This piece is the third essay I have posted which deals with panic attacks and anxiety issues, the first two being “Six Days a Week” and “The Seventh Day.” They are based directly on my own mental recovery from these same issues.
“My Friends All Tell Me That I’ve No Friends At All”
I once knew a guy who taught language arts at a public middle school, and you would have thought he was the most mentally complacent guy you ever met. “Mac” was always cordial in the staff room, courteous in the xerox room, an appreciable quality if ever there was one, and cheerful on the exterior.
On staff he was comfortable in the role of harmonizer, having once fulfilled the role of lead teacher, and found it not to his liking. Being that rare commodity, a sensitive guy, Mac’s perception that people always seemed to be yelling at him, whether it was accurate or not, left him with no desire to play the facilitator again.
He was not a paragon of the social setting. He was one of the last to slip into the multi-purpose room, on first-day-back gatherings of the whole district, sitting in the back row, to the left side. If the chairs were filled, he was pleased as punch to stand at the back, against the wall, with folks who were known to have back ailments, and who preferred to stand, or with others who may have shunned the social opportunities thrust upon staff in these situations.
Mac made conversation easily, seemingly without effort, but rarely with more than one person, and never in the center of the seating area, or even in the center of the multi-purpose room. He always had a newspaper with him, of the sporting green variety, and was well known for his affinity for the Giants.
If you didn’t know Mac really well, you would never have realized how much effort those gatherings required. Being in the same location with any more than a handful of adults, brought on a high degree of anxiety. When the district started to meet in the library at the new high school, a room he described as being the same size as a broom closet, he was unable to cross the threshold. Mac chose, instead, to hover around the door outside the room, with a few late-comers, or even others who had a hard time squeezing into a “mass” of humanity.
Another source of anxiety was the series of films, geared to educating teachers in areas such as dentistry and physical health. The dental films invariably included “shock” pictures of the results of long-term tobacco use, or inefficient or non-existent dental care. The technique of flashing from clinical setting to these grotesque, magnified images, produced huge physical discomfort for Mac, though again, if pressed, he could not put his thoughts and feelings into words. Even to his administrator, he was unintentionally vague, simply lacking the script for how such a dialogue would unfold.
Likewise, the health films inevitably presented situations featuring blood, needles and other graphic details that always made him feel queasy. It didn’t matter that he could encounter a bloody nose, or a cut finger without difficulty; it was the sudden presentation of these components in a film, that left Mac uncomfortable. He knew the images were contained within the film, just waiting for the right moment to thrust themselves into his line of vision.
Another uncomfortable facet of first-day-back activities, was the need to periodically get a TB Test, which necessitated a blood draw. One year this was actually conducted in the staff room itself, a prohibitively difficult setting for Mac. The last year he taught, he dreaded this simple procedure so much, he built himself up to a high degree of intensity, in the time leading up to fulfilling this requirement.
Walking into the new high school office, and recognizing the health technician, Mac geared himself up the the anguish that was sure to accompany this action. Noting his waxen features, she sympathetically led him into the nether regions of the office, into a secluded room, and asked if he was OK.
Her sympathy took Mac by surprise, as he had not found her to be a warm and fuzzy person in the past. He was moved, and revealed his discomfort around needles. She assured him warmly that many of her “victims” felt the same, and that she tried to accommodate this very basic right to privacy. Her simple statement moved Mac to tears, but he still could not piece it all together.
Most folks seemed so capable of handling these necessary educational requirements and the multiple conversations that took place in these settings. They greeted others across a room, and made chit-chat, all with smiles and metaphorical high fives. Mac always felt as though there were a spotlight on him, and that everyone had him dead center in his or her eyes. It didn’t matter that he himself did not fixate on others, the way he felt they examined him, but it contributed to his discomfort in crowded social situations.
If he had to do some sort of presentation, he did his stressing in advance, and made sure that he was so well prepared that when circumstances in the meeting proved challenging, he could still function without drawing attention.
Eating in a crowded situation was always very uncomfortable, especially when the whole district was dining together, and when the main entree was not included in his diet. He infinitely preferred to eat with a single colleague, a small group, or even by himself. He always made reference to a mundane task, the importance of which was nebulous, but which needed to be completed, on those occasions when he was not up to the challenge of a multi-purpose room filled with well-meaning friends and colleagues.
