Monday, December 16, 2019

Anxiety and Me

Let's get a little personal with mental health, why don't we? This will, of course, tie into teaching, but that's not really the point either.

For a while now I've been suffering from pretty extreme bouts of anxiety. I didn't always recognize these as such, however. Let's go back- When my first child was born I found out that Paternal Postnatal Depression is a thing. I knew that women could experience something like this, and we were on the look out for that. Had no idea it could happen to me too. I'm the Dad, I didn't carry nothing. Nope, knocked me flat, and for a while. I ended up going on medication and doing talk therapy for a while to help me through it. It also made me hesitate about going for Weirdlings Two and Three because I was worried that it would come back. My wife is incredible and we got through it together and it didn't come back with either of the other two.

Looking back, I've had anxiety in some form or another for as long as I can remember. I always chalked it up to being a control freak. If you, dear reader, and I go for a drive, I will insist on driving. Even if we're friends. Even if I trust you. I'm a bad passenger. Control freak, right? Seems like it. Especially since this feeling never happens to me on my motorcycle. Then I'm really the only person in charge. I can't even hear you if you're riding with me.

If we're stuck in traffic I'm going to start freaking out, feeling trapped. Because I literally am. I'm trapped in this car in the middle lane surrounded by all these other cars and what if I need to get out I can't no one is moving so I can't move we're just stuck here and why won't anyone move. Driving makes this better, but not all the way because I'm not in control of the situation.

Airplanes are worse. I hate flying. No, not true. I hate boarding the plane, being stuck in the aisle, getting to my seat, not being able to get up from the time when they button up the big door until we're at cruising altitude. You can't get up at any point during that! You're stuck in your seat no matter what. What if your stomach gets upset (a related problem we'll get to)? Too bad. Stay there and suffer until we tell you you can stand up. And then we're in the air and I'm fine. Until..."Passengers need to return to their seats and prepare for landing." And then it's another twenty minutes/eternity until we're at the gate. The entire time I have my eyes closed and I'm mentally repeating, "I'm ok, I'm alright." over and over. No exaggeration, no joke. I hate it and I'm miserable every time.

I thought I was just a bad traveler.

On top of that I've always had stomach issues. Issues that we've mostly fixed with a change in diet, turns out I'm lactose and gluten intolerant. Good to know. That helps but didn't actually fix things because now I've trained my body that when I'm stressed my stomach hurts, but when my stomach hurts it stresses me out. So soon I'm stressed that I'll be in a situation that will stress me out and upset my stomach, which sets my stomach off.

But recently things have accelerated and gotten worse and worse. Examples, because it's important to me you, dear reader, know what I mean. To be clear, these are the most illustrative examples, certainly not the only ones-

A while ago a friend of mine and I went to see Nick Cave, one of my most favorite musicians on Earth. Because of a trick of the tickets we ended up in the second row. He was right there. He could see us. We could see him. We were supposed to be in the back, where the cheap seats were. Being that close was incredibly exciting, but also so very stressful. I was completely unable to fully relax and enjoy the show because the back of my mind had this flashing red light the whole time. He was great and I loved it and I still couldn't fully connect.

I went out on Black Friday, something I never ever do. But my local record store that I love was doing a Black Friday thing and they were going to have a limited number of the new Opeth album and the vinyl reissue of Geddy Lee's solo album "My Favorite Headache." Yes, I could buy these online but I love Jackpot Records and I want to support local business. I got there at nine for a ten o'clock opening because I knew there would be a line and damned if someone else would get my albums. I was fifth in line. Score. I was fine at 9:00. I was fine at 9:15. At about 9:30 I started having to talk myself into staying in line. At 9:45, after waiting forty-five minutes, needing only to wait fifteen more, I was actively pacing and eyeballing my car, which I could see from the line. I was having a detailed conversation with myself about, "I should just go home, I could get these online. It would be fine. I should just get in my car and go." Ten minutes to go, still pacing, it's getting worse. I'm miserable and my heart is pounding and I know all of this is stupid because I'm fifth in line. When they open I'll be right in there. I'm not worried about not getting the album. What am I worried about? I have no idea.

