You can’t see it on my face, but I am terrified in this photo. I won’t bore you with the details of just why the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development is so special (and therefore intimidating) to me, but suffice it to say: being on this stage was a milestone in my life.
The other reason I’m terrified: I decided to be about as vulnerable as I’ve ever been with a group of people. Within this speech, “The Limitation is the Lesson: Using Adversity to Our Advantage,” I decided to speak about my anxiety. (The ASCD synopsis is here).
The most personal part was at the end where I basically paraphrased the information from this – a piece I’ve never published, but decided to share now because well, if I can tell a gigantic room full of people, why can’t I share it with you?
“What’d you learn at school today, Grace?”
“I learned that the antibacterial soap we use doesn’t work anymore and we’re making superbugs that will kill us all.”
This is a scene from the first season of Nurse Jackie illustrating the growing anxiety of Jackie’s 10-year-old daughter, Grace. Grace becomes fixated on the kind of “imminent doom” programming popular on cable channels and finds that she can’t look away from shows like Viral Armageddon and Could the Superflu Return? She begins having panic attacks at school and later, the school counselor tells her parents that he believes Grace has generalized anxiety disorder.
I sympathize with that little girl, even though she’s fiction, because I was that little girl.
And if my life were on DVD, like my copies of Nurse Jackie, it would be possible to cue up one of the early chapters in Season Two of my life, right around the time my parents were getting a divorce. There would be a scene in the Family Medicine Clinic where Dr. Ingham, drawing on his pipe like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, is asking the fourth-grade me why I wanted to see him.
“Because I feel like I’m going to die. I feel my heart a lot to see if it’s still beating. And I worry that my parents will die, or my sisters and brother, or my Meemaw will die. Or that the world will end because God is mad.”
Decades later, I can remember the smell of that pipe. The soothing applejack tobacco that ringed a halo above his balding head. His voice, deep, sonorous as a Sunday preacher, answered, “Oh Shanna, I don’t think you’ll die for a long time and I’m pretty sure none of your family will die for a long time either. I’m your doctor and you’re pretty healthy, so I’m not worried.”
I remember exhaling loudly, completely relieved to hear this.
“Send your mom in here for a minute, and then wait for her in the waiting room,” he said.
What he told my mother is that he was worried about my constant stomach aches (later revealed to be caused by an ulcer), and prescribed the same chalky liquid given to nervous petroleum executives in my hometown. He also told my mother it’d be okay to occasionally give me a quarter of one of her yellow five-milligram Valium if I became particularly agitated.
Move forward on this imaginary DVD to my 15th year for the next permutation of my anxiety.
“Mrs. Skinner said that Jesus is going to come back in a thunderstorm,” I told my grandmother after Sunday School. “So every time there’s a thunderstorm we should be excited because it could be Jesus coming back.”
Which is exactly how you create panic disorder in a teenager who’s been steeped in Southern Baptist End Times scenarios her whole life. And who lived smack in the middle of the Texas Panhandle’s “Tornado Alley,” guaranteeing at least a dozen operatic thunderstorms each spring.
“Oh, it doesn’t say that anywhere in the Bible,” my Meemaw said, a dismissive wave of her hand finalizing her thoughts. “The Rapture will happen at any minute and you won’t have any warning at all. Don’t worry about storms.”
Thunderstorms already made me uneasy and now the idea that they were possible harbingers of The Rapture rendered them terrifying. The very next storm caused me to cower in the covers, a pillow over my head, panicked prayers streaming in a rush. My grandmother found me like that and gave me one of her muscle relaxants.
But it didn’t work. I still felt like my heart would burst through my chest like the monster in Alien. Seeing this distress, my mother tapped a yellow pill with what looked like an arrowhead carved out of the middle of it. A Valium. And the arrowhead shot into the middle of the alien in my chest, quieting it.
Fast-forward to the school prom.
“I’m nervous about going,” I confide to my grandmother.
“Here,” she says, opening her personal medicine cabinet. She ceremoniously cranks the top of the child-proof cap off, delicately retrieving a pale blue pill with an arrowhead carved out of the middle of it.