I don’t think anyone ever thought anything about it, because Mac always had a ready smile for others, and was forever able to make light, applicable small talk. He kept his discomfort to himself, sharing with closest friends only that he preferred not to be in the center of things, more because he could not articulate what his anxiety was related to.
Everyone saw Mac, in all capacities, interact with his middle school aged students, and everyone agreed the man knew his stuff. They say that discipline is either your biggest problem, or your least pressing issue, and no one has any trouble recognizing one from the other. Mac had no issues with discipline, refusing to send his challenging kids off to the principal’s office, figuring that that individual had far better things to do than to deal with Mac’s problems. Mac also encouraged the elementary staff to send their in-house candidates to him, and provided a similar service to substitute teachers, telling them, “You can always have your little miscreants report to my classroom at any time. They will not want to be there, and I will not have to give them five seconds’ worth of time.”
I mention this more for the recognition, or lack of same, that no one perceived Mac’s internal discomfort. He was always in command of his space and of those within his circle of responsibility. His students were not always perfectly behaved, but they were always aware of his expectations, and if they made poor choices, they knew that there would be consequences. There was a mutual respect between Mac and his students.
Little of Mac’s discomfort surfaced when dealing with the students. There was a different mental framework in place, which kept those other anxiety-producing elements in check. He still preferred to remain on the fringes of the group, but that is what was expected, anyway, so it worked out well.
He was very frank with students in later years, explaining to them that going to baseball games or movies was hard for him, and that if they paid attention, they would note that he was always in the back or the side of the multi-purpose room, and almost always roving, as opposed to sitting within their midst.
Mac made it to 54 years of age, before anxiety issues built up to the point that he was no longer able to function on staff at the middle school, and he took an early retirement, subsisting on almost a full year’s sick leave, before becoming officially retired.
At times unsolved logistical issues within the classroom setup, caused inordinate emotional reactions. Mac once broke down on the day before he began his last year of teaching, lying prone on his back on one of the classroom tables, crying bitterly over an unmoved curtain, that threatened to infringe on the carefully laid plans commencing the following day. If the guy was incapable of facing a minor dilemma, that was not even his own problem, so much as the district maintenance staff, how was he going to handle the thirty-seven eighth graders, who comprised two periods of his final reading/language arts classroom?
I ran into Mac the other day, fully five years after his early retirement, and It took me all of two minutes to determine that there was a different guy talking to me, than had existed back at the middle school.
“Hey there, Mac. How you doing?”
“Are you kidding? I’m doing great; I hope you are too.”
“I am, thanks. What have you been up to?”
“Working like a fool at a young man’s occupation, trying to keep up with the kids. I’m working on a construction crew, building a house. I figure it’s been about twenty-two years since I have filled that role, but I want to go to Ireland, so I’m saving up some loot.”
“Wait a second. The last time I checked, one usually goes to Ireland in a plane; I thought you didn’t do planes. Something about the military, and all that flying back and forth to Korea.”
“Past tense. I didn’t do planes, but that was then, and this is not. The new me is not scared. I don’t much care for airplanes, but I want to see Ireland, so I don’t pay too much attention to the details.”
“You don’t? Tell me, how do you stand in the back of the plane, right next to the “exit” sign? You know, for easy access to the door? How does that work in a plane? That used to be your practice, if I remember correctly.”
“Too true, but no more. I got some therapy whipped on me last fall, a total of seven, fifty-minute sessions, and I heard that fat lady singing, telling me that it was all over, and I was back to normal, whatever that is. I was a little rusty, having begun my perilous journey at age ten.”
“What kind of therapy? It must have been good, to get you back up in a plane.”
“It was the best, and Dr. Jill knew what she was doing. She told me the first day that she could solve my problem, cure me, in effect, if I were willing to do the work. I assured her that I had been ready all of my adult life.”
“Can you give me an idea of what it was about, if that’s not getting too personal?”
“Personal, boy. Hell yes, it’s personal-doesn’t get any more personal. But, since we’re both persons, that should work out fine. I used to get these panic attacks, that made me get all sweaty, dizzy and eventually would make me faint, if I didn’t get the heck out of Dodge.”
“So why did it take you so long to deal with it?”
“Because I didn’t know that there was anything that could be done. I couldn’t put it all into words, probably because it started when I was ten, and I couldn’t articulate it at the time, or only to my mom. Whereas she could give me hugs and comfort, she couldn’t either fix it or direct me to someone who could.”
