Be Not Afraid

Be Not Afraid

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress


Be Not

My youngest daughter and I scan the shelves of the local video store. She hands me the DVD Just Like Heaven that she wants to rent. I reach for the movie, but my arm doesn’t feel like it’s attached to my body. The floor slants under my feet. The fluorescent lights glare too brightly. My heart pounds. I glance at the other patrons. They move in slow motion. Their voices sound muffled, as though I’m hearing them through earmuffs.

I breathe deeply — in and out and in and out. I grab for my daughter’s hand and give it a tight squeeze.

“A panic attack?” she whispers to me.

I nod. After nearly forty years of anxiety disorder, I know that the attack will be over soon. In a few minutes, I feel the blood rush back to my face, signaling the end of the attack. I smile at my daughter, and we walk to the checkout counter with Reese Witherspoon in hand.

I suffered my first panic attack while sitting in my eighth grade English class. I had no idea what was happening to me. The teacher was explaining subordinate clauses for the eighteenth time. Suddenly, his voice sounded far away, as if he were speaking through a cardboard tube. I touched my cheeks; they were numb. My throat tightened, and I couldn’t swallow. My stomach ached.

I had to leave. I raised my hand. “I need to go to the nurse,” I said. I didn’t recognize the voice as my own. I raced from the classroom, convinced that I was either dying or going insane.

Day after day, I experienced these episodes in school, raced to the nurse’s office, and had to be sent home. I felt safe at home, under my ballerina print quilt. I became so afraid that I refused to go to school. At first, my parents tried to reason with me. Finally, my father yelled and my mother cried, but I was too paralyzed by fear to obey.

My parents took me to a doctor who ordered a full complement of tests. I had an EKG and a neurological exam. Many vials of blood were drawn and GI X-rays were taken. The results of the tests were normal. I was physically healthy. The doctor suggested I see a psychologist. Was I losing my mind, after all?

The psychologist was a middle-aged man, who told corny jokes and made me laugh. I was at ease in his office right away and was comfortable describing my episodes to him.

“I believe you are having panic attacks. Many people experience them,” he told me. “Think about an animal that is being attacked: Its body prepares to fight or run. Your body is reacting as if there’s an attacker, but the threat doesn’t really exist.”

I was so relieved to have a name for what was happening to me and to realize that I was not alone.

My psychologist taught me deep breathing and muscle relaxation techniques to cope with the panic attacks. He had me visualize a place I felt safe in order to calm me. Sometimes, I imagined lying on the warm sands of the Jersey shore; other times, I dreamed of snuggling beneath my pastel Degas comforter.

Bit by bit, he re-introduced me to school. At first, we visited the empty classroom after hours. I sat at my desk, took full breaths, and thought about the beach and sea.

“Many people with panic disorder feel the need to escape wherever they are,” my psychologist said. “Once they know they can leave, they feel more relaxed.” For this reason, he convinced my teachers to allow me to exit the classroom whenever I needed.

I returned to school gradually — just mornings initially and then for full days. When the panic attacks occurred, I tried to remain in my chair and use my coping methods. Sometimes, I had to leave the room and walk the halls until the panic subsided. Each day I stayed at school was a victory, and my confidence increased. Soon, I was a regular kid again, complaining about science projects and gossiping about guys with my friends.

I have continued to use the tools my psychologist taught me decades ago. They have helped me through college and graduate school, moves across the country, and the raising of five children. However, I still have times when my anxiety causes pain.

Last spring, my second oldest daughter completed a graduate program at a college a thousand miles away. I struggled with boarding an airplane, but, in the end, I couldn’t face flying at 35,000 feet without any means of escape. I missed watching proudly as she accepted her diploma; she missed having her mother cheer loudly for her from the stands.

But each day, I strive to handle my anxiety better. I know that my life is richer when I face my fears and overcome them. Recently, a fifth grade teacher asked me to speak to her class about my nonfiction books. I felt anxiety grip me as I thought about spending time in a grammar school classroom once again. I nearly said, “No,” but instead I jumped in.

Toward the end of my presentation, I did have a panic attack. I fought to keep my feet rooted to the floor and concentrate on the students’ questions.

“Do police dogs eat pork chops?” one child asked. I laughed, breathed deeply, and continued.

~ Marie-Therese Miller ~

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