Friday, June 13, 2014

My New Hero!

First, I want you to watch this video of this remarkable young woman:




Okay. Now Anna doesn't have what we think of as "stage fright" or "just nerves." Stage fright is something most of us get, butterflies in the tummy, maybe shaky knees or hands, dry mouth--all of which are just physical symptoms of too much adrenaline shooting into our bloodstream. It's your age-old "fight or flight" response wired into all of us. With stage fright, unless you're super nervous, most people can't even tell you're nervous, but once you get into your performance or speech or whatnot, you calm down, your symptoms go away and you're off and running just fine.

This video touched me deeply (and Howie Mandel as well, as is clear, because he understands phobias, having OCD and several phobias himself) because I have social anxiety disorder. This is a little different from Anna's disorder: hers sounds like panic disorder that can get so extreme she becomes agoraphobic, and then the fear of leaving her own house depresses the crap out of her (which is totally understandable). But I want people to understand how totally debilitating an anxiety disorder really is.

Therapy can help only to a certain extent. You can be taught tips for coping with fear, but at the end of the day, you already KNOW your anxiety is all in your head and no amount of people saying "It'll be okay," "I'm here," "Buck up," "You just need more confidence," and all the usual platitudes DO NOT HELP. Not really. Support from others helps way more than just being told to get over it and that it's all in your head, but you just cannot shake the knowledge that even though it's all in your head, it is totally REAL to YOU. The kindness of others helps, but it does not cure.

I can't explain Anna's disorder precisely because I'm not Anna, so I'll explain mine in the hopes of helping you better understand. Looking back on my childhood now, I can see quite clearly that signs of it were there, but I kept them to myself, thinking secretly that I was just a big pussy. I was afraid of giving speeches in classes (easily written off as stage fright). I was afraid of parties and social things (easily written off as introversion and teenage awkwardness). I was afraid to call people on the phone (just thought I was neurotic). But as I got older, things got more serious. In college, social situations became okay because I was of legal drinking age, so I got through social situations by drinking (too bad that this coping mechanism later turned into alcoholism). I got a car. But, I was terrified to pump gas in front of other people and so would organize my life so that I could go to the gas station to pump gas when people I knew weren't around. Now, THIS I knew was abnormal. But I could not shake the fear that people would think I was doing it wrong and would make fun of me. And then a horrid thing happened, that "thing" we all fear. I was in Omicron Delta Kappa (a campus leadership fraternity) and the day came to tap others in the college into the fraternity. I picked two people I knew. I figured I'd have stage fright but I wasn't ready for the overwhelming panic attack the minute I opened my mouth in the first class. Two words came out and my voice sounded so reedy and thin to me that I just flipped. I read a paragraph and was stammering and was shaking so obviously even the professor said gently, "It's okay, it's okay." I stopped and said, "I'll start over." I don't know how I got through it. I just kind of blacked out. When I finished, I was humiliated, embarrassed, and felt like a total fraud.

The next one went better. I went into the classroom and asked if I could use the lectern, so I had that crutch to lean on and remembered to take deep breaths at the end of sentences. So though I think people could see I was uncomfortable, it probably just came off as "a little nervous."

Later on, the friend I'd tapped in the first class asked me, "What happened?!" and I'm like, "I don't know." That's the thing. You just don't know when a crazy panic will set in. And so you start fearing the panic attack itself. Will I have one? Will I not? 

After that experience, it was really tough for me. To this day, I cannot do public speaking without a lectern to hide behind if I have to stand. Sitting is better because then I don't shake. In graduate school, on days I had to give papers, sometimes I just could not bring myself to go to class. That is how debilitating the fear could get. I'd call my teacher and say I was sick. This was only temporary, though, because I'd still have to give the paper in seminar the next time. The only thing that got me through is that we were always seated.  Most of the time I gave papers and nobody could tell I was nervous. But let me be clear: it was not stage fight that was causing the fear. What was causing the fear was the unshakable conviction that one day, at some point, everyone would hate what I had to say, or that I would say something stupid, and that I would be judged harshly. If I happened to look up and see someone looking at me with a puzzled expression, that could be enough to send me off into black-out land.

