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The Power of Panic

Go Jules Go title graphic The Power of Panic 29APR20

“No, I won’t go! I can’t go! I’ll do anything!”

As we neared the sprawling, single-story, brick building, the butterflies in my stomach morphed into fire-breathing dragons, clawing at my insides, tearing through my heart, desperate to escape. My skin felt clammy and I started to sob.

“Please don’t make me go!”

My mom turned her right blinker on, steering our blue Dodge minivan towards the dead end street just before Terrill Middle School.

Terrill Middle School
That architecture’s enough to scare anyone. Photo credit

“Just calm down. Breathe. We’ll take a minute here.”

We were living in some nightmarish middle school version of Groundhog Day. Each morning was the same. We’d agree to drive through Burger King for an egg and cheese “Croissan’wich,” and as I lost myself in the familiar comfort of melted American cheese and processed pastry, I’d feel certain I could make it to my 6th grade classes without incident.

Burger King Egg_and_Cheese_Croissanwich
Spoiler alert: It didn’t work. Photo credit

I can’t remember what triggered the first panic attack. In fact, I don’t remember anyone even using the phrase “panic attack” to describe what was going on. All I knew was that I was a chubby, sensitive, soccer playing 11-year-old, who, every time she approached her new middle school, succumbed to sheer terror.

Much like my new dog, Shadow, every time I tried to “love” him.

My parents and the well-intentioned administration tried everything to get me to go to class. They sent me, a gold star-covered Honor Roll student, to the principal’s office (where I was both impressed by his en suite bathroom and horrified that he seemed to have used it right before I was sentenced to sit with him). They made me take IQ tests that I was sure I failed, arranging red cubes on a counselor’s tiny desk.

rubix cube wrong
But see, I KNOW that’s wrong. So. Genius! Photo credit

Finally, they made me sit in the guidance counselors’ conference room, where they closed the heavy tweed curtains so I couldn’t look out onto the courtyard at the students passing through windowed corridors, oblivious to the girl trapped by her own fear. I wasn’t allowed to read, write, draw, nap, or do anything except sit in that empty room. They thought if they took away my one true love –books– I might finally relent.

Baby-Sitters Club books
Well, Jules, let’s see how long you’ll last without knowing STACEY’S TRUTH.

“Ha,” I thought. “I’ll sit here until I can vote if it means I don’t have to walk those halls…with those jerks…”

The prior year, I had had my first real encounter with The Mean Girls. The group who’d once been my ride or die squad turned on me for reasons I couldn’t fathom at the time, going so far as to arrange a fake shopping date to buy the latest toy, only to leave me standing in the store, alone, next to an empty shelf where the toys had been (the girls had bought them all before I showed up). Later, I realized my gap-toothed smile, big belly, and questionable fashion choices didn’t jive with their burgeoning popularity.

Huh. I don’t get it.

My parents sent me to therapy, where I also sat silently, daring the therapist to figure out what was wrong with me. How could she know what I didn’t even know? The entire year unfolded like this, and I can’t imagine how hard it must have been on my parents.

“You have to cut this shit out and go to school!” my father, a well-respected educator himself, shouted one night after finally snapping. He threw something down the hall in my general direction while I cowered on the ground. I’d never seen him lose it before. Didn’t they all know that if I could just fix it, I would?

Let’s just go back to Burger King and EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY.

My heart goes out to that little girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders. After having several panic attacks in my adult life, I finally realized that the source of my fear was simply the fear itself. Anyone who’s ever had a panic attack knows that you’ll walk through fire before facing the ‘thing’ that triggered the panic in the first place – however irrational that may look to the outside world. Most adults describe the feeling as “being sure [they were] going to die.” How the hell is an 11-year-old supposed to cope with that?

Well, ha ha. At least none of this led to an unhealthy relationship with food.

That year shaped the rest of my young life. Thanks to those unrelenting panic attacks, I missed most of 6th grade and attended only two hours of high school. When I was 16, I got my GED and started working full-time at a local independent bookstore.

Finally! A place that sees how cool I am! Hey, look how cool I am!

