Monday, March 23, 2009


I really don't like writing about this because it's a personal demon. But it has affected me throughout my life and has always been something I've had to work around.

I have some kind of anxiety issue that manifests itself as panic attacks in certain situations such as public speaking events or interviews. It comes and goes. For years, I could speak publicly and be only mildly nervous. But in certain situations, I might go into full-scale panic attacks when I could barely communicate or even breathe.

The last time it happened was during an interview. Strangely, I got the job. I was sure I had blown it. I was so freaking nervous for something that I was overqualified for, but I hadn't interviewed in years and I wanted the job. After the interview, I climbed into the car and collapsed against the seat, completely defeated. Why was this still happening?

After years of thinking about this, I do understand. It took a long time to figure out a pretty basic concept but it's hard to see yourself as clearly as you see others. My panic attacks are usually triggered by new situations where the people are unknown, there is some risk of public embarrassment and I really care about doing well.

The first time it happened, I was in third grade and had just started a new school. I was sitting in a circle with other children in music class. We were excited that it was the first time we would be using our recorders (you know, those plastic pipe things that sound like dying animals). The teacher went around the circle, having us each play a few notes. When it was my turn, I suddenly could not make a sound through the instrument. I had no breath. The teacher's voice became sickeningly sweet and soft,"Everybody, close your eyes. Relax. Now, go ahead." Her response freaked me out even more. I could not do it. I shamefully carried around that experience as a kid. I thought it was a major personal defect.

I've had friends tell me . . . everyone gets nervous about public speaking . . . that's normal. I usually avoid getting into it because I hate talking about it, but no, I really have an abnormally intense reaction. About a year before I switched from retail to teaching, I had the opportunity to interview for a teaching job that I was dying to get. I fell apart in the interview; I could barely talk or breath. I was totally qualified but I gave the interviewer the impression that I would never make it in education. I knew he was wrong but I didn't bother to explain it.

In the teaching credential program, my panic attacks came back after being absent for years. It was really strange because I was a retail manager during the day. I would run meetings, conduct interviews and do terminations. I did it all smoothly. However, in my evening credential program, I could sometimes barely get through a presentation to the other teachers in training. There's really nothing worse than a presentation gone wrong in front of an audience of teachers. Everyone looks annoyed, impatient, confident . . . like they might get up to take over your presentation at any moment. During a particularly big crash and burn, I walked by a teacher who scowled at me, "Don't get so nervous!" Oh jeez, thanks. Why didn't I think of that?

I felt a personal mission to work with low performing students because I could really see how many of them were using things to mask anxiety, whether it be anger, drugs, avoidance, overconfidence, cutting, or destructive sexual behavior. Sometimes students were anxious because of an external factor and sometimes it was internal.

I unofficially specialized in students who were catastrophically anxious, even more so than the norm in my student demographic. These were students who usually could not get through the application interview. I once sat in a family's car next to a prospective student for an hour, not making eye contact, to convince him to come inside for an interview. Once they were in the school, these students would always be in my advisory group. I would never baby them, never use that overly sweet "I feel so sorry for you" tone of voice. I would tease them like everyone else and expect that they would be able to participate like everyone else. When they failed, I didn't push but tried again the next day. Over time, this worked.

There was one student who I privately referred to as THE MOST NERVOUS PERSON IN THE WORLD. He had bleeding scabs all over his body and would visibly shake when you walked toward him, sweat pouring off his forehead. I discovered that he had this dark and quirky artwork that he did at home. I posted it in my classroom and the other students were blown away. You could see him gradually relax with the positive attention. Eventually, he became just like a typical high school student. I was thrilled when one day, he actually gave me attitude in front of an entire room of students. . . Did you just tell me that my class sucks? You go, Seth, you go! Do you have anything else you want to say before we get back to this sucky work? Just let me know.

So, I guess at this point, I see my defect as kind of a gift. It's given me insight into behavior that I've used to do work that matters to me. It's also been a litmus test for new people in my life. If they respond negatively to my anxiety, then I know to proceed with caution. If they, however, respond kindly and respectfully, then I know I've met someone I can trust. Just like the woman who gave me the job despite me blowing the interview. She gave me a chance and I have returned the favor by always coming through when she needs something. In the end, good relationships trump perfection.


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