few friendships her daughter was able to maintain by helping others understand the source of her behaviors. But at that age, Gerstheimer had “zero interest” in talking with a counselor, and no coping skills of her own. In fact, the only thing that seemed to offer any relief was the time she spent in dance class.

“I always found comfort and home in movement and dance,” she says. “That was something that was always very real for me. Typically in dance class I felt great and didn’t have a lot of problems, which was sort of amazing to me.”

By her junior year of high school, sitting in a classroom became nearly impossible; within minutes the entire room would close in on her and she would retreat to the nurse’s office. Fortunately, she was able to attend a performing arts high school that allowed her to be in a dance studio rather than a physical classroom for about half the day. Nevertheless her fears and restrictions continued to be “a huge problem in my day to day life.”

Gerstheimer had known for a long time that she wanted to pursue a career involving dance and was aware that there were colleges across the country that offered remarkable opportunities in that field. Instead, after high school graduation she ended up continuing to live at home while attending nearby Hofstra University.

“To be honest, there were other school and experiences I would have loved to have had as a college student,” she admits. “Now, at 38, do I care? No. But at the time, I longed to have the chance to do the things I felt I couldn’t do.”

After earning her undergraduate degree, the next logical step, considering her ambitions to teach at the university level, was to pursue a masters degree in dance. But the only school options were in New York City and Gerstheimer had convinced herself she simply couldn’t handle moving away from home and living in the city.

Instead, because she had always appreciated her connections with the teenage students she’d been teaching since high school, she stayed on Long Island and completed a masters degree in social work, thinking it was something that would benefit her interactions with students at any level. She also became certified to teach Pilates and began, for the first time, working with adult students.

At that point, Gerstheimer had completely acquiesced to her self-imposed limitations. Instead of travelling, she became an armchair tourist, immersing herself in books about faraway and exotic countries and people. If she did venture out to a theater or public venue, she sat on the aisle, honoring her desire for a ready escape route. She learned a few coping skills and made “minimal” progress toward conquering (or gracefully avoiding) some minor fears. And she convinced herself that was enough.

“I was living my life in a such a way that I was making myself believe I didn’t want to do the things I really wanted to do,” she says. “I told myself I wouldn’t want to go to those places, I just wanted to read about them.”

Then she met and fell in love with Dave, the man she would eventually marry. Dave enjoyed travelling and wanted to be able to share his curiosity, his adventures, his fuller and more active life with her. And Gerstheimer began to realize “there was a world out there that I wasn’t really giving myself an opportunity to be part of.”

“My husband once said, ‘You have drawn a line in front of you and you’ve decided all the things on this side of the line are things you will do and all the things on the other side of the line are things you will not do and you’ve made the line so strong you will not step over it,’” she remembers. “Then he looked at me and said, ‘When are you going to erase the line?’ And it was like…mic drop. How do I erase the line?”

Confronting that question was both liberating and utterly intimidating.

“All of a sudden, it occurred to me that I didn’t want to live just in my little box of what I deemed to be safe,” she says. “And that was a real turning point for me. But it was also petrifying, because after you’ve been living as I had for so long, it felt unattainable.”

Gerstheimer knew that if she told Dave she was committed to conquering her fears, he would be supportive but would also hold her accountable to her resolution. One of the first things she shared with him was her phobia of elevators, confessing that she’d once walked up 13 flights in order to visit a friend living in a high rise dormitory. So, for one of their first Friday night dates, they went to a local hotel, rode the elevator up and down together for an hour and then went out to dinner. She was surprised not just to have survived, but to have experienced a sense of triumph that goaded her toward the next hurdle.

Next up: flying. With sweaty plans, a racing heart and a queasy nausea, she booked them a 42-minute flight from New York to Boston. And boarded the plane.

“A plane, to me, was like the ultimate thing that was not going to happen,” she admits. “And it was hard. I shook the entire ride and I must have grabbed his hand about 150 times in five minutes. But we got there. And after that it was baby steps, longer flights. When we got married we flew to Hawaii, a 10 ½ hour flight. And I was fine the whole time. But it was a journey getting to that point.”

Medical procedures had always been a soured of extreme anxiety for Gerstheimer, so she’d long ago decided she would never have children. Her love for Dave, combined with her newfound strength and confidence, made her realize she now wanted them. But she also knew she would adamantly refuse to take any medication while she was pregnant. (She had recently come off an anti-anxiety medication she had taken in her 20s and it had been an extremely stressful transition.)

“Oddly enough, I ended up being a very calm pregnant woman,” she says. “Something worked for me in my body during that process and I felt really good about it.”

It has now been more than a decade since Gerstheimer has experienced a full blown panic attack. She says she no longer considers herself as having an anxiety disorder and that if she were to experience one “I would know exactly what to do do…which I think is why I don’t get them anymore.”

One of the last hurdles came when she and her husband were on a trip to Yosemite National Park, hiking the “Mist Trail,” a scenic, mountainous route alongside a plunging waterfall. Halfway up the steep trail, she turned to Dave and said “I’m good, we’re done, we don’t have to go any further.” But Dave, an avid hiker said, “No way. We have to go to the end of the trail.”

“For the first time in my life I looked back and said, ‘That’s the way I would have gone, but this time, I’m going to erase the line,’” she recalls. “And I was so afraid, but we got to the top and it was more stunning and beautiful than I could have imagined. That was the last time I contemplated going backward. It’s a matter of making a mental decision. But there’s hard work that comes after that decision and you need support.”

Two and a half years ago, Gerstheimer and her family moved to New Jersey so she could, at long last, pursue her MFA in dance at Rutgers University. She now calls on her background and experience in dance, social work and somatics (which she defines as the connection between mind and body) to inform both her teaching and her choreography.

“Connecting students to being present in their body and connecting to their breath has been a really strong theme for me,” she says. “I can meet them where they’re at, rather than coming at them with ‘these are the things you need to learn.’ I want them to have an experience in class that allows them to connect back to how the mind body connection can help us feel empowered in our bodies rather than lessened or hindered by them.”

One of the things anxiety creates that is particularly scary she says, is a feeling of not being comfortable in your own skin and spinning out of control. When you can direct that energy toward something other than opposing what’s happening to you “you can turn it around,” she says. Giving people movement to use instead can be empowering, allowing them an opportunity to feel control over something that seems uncontrollable to them.

“Something I gained from my whole experience is that I learned somewhere along the line I could be well stronger than I ever anticipated,” Gerstheimer concludes. “And that idea of strength is something I’ve held on to now for many years. If anybody is struggling with anxiety and panic attack, I would just say, there’s hope to find in yourself a different way. If I can be as crippled by anxiety as I was and as free from it as I am now, there is nothing you can’t conquer.”