Now, as every corner of the world swirls with uncertainty, grief, and fear, my inner 11-year-old nods, holding out her small hand, wanting to offer the only comfort she can.

I know how you feel.


If you’re looking for courage, camaraderie, and/or inspiration during these unprecedented times, I hope you’ll consider joining me live this Friday, May 1, 2020 (5:00-6:00pm PST / 8:00-9:00pm EST) for a free, interactive Zoom seminar!

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22 thoughts on “The Power of Panic”

  1. what a beautiful and heartfelt story. because you shared your story today, i have no doubt you have helped others without even knowing it. you are brave.

    1. I hope you’re not suggesting I set foot inside a middle school. *tugs collar* *wipes sweat*

      The good thing about being a chubby kid is that that Crest costume STILL FITS and is my most prized possession.

  2. Totally beautiful. And I agree completely with the two comments above — you make the world a better place. And yes, the Crest costume was brilliant.

    1. I had to do some sleuthing, but I know who this is! And does this handle mean you’ve got a blog coming ‘Not Yet But Soon’?? Thank you so much! I can attest firsthand that you make the community a better place!

  3. Awww, I love this post Jules. Hugs to you. PS. We will be buying a house in Bend this summer! We won’t move for a few years, but are excited about the upcoming changes!!

  4. OMG. This is so me! I feel like I need to write a long ass reply to this haha. In 6th grade I did enter the school, but in 6th grade I was throwing up all the time due to anxiety. This led to a lot of time in the hospital to “figure out what was wrong.”

    I’d also get lost in the building very easily, partly because I have a crappy directional sense, partly because the school was bigger than any school I had been to and it was my first time there.

    In 6th grade I still had a circle of friends, in 7th grade, my best friend since kindergarten betrayed me because she thought I was copying her when I showed her a yoda sticker on my notebook. She didn’t talk to me for years after that. Well, except one time because their family was my family’s friends too, and we were kind of forced to watch a movie together. As I was sitting on a chair in the movie room with them all, I froze with fear because I could feel my menstrual blood gushing out of me…I knew what was happening but I debated in my mind like, should I get up and face the embarrassment and possible blood being viewed not only all over the chair, but also dripping down onto the floor? I later found myself on the toilet unable to get up, hearing it like…gushing (sorry TMI graphics). My mom tried to intervene but eventually I went to the hospital. Before the hospital, my now ex friend came upstairs while I managed to be in bed and she was actually pretty nice. But all she could say to comfort me was “periods are the worst.”

    The loss of her as a friend not only increased my anxiety, but also led to my depression and tons of journals being filled out. I would apologize to my journal if I skipped a night of writing. But through those journals, and an actual relief that my identity didn’t need to please her, I found some freedom, even though I was going rogue with no real friends. I actually sometimes think of that time as when I was my strongest, most badass self sometimes.

    In high school, in with a therapist, I was told “someone in this room has an anxiety disorder” I actually looked around, like, was it the therapist? was it my mom? It was me?!

    Anyways, I don’t want to get into specific details BUT I missed A LOT of school, in sophomore and Senior year of high school due to the anxiety and other mental health issues. I got placed in a special program for kids with behavioral issues, illness, etc. It could be called “the anxious kids who have valid reasons to miss a ton of school club” but it wasn’t. Funnily enough one of those kids was recently hired where I work…

    Anyways, this is all to tell you, you definitely weren’t alone. I am going to try to attend that seminar! Please remind me if you can?

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this! Although I wish we hadn’t had similar experiences, it is encouraging to see how many folks overcome childhood trauma and emerge as shiny, wonderful humans like you! Hopefully I’ll see you online tonight! 🙂

      1. Samesies. The meeting or whatever you’d call it was great! I was glad we could all talk. I’m sorry for part of it I was trying to figure out css color coding for my blog, ugh it’s so frustrating! But I was still listening! haha

        1. You rock for joining and giving everyone so many cool ideas! (We’re capturing everything to share on the event page soon.) Thank you so much!!

  5. This is so beautiful! My heart goes out to that eleven year old, who now reaches out in compassion and understanding (something she received little of, which makes it even more awesome). 🙂 Hope you’re well and safe!

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