I don’t remember how old I was when I had an anxiety attack for the first time. Looking back, knowing what I know now, it was probably around age 10 or 11. It’s hard to say, though, because back in those days, nobody used the terms anxiety attack or panic attack–at least not anyone I knew. Back then, the closest thing I’d ever heard of resembling an anxiety attack is what people called “nervous breakdowns,” and they were only spoken of in hushed tones when kids were out of the room. Back then, only women of a certain age had nervous breakdowns; and it was only after their husbands had cheated on them. After having nervous breakdowns, women started taking Valium and keeping to themselves more. Men didn’t have nervous breakdowns. Men had “midlife crises.” They didn’t take Valium and keep to themselves. They bought Corvettes and had affairs with younger women. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s why so many women took Valium. I’m not being sexist–that’s just the way things were back then.
But, I digress…
I suppose that if those days had been these days, someone might have noticed that I was an extremely nervous little kid. But, those days weren’t these days, so nobody thought much about the fact that when I was 5, 6, and 7 years old I twisted my hair in knots so tight that my mom had to cut them out with scissors. I was just a goofy kid with a weird habit. Nobody thought much about the fact that, often, when it was time to go to school, or go to church, or go to my dad’s house for the weekend, I would get sick to my stomach and vomit several times. I was just a kid with a “nervous stomach.” Nobody thought much about it the morning that I was supposed to participate in Field Day in first grade and I woke up covered in hives–they were so bad that I cried until my mom let me wear jeans instead of shorts because I was embarrassed. I was just allergic to something–maybe a new soap, or freshly cut grass. Nobody thought much about it because kids didn’t have “nervous breakdowns” or “midlife crises,” and nobody knew anything about anxiety and panic attacks–at least not anyone I knew.
In truth, I think my mom probably did think more about it than just that. I think she knew that something wasn’t right, because otherwise ordinary little boys don’t twist their hair in knots while they’re sitting on the couch watching TV. Otherwise ordinary little boys don’t get sick and throw up every time they have to go somewhere. Otherwise ordinary little boys don’t get hives all over their bodies for no apparent reason. But, what would she have done? What could she have done? Whom would she have talked to about it? She was a single mom with few resources and an ex-husband who was all-too-willing to point the finger of blame every time anything went wrong. Besides, I wasn’t really hurting myself, and I certainly wasn’t hurting anyone else, so we treated the symptoms and hoped that someday I’d grow out of it.
But, I never did grow out of it; I only grew into new symptoms. As I said, I think I was probably 10 or 11 when I started having what I would later come to learn were (and still are) panic attacks. Back then they were infrequent–not something that I dealt with daily, weekly, or even monthly. In fact, for the most part, they didn’t intrude in my life at all. I went on field trips, band trips, family vacations; when I started driving I drove myself 30 miles away to take private trumpet lessons, and later 30 miles in the other direction to play in the Tyler Youth Orchestra. I still had problems with my “nervous stomach” and would, quite often, get sick before I went places and did things. I took enough doses of Donnagel, Pepto Bismol, and Maalox that I wish my family had purchased stock in the companies. It wasn’t until I was a freshman in college that things really started going downhill.
I was a big shot musician in high school. I played trumpet, and I wasn’t half bad. I won a lot of awards and I was selected to a lot of honor bands. I had more than one scholarship offer, and the Marine Corps was even after me to come play for them. To put it quite bluntly: I thought I was the shit. In August of 1990, however, at my very first day of band practice with the East Texas State University Marching Band, I quickly learned how easy it is to be a very big fish in a very small pond. My high school graduating class had less than 60 members, and I was sitting next to trumpet players from some of the biggest 5A schools in Texas, who had graduated with 1,000 or more students. I had two years of private lessons. Some of them had been studying privately since they first picked up their horns. I was used to being seated first chair–the lowest I’d ever sat was second, and always played the 1st Trumpet part. At ETSU, I was seated 11th and was playing 3rd Trumpet in all of our music. I was a Music Education major and my dream was to become a band director. I had never been unsuccessful at anything involving music, but I failed my very first assignment in Music Theory I–and I failed it miserably. I began doubting myself and my abilities. I questioned everything I’d ever thought about myself. And, I panicked.
