“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?
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?
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.
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!