At this point, I was still thinking I just had bad stage fright. But after grad school, I got a job as an editorial assistant and then was rather quickly promoted up the chain to editor, then Senior Editor, and finally the company President offered me a job as an evaluation consultant for the state of California, which would have doubled my salary--AND I TURNED IT DOWN. The only reason I turned it down was that the job involved going around to school districts and doing a lot of public speaking. That did not sound like an opportunity to me: it sounded like a nightmare.

But I didn't like working for an educational test publishing company anyway, so I quit this job and went back into college teaching. By this point, I was a full-blown alcoholic, so social situations did not bother me. Teaching made me nervous the first few days of classes but the phobia wasn't so bad there. It's because students aren't my peers. But I could always hide behind the lectern anyway. And half the time I was hungover enough that my brain was more focused on remembering what I wanted to say than it was on "what are they thinking of me?"

Then the day finally came. I'd been feeling--I don't know--"flat" as of late. I had a class in which I had two students in the back who would not shut up and a very bright girl in the front who thought she was too smart to be at community college. This kind of stuff is very typical but for some reason this one class was starting to get to me. So the day came, yes. I was walking across campus towards the building the class was in, and I got hit with a total panic attack. I'd had them before, but this one was bad. BAD.

You can't breathe. You feel like you're having a heart attack, as if two hands have grabbed your heart and are squeezing as hard as they can. Knowing I was having a panic attack, I started thinking, "Calm, calm, calm" to myself and taking deep breaths. I calmed down enough to wait for class to start, then walked into the room and told the class quickly, "I'm unwell today, so class is canceled," then walked out and got the hell off of campus as fast as I could. And I went home and cried. And cried. And cried some more.

This untreated anxiety had caught up with me. Teaching was my job, my love (next to writing) and I could NOT start being afraid to go to my own classes. So, finally, I admitted to myself this was not standard stage fright, and I sought help. It took exactly one session for the psychiatrist to diagnosis me with social anxiety disorder. It is, in a nutshell, the fear of being judged. Or not a fear. It's a PHOBIA about being judged. He told me to stop drinking (the alcohol was only making it worse at this point) and put me on medication.

And thus began my journey of trying to "fix" myself. The first medication did not work, but that's probably because I didn't quit drinking. Long story short, it took getting sober and playing around with several kinds of medication to get my anxiety under control. What works: 30mgs Cymbalta daily and .5 mg ativan and 10mgs propranolol taken 30 mins before a class or something anxiety-producing. If it's the first week of classes, I take 1mg ativan and sometimes 20mgs propranolol, but I will then come home and sleep. Every three years when I know there's going to be a classroom observation of my teaching (a PEER JUDGES ME--boom! That's the RED button!), I take the double meds the entire month, or at least until the evaluation is over, because they don't tell you what they're coming in. God, what a nightmare that is for me, LOL. Nobody knows I suffer from this except those I've talked with about it. I try to not use my disorder as an excuse to be treated differently. But I do still tend to avoid things like departmental retreats and parties because I can't stay medicated all day long. I have to be careful because ativan--a benzo like valium or xanax--is highly addictive.

But here is what I'm trying to say, because I don't want this post to be about me. I want you to appreciate what this young woman, Anna, has done. She's gone from crippling bedridden anxiety to standing on a stage and playing guitar and singing in front of thousands of people in a situation in which all eyes are on her, judging her performance. That is REMARKABLE to me. It's akin to someone who has been lame just a few months before getting up and running a marathon in record time. So I say "good for her!" She's my new hero. This young woman has her destiny under control, and I wish her all the success in the world.

Learning to laugh at yourself helps too.

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