Stepping Stones

As I mentioned in our last episode, I was recently visited by a screeching demon of a panic attack, followed by days of anxious malaise– all less charming than Woody Allen movies might suggest.

One particularly nasty problem with a panic attack is that you feel isolated.  Of course, you are isolated, to an extent. It’s not like you can point to your hair on fire or your dangling limb or the gunman aiming at you and have someone say, Whoa, I get it, how scary! Which sucks because you truly, deeply, emotionally and physically feel like something that terrible is happening.

In between doses of kindness from friends (all much appreciated, friends), because I was out of town, I also met many strangers who kept me from going completely nuts.  Here are some of those people, with thanks for Thanksgiving.

1. Lady next to me on the plane.  I waited frantically for her to put her book down, and once she did, I cultivated our conversation like a prize orchid.  We talked about Orlando, Las Vegas, Asheville, and her work as a nurse.  “Well, when you work in a hospital, people dying is just part of the job,” she said cheerily.  What was there then to fear?  She and her husband played blackjack and craps in Vegas.  I could think of nothing less appealing than adding more risk to my life.  But, hey, whatever makes you happy.

2. The guy who drove my bags and me to my hotel room on the grounds of the huge resort.  He told me about his recent dental surgery, having half his teeth pulled and replaced with implants.  He apologized for sounding funny.  He was wearing a retainer.  He was worried about not being able to eat solid food at Thanksgiving, or at his 15-year-anniversary-of-employment dinner.  I felt a little less sorry for myself.  Just a measly single root canal can kick my ass.

3. My groupmates at the afternoon session of my conference, who encouraged me to play “the gay kid” in our skit about homophobia in the classroom.  This was because I was the only straight person in the group.  Pretty cute, I know.   I couldn’t concentrate on my own freaking out when I was the star!  I was representing all gay kids!  Strange but true.

4. My cab driver on the way to dinner.  We had a great talk about the cost of goat meat (he was from Pakistan), the horrors of Chicago weather, the astounding cost of plane tickets overseas, and how Americans would benefit from seeing other countries.  He told me he thought change was good, and he had no desire to ever return to Pakistan.  I needed that positive, forward thinking.

5. On the way to the airport, I sat next to a teacher from Detroit.  Teachers all size each other up by grade level and subject and suburban/rural/urban.  “Do you teach in the suburbs?” she asked me.  “No, I’m in the inner city.”  We were now good friends.  Inner city teachers are like a gang.  Just that tight, just that loyal.  We swapped stories, talked about why our schools worked.  Hers is going to have a ton of students added from other schools, and she was justifiably anxious about if they could maintain a high quality program.

Thanks again, you all did me good, although you probably didn’t know it.


Having a panic attack at Disney World is the lamest thing a brain could possibly do.  And I’m speaking as a person with a disturbingly overactive, relentlessly arrogant brain.  It’s helped me accomplish a lot of work faster than others expected me to– I have a quick brain, that absorbs and sorts well.  With the extra time, I’ve mostly surfed the internet.  Or read books.  But full disclosure: I’ve also watched television.  We’ve had a lot of good times together, but today was not our best day.

I had my first panic experience a couple of months ago in the emergency room.  I was hooked up to an IV for my migraine, which would normally have made me real, real happy, but for some reason, instead of falling into the soft embrace of medical science (as I have in the past), I started shaking and freaking the fuck out.  I told my poor companion on this errand that I was worried about when she would die.  She asked the nurse to give me more drugs.

Since then, I’ve freaked out watching television, teaching my class, traveling on an airplane, and sitting in a restaurant.  Having this logical brain, I was eager to pull this apart, just as I would a novel or a movie or (sadly, but honestly) a commercial. I focus, analyze, and fix, all by my amazing self.  I pull it apart, consider the construction and relationships between its component parts, and fix the faulty part.  I have a passion for fixing myself.  Just another class to get an “A” in!

I might as well try to dissect a jellyfish.  The thing can’t stand up to my knives.  I freak out in familiar places and strange ones.  Small places and wide open ones.  In the morning and at night.  When I feel worried, and when I feel fine.

At my conference sessions today, in between repeating “thoughts always pass” and assuring myself the walls were not actually closing in, I discussed internet privacy with some colleagues.  How could you put things out there, knowing that people might judge you, or you might feel bad about what you had said, 10 years down the road?  I could hardly discuss this without getting spiritual.  To me, the real question was, why are you so intent on projecting yourself as  particular, consistent personality, and why are you so intent on making the right impression on people who, if they judge you harshly, are assholes?

My lessons come from spiritual truths, not analysis: you are not your mind or emotions.  Learn sympathy for people with problems that cause them shame.  Emotional problems are not a moral issue.  I know this, but I prefer to think people who are anxious are weak and need to buck up.  The subtle distinction between “fixing” and “learning” is the trickiest… and there are probably others, better learned from what naturally echoes with truth than what falls out when I try to cut.