“It’s a ten, break in half and you’ll have two doses, if you need them.”
I was 17, a full set of braces freshly removed, and a bad crown of permed hair weighing down my tiny self-image. My date: a pen pal from New York. I’d found his address in a Star Trek fan magazine. (No really). We’d never actually met until I picked him up at the airport earlier that day.
Of course I needed both halves of that blue pill.
Go forward a bit more to my wedding.
The guy I’m about to marry is a mistake. I know it. My family knows it. Even the doctor I work for knows it. And somewhere down inside his hollow heart, my fiancé knows this is a mistake too.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” Meemaw says, zipping up the back of the wedding dress she spent three months making.
“But all those people. I can’t do it. I have to do it,” I said, starting to feel the alien scratch the insides of my ribcage.
“Do you want one?” she says. We both know what she’s talking about.
Under my veil I nod my head.
My dad is loaded to the gunnels with whiskey, as was his Saturday night custom. He and I lean into each other so we can make it down the aisle without looking like two ships caught in a storm at sea. I count the steps under my breath to keep my focus: one, two, one, two…
Click on the next chapter and you’ll see the montage of me clutching a paper bag over my mouth and nose to stop hyperventilating during various stressors over the next few years: the first Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, finding out I’m pregnant, deciding to divorce my husband and some other scenes that I can’t even really remember, but you get the idea.
The montage will also show that I became a borderline recluse because of the fear of public panic attacks. The montage ends with me in an E.R. being hooked up to an EKG because I’m certain I’m having a heart attack.
Fade out of montage into this bit of dialogue:
“You have a fairly severe anxiety disorder.”
Fade to black.
Andrew Solomon calls anxiety “The Noonday Demon” in his book by the same name. That’s what it feels like to me, emotionally. Like a creature that appears and disappears based on what’s happening in my life.
Physically, anxiety feels like I have swallowed an orange. My jaw and shoulder muscles tighten like mollybolts; my lungs seize like they’re drowning. Mentally, it feels like a troop of howler monkeys has taken up residence in my skull.
But I don’t reach for the arrowheads anymore. I’ve learned to face down the demon, the alien, the monster. Running helps. Five minute mindfulness breaks help. Writing helps most of all. Ten minutes of focused reflection, of being ruthlessly honest with myself on paper.
The poet, Rilke, wrote:
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
Could it be possible that anxiety needed me to recognize it as something good? I wondered. After some rigorous questions, I started to find answers I never expected.
Anxiety made me who I am. It’s made me empathetic to others because anxious people learn to quickly scan faces and body language, to read emotions. That’s helped me to be a better co-worker – and when I remind myself to breathe – a better partner, parent, and friend.
Anxiety helps me think through decisions much more carefully because I’m aware of how much I catastrophize.
As a teacher, anxiety blueprinted emotional supports for my students. It taught me to build support systems into every class. To value them at a deeper level, honor their voice, and foster self-management of their needs, or to seek the validation of a small group of their writing peers.
If they need the nurse or the counselor, they have the freedom to take my hall pass and go quietly. Anxiety taught me to check in with them to gauge their mood, allowing them to opt out of the lesson until they can recalibrate.
Because I’ve relied so heavily on writing, I am able to show them how writing can quiet their minds and their moods, how it can be used to build bridges to other minds.
Ruminating over flaws and failures taught me to build a culture where it’s OK to be human, where achievement isn’t your only worth. Where your competencies with humor, thoughtfulness, conscientiousness, friendship, and consistency are valued.
As a department chair, anxiety taught me the power of co-creation. How to lead from a shared power model because I know that I can’t wholly trust my own perceptions. My colleagues can see what I can’t and I need their vision. In a very real sense, anxiety helped me get better at trusting other people’s opinions, and to involve them in decision-making.
So yes, what stood in the way – anxiety – has become the way.
The dragon becomes a princess.
The battle becomes a blessing. The limitation becomes my lesson. The problem is my path.
Photo credit: Courtesy of ASCD