I've heard people who have panic attacks describe the mental spiral as "you keep thinking of worse and worse scenarios, which keeps escalating your panic." That's not what was happening to me. There was no "worse and worse scenario." There was no thinking involved. I just had to get out of there or I felt like I would be sick. Once again I'm whispering to myself, "I'm ok, I'm alright" over and over. I'm pissed that I want to leave and trying to use that anger to keep myself in line for five stupid minutes more. Finally they open the door. I go right in, find the two albums I wanted in about two minutes, pay, and I'm out of there. I enjoyed exactly none of the experience of being in a record store with a bunch of other music nerds who got up and waited in line to buy vinyl, something I really like.

This was the last straw. I made an appointment for the doctor. I described all of this to her and kept hedging, "I don't know if it's anxiety or of I'm a control freak or if it's just my stomach or what and I don't know." She stopped me. "Everything you are saying is textbook anxiety. That's exactly what this is."

Then she asked me a question I had already thought quite a bit about, because I am reflective and I had noticed this trend. She said, "You're a teacher. Does this happen to you at school?"

"Nope. Never." And it's true. I'm obviously at this point not trying to be a tough guy and impress you. But it doesn't happen in my room. I'm sure it happened at the beginning, but it's been years since I've felt any kind of anxiety in my classroom. I've been stressed, sure. Exhausted. But not like I wanted to crawl out of my skin. Not like I had to escape right at that minute how can I get to my car or at least outside I need to get away. Nope. Doesn't happen to me in my classroom. Doesn't happen to me when I present at conferences. Doesn't happen to me when I keynote. I get nervous before that last one, but that's more like a racehorse in the gate than actual fear.

Why? I think it's because of the control thing. What do I have to be anxious about in my classroom? This is, more than just about anywhere else, my space. I mean, it's my students' space too, but I am its architect. That has to be the reason I'm basically anxiety-free in my room. Now, if you tell me I have to be trapped in a PD all day I'm gonna have some spikes. But if I'm running it? None. But if, during that PD, you ask me to go out to lunch with you, I'm going to drive. The second I'm out of the classroom it's back.

Which explains why I hate field trips so much. It's not just that the bus makes me motion sick after all. Maybe it doesn't, but the anxiety does. Either way, field trips suck.

I'm still trying to process what all this means. I'm doing what I can to get better. The doc recommended me to a talk therapy person and we're trying out medication to see if that will help. Hey, you know what's fun? Teaching the week before Winter break, but adjusting to new anti-anxiety medication at the same time! Now why does my stomach hurt? Is it stress? Side effects? Both? Weee!

I wonder if what I notice about my anxiety in relation to my classroom rings true for other teachers. I wrote this and shared all of this because it's important that we are real people. I know how I come across, hyper-confident-to-cocky, silly, irreverent. That's all me, but I bet some of it is coping mechanisms too. When I get anxious I either talk a whole lot or cannot talk at all. Some of you have probably met me at a conference and got a weird vibe. This might be why. Though, like I said, I'm mostly ok when I'm presenting. But in the halls of ISTE, surrounded by a billion people? Yeah, I don't like that at all. I spent the evenings of my last ISTE, the last one in San Antonio, in my hotel room watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. Because TNG is great, but also because it was just easier.

And let's not even get into how I think I've turned my phone into a coping mechanism. I'm sure that's SUPER healthy.

I don't know how to end this post. I'm tired of not being able to enjoy things like concerts and amusement parks and drives with my family and movies and going to dinner and trips to the record store. I'm tired of waiting for the stress to jump out and making choices that will just let me avoid it if I can. I've become such a homebody because it's just safer and easier. Maybe you can relate. Maybe knowing this about me helps you, dear reader? Hopefully the medication does its job, and if it doesn't hopefully it's not hard to find one that will. Hopefully you're all doing as well as you can out there. We're all in this together.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher


  1. I’m there with you. I haven’t been diagnosed, but I know I have anxiety issues, and you’ve hit on something for me — it probably has something to do with control. I always have to drive as well, but I get aggravated in traffic, probably because I can’t control the way others drive. This gets into my classroom, where I can get anxious worrying about how that kid (or kids), the one I can’t seem to get under control, is going to affect my class. Being introverted doesn’t help, either.

