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I make a habit of mentioning, during my lectures, that I am extremely anxious about being in front of an audience and that I require a bit of medication to help settle the nerves. I do this for several reasons:
1) it's true
2) if I do get a bout of extreme nerves the audience will know what's happening
3) I think it's important to be up front with the fact that I have to deal with extreme anxiety
4) maybe someone, sitting in my audience, will feel less alone
There are lots of private things that I do not share, however my status as a member of the gay community, the disability community and the community of people who have to deal with some mental health issues as well aren't among that list.. It's odd that the first two are much more recognized and accepted than is the third.
Several years ago I went through a very difficult time. It was the transition from becoming an 'unknown speaker' to a 'known speaker'. The increase in expectations was almost incapacitating. As a fat, gay, bullied kid, I had spent most of my life trying to be out of public view and suddenly I'm required to put myself on display. All of this got to me and I nearly lost my career. Finally when the anxiety was such that I was becoming unwilling to go out at all - and I was considering ending my career as a trainer and lecturer - I went and spoke to my doctor.
She was an extremely kind and incredibly talented woman. She listened carefully. She took my symptoms and their consequences seriously. Slowly she helped me pinpoint the moment of highest anxiety that I face, she helped me develop both real world coping skills as well as prescribing a PRN for me to take about 20 minutes before I am about to experience that bone deep fear. So with 'stress innoculation' and with a tiny bit of medication, I've managed to control the nerves and the fear. I still face them, but with more and more confidence as the years go by.
I tell you this because I promised to tell this story, here on this blog, to someone who attended a conference recently. Our initial contact was hostile. She accused me of 'making up' my anxiety to 'get sympathy' from an audience. Her evidence was that I didn't appear nervous and therefore must be lying.
I told her that not appearing nervous or anxious was not the same as not feeling it. I also told her that the very fact that I was managing as well as she seemed to think I was managing was evidence that the strategies I was using to cope were working for me, and working well. She stormed away. Furious.
We spoke again later. She came and sat beside me. Told me that she lives a life of fear and frustration. That she's lost all joy in her life because the fears she fears are ever present. It takes all of her energy to pretend to be normal and as a result she's lost all sense of normality. This time we talked more seriously and I expressed how much it helped to get help. That seems like an odd sentence but it's one that people often feel can't be true. Somehow getting help is an admission that you are beyond help.
I was once at the point of being debilitated by anxiety. I am no longer at that point. I haven't been there for years. But every day that I get through is done because I know what to do and when to do it. I have strategies for moments of panic - real world strategies. I have medication for the peak times (only when lecturing) of fear. I'm good with that.
That moment when I sat down in front of my doctor and told her that I had lost the ability to cope was probably the best act of coping that I've ever done.
I told the woman that I spoke to, the woman fighting fear and fearing failure, that I would write this here in my blog. That I would give my own fully public testimony that I am not ashamed of having a problem with anxiety and I am not ashamed to having sought help,.
What's shameful is that some people will see this declaration as shameful.
I am, sometimes, ashamed of some of the things I do, some of the things I say and some of the decisions I have made. I earned those.
But I am not ashamed of who I am, the path I'm on, and the journey I'm undertaking. The fact that I needed help along the way does not diminish me, it simply makes me fully and completely human.
My name is Dave.
I experience deep fear and anxiety in my life.
(Hi Dave - says most of the world.)