performance anxiety

Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights (Part I)

One of the most trying periods of my life occurred during my second year of law school.  For an entire semester, I suffered mid-night panic attacks on a regular basis.  The experience was brutal.

My first year, I was placed in a “section” and attended all the same classes with all the same people.  But in the second year that structure was removed, and we were free to select courses and schedules on our own.  This meant that each course would now be with a more or less random group of other students.

Compounding my unfamiliarity with the people in my classes was the fact that I had spent a year in business school, so I knew none of the people who were now second year law students. The people I began studying with had moved on to their third year.

I was taking more units of courses than ever before, and I had scheduled all of my classes over a three-day period (the purpose of this was efficiency.  I wanted to commute to campus as few times a week as possible. While efficiency was the goal, I suppose that my initial plan backfired on account of the extended period of exhaustion I experienced the entirety of the semester).  Thus, I had more classes, on fewer days, and with complete strangers.

I recall all the other students looking at me quizzically each time I entered a class wondering, surely, “who the eff is this dude?!?” In turn, I was like, “I was here before any of you kids. A little respect is in order.” But they had no clue.

Regardless, I was completely uncomfortable.  The prior year of business school had been a cake-walk.  I smoked weed often (“often” being a euphemism for near-daily), and was carefree and happy.  I was dating a girl I loved, and life hadn’t been better.

The summer before returning to law school, her and I broke up. The timing was off. She was ready to set sail on a marital commitment, and I wasn’t sure I was yet equipped to hold down the fort for myself, individually, let alone the two of us and a future family-to-be.

Come to think of it, it was an inopportune time for the parting of ways for me personally. Inopportune doesn’t do the timing justice. It was somewhat of a perfect storm. I was trying to buckle down for what I knew would be a challenging return to law, the tide of anxiety steadily mounting as I again approached the start of classes. I was weaning myself, unsuccessfully, off of an affinity for weed which had now certainly become an outright addiction. And I was coping even more incompetently with the loss of a relationship that only later would I realize I would never truly get over. One of those.

As is the case when something happens to you, unexpectedly, which has never happened before, I was caught off guard the first time – an unsuspecting victim of a sucker-punch from a lunatic roaming the streets in the middle of the night.

Here’s how I recall it going down:

In my second week of classes, I went to sleep uneasy with the amount of material I would be covering in the next-day’s classes. I had an initial impression of the classes, and classmates, I’d be spending the next several months with. Now my anticipated anxieties had faces, and names, and context in the form of the classrooms and professors where they’d play out. This feeling alone wasn’t unusual and did not give me pause. But this time the severity of the anxiety reached new heights.

It was the shudder of my nerves that first awoke me, followed by the inconsolable escalation of mental processes, from a deep slumber to an immediate fight-or-flight response. Like the gasp of air upon sudden consciousness, arising from the throes of a nightmare. A sudden shift of the San Andreas faultline, except without the earthquake.

The clock said 2:15 A.M. I had been asleep just 3 and-a-half hours. But I was far from that state now. I was drenched in a cold sweat, my sheets soaked through. They were wet to the touch, and although it was not hot out, my body was seemingly on fire.

My thoughts raced through different material I had read earlier in the week, preparing for classes I had the next day, inundating me with anxieties and fears. Would I be called on in Ethics class? How much uncomfortability did the day hold in store? And then, to other subjects: Should I not have given up on my relationship?

It was a full-fledged assault: My own mind attacking itself under the cloak of night when the rest of my being was most vulnerable. With my body and soul seeking the silent refuge of sleep, my brain had arranged an ambush.

3:45 A.M.:      Coming to grips with this twist of events, I lay open-eyed staring at the ceiling, wide-awake and yearning not-to-be. At this point, I realized that for the first time I had experienced a phenomenon a psychologist had alluded to years prior when she prophesized, “one of the dangers of anxiety disorders is their evolution into panic attacks.”

Here I was, far from that point in time the words were first uttered, experiencing my first panic attack. As it came to pass, I would need to learn to get used to them.

Next Up: “Panic Attacks and Sleepless Nights (Part II: A Poem)”

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Taking Anxiety to School – Sweating In Class (Part I – Preparing for a Seemingly Insurmountable Stint in Law School)

I dread sweating wherever and whenever it may happen (the only time it’s welcome is during physical exertion, when it’s cause is not anxiety).  But one of the hardest forums in which I’ve had to manage it is at work.