“So how did it happen? How did you end up in therapy?”
“You ever hear John Prine’s song, ‘Dear Abby?’ The first verse goes like this,
‘Dear Abby, Dear Abby, my feet are too long
My hair’s falling out, and my rights are all wrong
My friends all tell me that I’ve no friends at all
Won’t you write me a letter, won’t you give me a call?’
People write in about all sorts of weird stuff, and no one pays any attention...until something pops up that seriously rattles your chain.
Bottom line is that I had a million problems, but I could not put them into words, until the words were provided for me by a letter-writer with the same problem.”
“So I read about the symptoms in this advice column, someone who described the same dizziness, heart palpitations and sense of light-headedness. Abby told the letter-writer that the condition was known as panic attack syndrome, and that it was curable by seeing a competent therapist.”
“And that was that?”
“I wish. No, I had to find a therapist first who could get me the help, and that isn’t necessarily easy up here in Northern Mendocino County. Ultimately, I ended up working with a person in Ukiah first, before I found Dr. Jill. This person told me on the first visit that she could not fix my problem, but that she could help me with anxiety issues in general.”
Feeling as though I had no choice, I started to see her, and I had immediate results. I stopped at the local dentist’s office on the way back from Ukiah, after that first visit, and scheduled an appointment, something that I had been incapable of doing for longer than I cared to think about. And though I did gain some measure of help from the hypno-therapy, it did not address the key issue of my fear of panic attacks.”
I asked Mac, “They were that bad, huh? The panic attacks?”
“It’s not that they were all that bad, though fainting is never an enjoyable prospect; it was the anxiety I built up, worrying that I would suffer one.”
“What triggered them”
“Anything unexpected. Anything that caught me by surprise, and activated an internal gong. Scary movies, or programs like “The Twilight Zone” which always have some kind of unexpected ending were always good for a panic attack.”
“Why didn’t you just avoid them?”
“Believe me, I did. I did. But that’s not always easy, and it can be downright impossible, because there are lots of unexpected aspects to our culture. Anyway, any setting that involved a public gathering produced the anxiety, and any unexpected development made me susceptible to an attack.”
“So seeing this Dr. Jill helped you get rid of the panic attacks, and now you can go to Ireland. Nice. So your advice to people with anxiety issues, is to seek out a competent therapist.”
“Well, yeah, it is, but it’s not that easy, because the type of personality we are talking about, avoids new encounters of any kind, preferring instead to stick to routine. You might even describe it as compulsive behavior, but it’s not always that obvious. Some people prefer to be by themselves, and there are no anxiety issues, but others systematically arm themselves with strategies to avoid those uncomfortable settings, thereby possibly attracting notice of close acquaintances.”
“And you think one of those close associates might recognize that type of personality? Maybe urge that person to seek help?”
Mac’s response was automatic. “Well, that’s ideal, sure, but it is such a sensitive subject. People perceive mental or emotional deficiency as weakness, and are hesitant to suggest such a condition exists, for fear of offending someone. People just don’t know that much about it.”
“Yeah, you said yourself that you did not have a name for your problem, and could not describe it,” I reminded Mac.
“Well, things that have anything to do with mental or emotional issues, are so volatile. You have to walk a fine line, maybe give a person something to read on the subject, under the guise of it simply being an interesting topic, or a little-discussed subject. There’s nothing strange or accusatory in that. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I do think it is a good idea to broach the subject, especially if there are more than one indicators that anxiety issues are potentially present.”
“And those indicators include a tendency to avoid groups, or enclosed places, or to remain accessible to the exit. This person does not hit the xerox machine at peak use; that would be very intimidating, to be in that tiny room, with staff drifting in and out, seeking resources from the book room, or making polite conversation with a colleague. It includes an avoidance of the spotlight and of anything likely to lead to unexpected developments. Got it.”
Mac stood there for a minute, silently reflecting on those years of muddled emotional and mental uneasiness, mixed with the iffy social encounters before sighing deeply and saying, “I don’t know what good it does to talk or write about it; I only know that I stumbled upon someone’s account, and it profoundly changed my life. If I thought there was a chance that the same thing could happen again, it would all be easily worth it. And that’s that’s the name of that tune, Ollie.”