One of the most life-changing events I have experienced was a diagnosis. If you are at least as old as I am, I’m sure you remember when pharmaceutical companies first started advertising prescription medications on television. It was weird. We were hearing about diseases we never knew existed and wondering if they could be real.
One day I saw a commercial for Paxil. It showed a woman staring out her window with deep longing, but she just couldn’t go out and face all the people out there in the world. I saw her face, and I knew exactly how she felt. Oh, how I wanted to go out and take a walk for some fresh air and exercise, but anxiety overwhelmed me. I couldn’t do it. On the rare occasions when I managed to overcome that anxiety and take an evening walk around the small town where I lived at that time, I really couldn’t enjoy myself. I felt as if there were a person looking out of each window I passed, not each house, each window, watching me and waiting for me to make a fool of myself. How could I possibly embarrass myself while taking a walk, you ask? My biggest fears were that my shoe laces might come untied and I would have to stop and tie them or I might trip on a crack in the sidewalk. Can you imagine how hard it would be to live your life if thoughts like this were weighing you down?
It was the fall of 2000, and I knew from a commercial that I had social anxiety disorder. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew I had the same thing that the actress was portraying in that commercial. I talked it over on the phone with a friend who lived several states away. She helped me make a list of my symptoms, and she encouraged me to call my nurse practitioner’s office. It took a few months to work up the courage to do that. I was, of course, afraid of being judged by medical professionals whose job it is to help people.
When I finally got myself into the exam room with my nurse practitioner, I handed her the written list my friend and I had come up with. She looked at it and simply said, “Yes, this is social anxiety disorder. How do you teach if you feel like this?” A good question. For me, the hard parts of teaching were interacting with my colleagues and my students’ parents. Standing in front of a room full of teenagers is completely different from the situations that cause me anxiety. First of all, I’m presented to them as an authority figure: I’m the teacher. In addition, I’m the expert in the room. I know more about my content area than my students do.
So, I started on the lowest dose of Paxil, and for about two weeks I felt like I had the flu while my body adjusted to the medication. After that I still had side effects for the entire six-year period I took it. I was always sleepy, or maybe I should say I could sleep at any time if I had the opportunity. I was alert enough to go about my daily business but if the opportunity presented itself for a nap, I took it! I experienced a wave of nausea every morning around 9:30. It passed pretty quickly, and I kept peppermint candies in my desk to alleviate it. Only once do I remember my students noticing that I didn’t look well. There were other side effects as well, but I’ll spare you the details.
Why was I willing to put up with these discomforts? I have two reasons. First, my diagnosis changed the way I viewed myself. I used to think I was full of character flaws. I was stingy and selfish, and I procrastinated on important tasks. Now I could forgive myself. I wasn’t being stingy when I didn’t contribute to a retirement gift for someone at work. I was actually paralyzed by the fear of being judged. I didn’t know what was the “right” amount to give. What were other people contributing? Three dollars? Ten dollars? Twenty dollars? Would I seem cheap or ridiculously generous? So I never gave anything. I discovered that there were self-help books about social anxiety disorder, and they taught me strategies for managing my anxiety, but they also taught me that there was a neurobiological basis to my problem that had nothing to do with my moral character.
My second reason for putting up with the side effects was that the medication opened me up to a much fuller life. I will never forget the moment I knew that my life was changing. I had just arrived at work and had stepped into the office to check my mailbox. One of my colleagues was at the copier and didn’t look up when I walked in, but I said “Hi, Tony,” as I walked past him. Amazement washed over me. Tony hadn’t spoken to me first. He hadn’t even looked at me, but I didn’t hesitate to greet him. I didn’t have an internal debate about what to do. It was natural to say hi. How many times had I walked through the halls of that school, agonizing about whether I should say hello to a fellow teacher who didn’t greet me first, who didn’t make eye contact with me?
About a year and a half later I went on my first date. Yup, my first date ever. I was 27.
Of course, Paxil didn’t solve all my problems, but it gave me a chance to practice social interactions and learn strategies that help me to manage my anxiety symptoms. After six years I had started a new job, bought a house, and met the man I would marry. I felt ready to try things on my own, so my doctor helped me wean myself from the medication. I will always be shy, and I see no reason to apologize for that. I still experience social anxiety, but I know how to manage the symptoms. Making phone calls is particularly difficult for me, but I take a couple of deep breaths before I dial the number and hold onto something to ground myself physically, and I make the call. Well, to be honest I might procrastinate for a couple of days first if the matter isn’t too pressing, but I don’t beat myself up about that. Instead, I praise myself once it’s done. I don’t tell myself I’m being lazy or neglectful; I tell myself I’m gathering my strength. Treating myself kindly leads to more success, and each little victory over anxiety makes me stronger.