a little stern

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Panicking in public

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I grew up with a panic disorder that went undiagnosed until I was 25. No one knew why I couldn’t leave my mom without fearing she’d die or disappear, why I refused invitations to slumber parties and didn’t believe I’d be returned after a weekend at my father’s. When I had trouble learning to tell time, the adults wondered if I had a learning disability. So began a decade long odyssey of auditory, cognitive, behavioral and intellectual testing. No one told me what they were me testing for, but I knew intuitively my unrelenting fear was the problem—I couldn’t tell time because time meant leaving my mother and I didn’t want to learn more ways to say goodbye. It was dread that held me back, not my brain, but I was too young to have words to explain. Feelings were ruining my life, and testing made me worse.  

Everyone is watching me die in public.

As the IQ tests accumulated and the results were withheld from me, doubt began to creep its way inside. Perhaps I was wrong, and my brain WAS broken. Or worse, what if my feelings were so mortifying that no adult wanted to be the one to discover their existence? I began to believe the story I imagined the adults were telling about me: I was defective. My childhood experience of having the most essential part of me overlooked, led me to believe that my core self they ignored was shameful. When I was about twelve, I turned my emerging anger into a persona, a tough girl, who made me feel protected and safe. She became the person who hid my true self from the world. My persona knew when my panic attacks were coming, and she’d step in front of me. Like an air-traffic controller, she’d direct people’s attention elsewhere. My persona and I grew up together, and she remained with me until the person whose identity she was meant to hide was exposed in a very public way.  

Since I was small, I’ve been a performer. This need to entertain others has also helped to hide the vulnerable me beneath. When I’m onstage I’m playing a role and if I don’t perform well, the persona suffers, but me? I’m still safe. Early on, I had terrible throw-up-before-curtain-call-stage-fright. I’d panic off-stage about my fear of panicking onstage, in front of everyone, and if that happened, I’d have no choice but to leave the country and live in Kazakhstan. One night, as I was walking onstage to host the music and literary event I founded, I spotted the man I had a massive crush on sitting there in the audience. He looked…judgey, and I began to feel the surging adrenaline of impending panic. On stage, I felt the cold chrome of the microphone against my lips. The swallows from the audience, their shifting bodies, and my organs as they began to raise their alarms, jazz-handing for my attention. My hands began to sweat, the tingle of dread made its mesh around my body and just like that, I began to have a panic attack on stage in front of a live audience. The bathroom was over there to the right, the exit was to the left, but because the show was sold out, people weren’t just in seats, they were also on the floor. In order to escape, I’d trip over everyone. I was trapped but couldn’t race away.

My persona leaned into the microphone and said, “Hi. My name is Amanda Stern and I am having a panic attack right now. Like, an actual real one, and so I am just going to talk myself through it, aloud, right now until it’s over, and then we can get to the show.” I didn’t feel angry at my persona for blowing our entire life-long operation, instead I felt grateful to her for knowing that exposing me was the best protection possible. The audience warmed instantly, turning into encouraging caretakers who made me feel not just safe, but capable of moving through what was happening to me without fear of their judgment. The more I admitted my internal sensations, the faster the panic attack receded, and the show continued. Having a panic attack onstage in front of everyone changed my life forever because it taught me that fear doesn’t kill you. But it altered me in another way too. I’d been hiding behind a persona for so long, I’d resigned myself to keeping my panic attacks a lifelong secret, but being exposed in that way broke a pattern, and it set me free. The exposure of my fears brought people closer to me, it didn’t keep them away, that’s what a persona does. Without that one experience, I would not have written a memoir of my lifelong panic attacks, and I would not now freely be admitting my fears in order to help others feel safe to admit theirs.

This post first appeared on the Bring Change to Mind Website.

To pre-order the paperback of my memoir LITTLE PANIC, go here.


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