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Monitor Board of Contributors: With the right resources, I’ve managed my anxiety

Thanks to the Monitor for the “In Crisis” series, and for Annmarie Timmins’s and Pam Banks’s stories (March 17 and 23). We are more likely to work together to fix our broken system when we learn not just numbers, but individual stories. Here’s mine:

Almost 20 years ago, suffering severe panic attacks, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and was treated for a time with Prozac. I have since had a chance to talk to a number of groups about mental health issues from my own experience and have been surprised at the number of those who have told me about similar troubles with anxiety.

Much of Timmins’s pain, it seemed as I read, came from her need to keep her affliction a secret. Me too. I had a professional career teaching linguistics and literature in a university. I had to struggle, sometimes, getting up to lecture in front of 40 students or presenting a paper to a group of colleagues. Years ago, I was on the program for a linguistics meeting in Chicago. I had some good research to report, and I was sure everyone would be impressed. But as I started to read, I felt that familiar, grim body sensation, starting with a kind of tingling in my toes.

It started to get worse for two reasons: First, on one occasion when I had this kind of attack, I started hyperventilating and fainted – and that was terrifying because, since I could not get my breath, I thought I was having a coronary. Second, I thought I had to keep my panic disorder a secret, even though this was a friendly crowd where I was on a first-name basis with most. I told a lie – I said, “I am really too hung over to read this, so I am going to give it to the chairperson to read and I will then sit down.” That got a sympathetic laugh – there were more than a few hard drinkers in our group. I had not had a thing to drink the night before. But I felt it was more okay to be hung over than to have a mental illness.

A great relief to me, albeit not a cure, has been the chance to talk to other people who have the same problem that I have. It does not make the beast go away, but it considerably diminishes its power. I do some public speaking a few times a year, and I always begin by explaining to the group that I have panic disorder and reserve the right to melt down in front of them at a moment’s notice. If I have to keep my problem a secret, it gets more powerful. If I can share it with you, it becomes fairly manageable.

I have been able to cope with my problem for one big reason: I have a variety of resources which are not available to everyone. When panic attacks were at their worst, I was able to get treatment where I lived in Illinois. I had insurance that would pay for that treatment, an outpatient program that met four evenings a week for more than eight weeks. Some of the things I learned there I still use. I know something about meditation, and I know how to find support groups, so when my anxiety gets bad I can find people to talk to. I will soon be traveling through Chicago, and I have already lined up places I can visit if need be. If I had been unemployed and on Medicaid, or on less generous insurance, I don’t think I would be leading the reasonably happy life I have in New Hampshire today.

I still need those resources. Sometimes I forget to take care of myself, and then I need someone to remind me to use what I learned in the past. When my anxiety began intensifying last year due to some health and aging concerns, I found a good therapist. She brought me back to what I already knew: stay in the moment, be mindful, find a support group. So I joined a “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” class offered by Concord Hospital, where I could practice directed meditation with others.

I have no doubt that if the resources available to me over the years were available to everyone, we would have a healthier, happier community, probably even a safer one. More stories like these, appearing in public, will be a major step toward that goal.

(Tim Frazer taught linguistics and literature at Western Illinois University before retiring and moving to New Hampshire with his wife, June.)

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