Whether it’s work or school, most of us have responsibilities where we need to interact with others.  I work as a lawyer.  I know, I know…probably not the best choice of professions for a person with social and performance anxiety.  That wasn’t lost at me when I started the path to attorney-hood.  The rationale in my head was this:   I was anxious regardless of the setting.  Even as a box-boy at the grocery store at 15, I can recall feeling anxiety speaking with customers.  So the idea  was that, if I’m gonna feel it anyway, it shouldn’t dissuade a career aspiration.  
 
Not surprisingly, this road has not been easy.  In law school, there was a lot of performance involved.  The professors often use the Socratic method, calling out students at random with questions on the material.  Just this idea was mortifying.  The forecast for my first week of law school was a torrential downpour of sweat, amidst an unhealthy and overwhelming cloud of cigarette smoke.

I was terrified to attend the first day of classes.  How could I, a person with a clinical anxiety disorder, with uncontrollable sweating, with performance and social anxiety to the Nth degree…How could I, of all people, handle this environment?  Could I handle it at all? Was this something that was just not possible for me to overcome?

I ruminated on this thought in the months leading up to the start of classes.  I went to a therapist.  I got a prescription for an anti-anxiety/anti-depressant.  I believe the flavor of the day was Paxil, although it’s tough to recall seeing as I’ve been through a catalog of prescriptions over the years.

My mentality was that I was going to war.  A war for my world, and to defeat my inner demons: social anxiety, performance anxiety, fear, doubt, and sweating.  Regardless of their origins, I would be facing them head-on.  It was a war I could not lose. I bought brand new bright white undershirts, knowing all-too-well they’d have a severely shortened life expectancy – doomed to yellow underarm stains on account of the sprinkler valves embedded in my ‘pits.  Collateral damage, I suppose.

The questions about whether I could weather the law school storm were bouncing around my head incessantly.  They were pressing.  Could I manage sweating in this high-pressure environment?  How would I make friends if I was always uneasy?  How would I react to being called on in class?  How could I hide my sweating?  If I couldn’t, what then would I do?  Would I quit?  

More generally, the questions were existential.  What was I going to do with my life, in light of the anxious sweat-storm that had befallen it?  Should I head for the hills, and seek sanctuary in some (potentially non-existent) occupation where I don’t interact with others and wouldn’t have daily situations that make me severely anxious?  Or did I need to face anxiety in this laboratory, so to speak, where everyday was yet another round of exposure therapy?

To put things in context, this is not hyperbole.  Every day that I went to campus ended drenched. There were no exceptions. There were days my mood was better, and others more defeated, but always DRENCHED.  So if you believe I am overstating the magnitude of my sweating issue, hopefully that puts it in context.  I imagine there are others who sweat more than me, but I also submit that I may be in the top 1% of sweaters walking the planet.  In fact, I think that’s a conservative estimate.

Anyway, I’d be bullshitting if I didn’t disclose that there were some tears – of agony, of anguish, of hopelessness and self-pity – that were shed that first week.  More than a few.

I recall a conversation after my second day of classes.  It was with my father, in my parents’ backyard.   One of those conversations in your life where you recall every detail, large and small.  I dribbled a basketball to distract myself from the discomfort of the conversation.  The weather was brisk, and there was a slight end-of-summer breeze that, upon hitting my damp underarms, drove home that even in that moment I was sweating about sweating…The irony.  And I recall the view of the horizon as the sun went down, granted it was blurred with tears of despair.  
 
Months of worry and concern had now come to fruition.  My journey through law school had begun.  And I wasn’t so sure it would last past the opening week.

My dad told me this:  “If you quit now, you will be quitting your whole life.”  Now, I don’t know if that is good advice or not.  I don’t know if that’s the proper mentality.  But I do know that every psychologist will talk about avoidance.  If you suffer from anxiety, avoiding the anxious situation reinforces that behavior.  Left unchecked, I suppose one would become a recluse or sorts.

So at the time, his sage advice resonated with me.  I might have been a sweaty mess, but I was standing up for a good cause – myself.  Somehow (maybe I’m masochist) I just thought that if I could do this, I could do anything.

To my surprise, I was wrong.  Had I dropped out of law school, I would have met my anxious self elsewhere, inevitably.  Maybe I would have quit again, or maybe I would have taken up the fight there.  So maybe I wouldn’t have been quitting my whole life.

But I didn’t quit law school.  I completed it.  I also got an MBA at the same time.  And I was relatively successful, finishing in the top 20% of my class.  But, having done it, I realized that doing it did NOT mean I could do anything.  The front had moved, but the war raged on.

Next Up:  Taking Anxiety to School – Sweating in Class (Part II – A Detailed Account of My Time in Graduate School)