he mind can play tricks on a person, but I still marvel sometimes at just how powerful it can be.
I reminded myself of that the other evening when, for no particular reason and with no particular trigger, I recalled the time in sixth grade when I missed the first month of school because my stomach hurt. Most kids have had times when their stomachs hurt. That’s part of growing up. Sometimes, of course, it is a physical ailment – a touch of flu, too much blueberry pie, whatever. Sometimes, in my case, anyway, it was – still is now and then – a physical prompt that says I’m afraid, anxious or uncertain about something, whether known and unknown. My mom called it “worrying some.’’
When I think of my sixth grade experience, I can kind of tie my stomach issues to the reputation of the teacher. All through the summer after fifth grade, I heard stories about how fierce the sixth-grade teacher was, how she rapped kids on the knuckles with a ruler – but a ruler bigger than Babe Ruth’s baseball bat. She grabbed handfuls of hair, the stories said. Kids were lucky to escape to seventh grade without needing a wig, the stories said.
Actually, that teacher was never anything but nice to me. Still, I entered that grade anxious and afraid, and from the first day, I woke up with a strong feeling of nausea that kept me from eating breakfast and that intensified as I walked across the playground to the big doors of the grade-school entrance to the building. Sometimes I’d start the class day and then beg to go home, not feeling well. As things progressed, I found ways to sneak off down the stairs to the basement and out through the gym door at the far end of the building. Doc Holland saw me several times that fall. He found nothing wrong.
I’m no expert in the field, so I may be describing things poorly. I’m sure anxiety was at the heart of my issue, but it manifested as something as real as any physical illness I’ve ever had. And it didn’t help at all when people said I should “toughen up and get over it.’’
I can’t explain how I finally went to class and stayed there all day. The whole thing is as mysterious now as it was then. The National Institute of Mental Health says nearly 20 percent of adults in the country have had an anxiety disorder in the past year. About a third of us, including a fair number of people in my extended family, have experienced some level of anxiety disorder in our lifetime. The intensity of the disorder varies from mild to severe, of course, but something that affects 30 percent of us is a big deal. It is far from “worrying some’’ to those experiencing it.
I was anxious quite often throughout my news reporting career. Meeting new people made me anxious. Group meetings did, too, and so did calling people at their homes in the evening. Somehow I coped most of the time. I functioned, well enough so that most people never suspected I was freaking out right across the table from them.
My anxieties have fallen short of full-out panic attacks, thankfully. The closest I’ve come to understanding panic attacks happened during my first MRI. I didn’t think I was anxious, but when the tech slid me into that tube, I realized I couldn’t breathe, not even enough to scream for help. I knew I would die in that tube. I’ve read since, somewhere on a Google search, that I should have concentrated on slow, deep breaths. But, see, I absolutely could not breathe. I could not concentrate. I couldn’t control anything, not anything at all.
I guess I yelled, because they slid me out. When I calmed down a bit, the tech asked if I was ready to try again. I climbed off the table and left the place. When I told a guy at work what had happened, he laughed and said I should have stuck it out. I told him he didn’t understand. Too few of us do.