The first of what I refer to as my “modern era” panic attacks–the ones with symptoms I now recognize–happened on the ETSU Marching Band practice field one afternoon. We were running through our opening drill, set to Sir William Walton’s “Crown Imperial March,” one of my all-time favorite marches. The practice “field” was a concrete slab with yard lines and hash marks painted on it. Under the full glare of an August Texas sun, it was blistering hot; and the drill was FAST! In college band drills, there is very little marking time–you hit a set and immediately begin moving to the next one. I had to march forward, backward, from side-to-side; I had to do 180’s in mid-step and head the opposite direction. Our drills sometimes required moving 15 or 20 yards in only a few short counts. In short, it was a workout; especially while holding and playing music on a polished horn that reflected that sunlight right back in my face. The director stopped us to make an adjustment to one of the sets. While I stood there waiting on the drum major to call us back to attention, I got very dizzy. Everything around me was spinning. My ears started ringing and I felt like I was going to pass out. I collapsed to the ground and was helped off the field by a couple of my band mates. I sat out the rest of practice and the symptoms didn’t last long, but the incident scared the hell out of me. There’s no doubt that I just got overheated and needed to rest and re-hydrate, but the next day it happened again, this time before we ever finished our warm-up. On the third day when it happened as we were walking from the band hall to the practice field, our band director, Mr. Bennett called me to his office after practice. He was worried and wanted me to see a doctor. I was worried, too, but I never took his advice. Not only that, I never went back to band practice. After not showing up to five straight practices, Mr. Bennett told me that my scholarship was in danger if I didn’t either get a doctor’s note or come back to practice. I told him I understood, and that afternoon I went back to my dorm room, packed all of my belongings in the trunk of my car, and drove home. That was early September of 1990–I never spoke to Mr. Bennett again and have not been back to the school since.
One of the things about Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic attacks, which I was officially diagnosed with in 2002, that is hardest to understand is that the debilitating attacks are not constant. In fact, over the last 27 years since that day in 1990, there have been periods of time–years at a time–when I was in what might be considered a “remission” of sorts. I’ve had jobs that required long drives to and from work. I’ve gone out with friends. I’ve gone on trips and haven’t experienced any problems. Then, suddenly and most of the time without warning, they come back and I find myself unable to do the things I want to do. Jobs suffer. Relationships suffer. Family and friends suffer under the unrelenting uncertainty that comes with the malignant periods. If there were some way I could see them coming–some warning sign or symptom which might alert me to the cliff I was about to go flying over–maybe I could do something to avoid it. But, one of the most insidious things about this disorder is that those signs and symptoms simply don’t exist.
Looking back over the last 27 years, there have been four major periods when my anxiety attacks were manifest in such a way that my life was dramatically altered because of them. The most recent and current bout began last spring and continues to this day. This time it robbed me of a teaching career which was only two years old, and has sidelined me, allowing me only to work from home doing technical support for a major cable internet provider. It’s unbearably painful to look on the wall behind my desk and see a framed diploma from Texas Tech University, and to know that, any day now, I will receive my master’s diploma from the University of Texas at Tyler. It’s unbearably painful to look at my resume and see the 3.8 and 3.9 GPA’s listed; and to see my two teacher certifications listed; and to see my students’ terrific test scores listed as part of my accomplishments as a teacher. It’s unbearably painful to know that last year I went home from school sick on the Thursday before Spring Break and never came back, leaving my students confused and worried. It’s unbearably painful to look back at the many valuable friendships which have simply withered on the vine because this disorder makes me unreliable in those relationships. But, the most unbearable pain is knowing that my own family cannot count on me to always be present and available for important events. Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic attacks are, simply put, unbearable pain.
My purpose in writing these posts is not to garner sympathy, or to gain more readers, or to earn praise for my “transparency.” My purpose in writing these posts is three-fold. First, it is an effort to give voice to people who are voiceless. Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic attacks are too embarrassing for many, if not most, people who suffer from them to speak about. We tend to hide ourselves away, avoid contact, and make excuses for our absence and inability to interact. I want to give those people words that maybe they can’t say, or that they’re afraid to say. Second, it is an effort to bring understanding to people who don’t suffer from GAD/panic attacks about just how confusing and scary and debilitating this disorder really is. And, finally, I want to join my voice to the chorus of other voices who are demanding that resources be directed to the study and treatment of, not only GAD/panic attacks, but toward mental health in general.
This series will be at least four parts–maybe more. I want to encourage you to become a part of this discussion. Please comment, and please…if you’ve never shared anything I’ve posted before…please share these posts!! You might know someone who suffers from GAD/panic attacks, or there might be someone in your life who suffers silently. Please share these posts with and for them. I can’t tell you how passionate I am about this issue, and I want to help whomever I can, however I can.
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 2: The Things You Need to Know about GAD/Panic Attacks
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 3: The Things People Say That I wish People Didn’t Say
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 4: Let’s Get Serious About This