    Thanks for opening up, because I think you may have helped me realize some of my own issues I’m facing. Best of luck.

  2. "So soon I'm stressed that I'll be in a situation that will stress me out and upset my stomach, which sets my stomach off" 100% me too

  3. Thinking of you. Sounds like you have a caring disability for. Anxiety runs in my family, so I've been dealing with it from a young age. I hate crowds of strangers, they freak me out. It's not control for me, it's more fear of the unknown. Many nights I can't sleep wondering about the what ifs. Hang in there.

  4. I have never been able to put words to why I feel so comfortable in front of a classroom. Thank you for this. I have GAD and OCD, and this post allowed me to finally understand a bit of *why* I feel the way I do about teaching. I also loved your record store anecdote. It describes how my brain feels in almost any social gathering, and I hate myself for it. In a sad way, it makes me glad that you have these thoughts, too. Selfish, I know.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate. I was lucky to have a support system in my husband, who encouraged me to seek help for my social anxiety. After a few years of therapy and a diagnosis of PTSD (stemming from my childhood), I'm learning how to unlearn all of the coping mechanisms that we're so helpful in my youth. You are not alone, and I wish you the best in your health journey!

  6. Doug, thank you. More of this sounds familiar than I would actually like to admit. Especially about airplanes or being stuck in traffic. These ring absolutely true and I know those feelings intimately. I'm sure there are other areas that I'm less eager to investigate but trying some sunlight treatment like you've done here might do me a miraculous amount of good.
    As in so many other areas, I'm good at being supportive of others, often less capable in managing my own internal mess. You've given me a lot to think about. Maybe a little boost of courage to dig a little deeper, seek out some specific help. What i want to say with all this is that I see you, I see myself and I am so grateful I read this post today.

  7. Doug. Thanks so much for sharing. On our last visit with you I mentioned to you that you seemed off. Your health is important and I am glad that you are doing something about it. I love you son. If you ever need to talk I’ll be there.

  8. I so admire the courage you have to say all of this out loud. I am dealing with anxiety too right now to the point where aim only at work 1/3 of the time. The effort to put that face on for 1/2 a day is exhausting. I come home and generally sleep all afternoon. I have this weird focus thing where I can’t separate what I should be listening to from the other ambient noises. Do you ever feel anxiety in your ears?

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  10. Wow. You're right that this is a side of you that I would not have predicted. Thanks for sharing your story - clearly you will help so many readers who need to know they are not alone in their feelings and that there is help. Have you read John Green's book "Turtles All The Way Down"? The main character suffers from OCD and anxiety, and he wrote her based on his own experiences. I learned so much from his book, and it is helping me understand others (you obviously don't need to read it to understand anxiety, but you or others in your life might like it). Again, thanks for sharing, and I hope you find success soon through therapy or meds.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this. I've been struggling with anxiety issues lately and I've finally started the process to make an appointment with a talk therapist.

  12. You are telling my story, too. The small amount of daylight hours adds another dimension to the struggle. Another teacher just tweeted about going to bed at 7:30 am. My anxiety spiked with a general class that was really a special education and special needs class that was outside of my capabilities. Otherwise, I am on top of my game and flourish teaching honors and AP. Good that you are talking and trying meds.

  13. I’m happy that you are seeking help. I waited till I was 65, I am sad that I waited but I am hopeful that I can live peacefully with the time I have left on this planet. I am learning to embrace my anxieties- not push them away. I have made meditation a daily practice. I have learned what it means to be mindful and I have learned to slow down- literally- be present. It is very powerful. One day I was stuck on the freeway- nothing I could do about it so I thought about how I could be mindful at that moment. I noticed a billboard that I hadn’t seen before. Instead of being frustrated I used the short time that I was stuck there to notice what is around me.I know that sounds silly but I have lived my life always thinking that there will always be a tomorrow. Now I tell people to live as if there is no tomorrow. I would encourage you to make counseling an important part of the rest of your life. I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year. Don’t forget to breath! Peace❤️